Do you feel uncomfortable in social situations? Find yourself worrying that people won’t like you or negatively judge you?
Well you’re not alone! Social anxiety, defined as a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others affects roughly 1in 10 people, For many this fear may be so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other activities and may negatively affect the person’s ability to form relationships. It’s generally more common in women than men and often starts in adolescence, or sometimes as early as childhood.
Believe it or not you have far more influence than you might imagine over whether people like you or not.
A highly significant thinking pattern in social anxiety is what is called the Acceptance Prophecy and it means when we think other people are going to like us, we behave more warmly towards them and consequently they like us more. When we think other people aren’t going to like us, we behave more coldly and they don’t like us as much.
Research by Dr Danu Anthony Stinson and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, confirmed that people react more positively to others who are genuinely warm, while a further study reported that accurate judgements about their warmth are made in only 30 seconds (Ambady et al., 2000).
Stinson also provided evidence of the other side of the coin after setting up a test that manipulated people’s expectations about a person they were about to meet for the first time. The test presented two groups of men with a scenario where they had to meet and chat individually with an attractive woman. One group was told that the woman they were going to meet was nervous and worried about how she would be perceived by them.
Because these men believed that the woman was nervous and insecure it naturally made them feel better in comparison. The consequence of this was that the men were much less anxious about the interaction (actually about half as nervous as judged by independent observers) and consequently much warmer. In comparison the other group was only given basic information about the woman they were going to talk to, nothing that would calm their fears of rejection. This therefore created one group anticipating acceptance more than the other. The result showed that when the risk of rejection was lower, men acted more warmly towards the woman to whom they were talking. This extra warmth also led to a panel of observers liking them more in comparison with those who were more fearful of risk and therefore interpersonally colder. So this provides evidence that the acceptance prophecy holds true. In this experiment people who expected to be accepted did act more warmly towards a stranger and consequently they were perceived as more likeable.
There was an exception, though, to the results of this study. One sub-group were not affected by the experimental manipulation to increase how much they expected to be accepted. That’s because they already expected to be accepted. These are the social optimists.
Social optimists, of course, are in the happy position of expecting to be accepted and finding that, generally speaking, they are. Social pessimists, though, face what sociologist Robert K. Merton—who coined the expression ‘self-fulfilling prophecy ‘has called a ‘reign of error’ as the expectation of rejection leads to the projection of colder, more defensive behaviour towards others, and this leads to actual rejection.
A significant element of my social anxiety treatment involves teaching people to break out of this defensive mind-set and be relaxed enough to worry less about how they are perceived by other people, who after all are probably worrying about how they are being perceived by you!
By relaxing and worrying less about how we imagine we are being judged we can then calmly enjoy the opportunities that come our way to meet and connect with others.
Feel free to get in touch if you suffer from this problem and would like to find out how you can conquer it.