The Fear of Being Perceived and Social Anxiety

by | Therapy

Nowadays, most of the young people I talk to have a “fear of being perceived.” This comes up when talking about posting on social media, going out in public, and even engaging socially with friends. There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted levels of anxiety and depression among many groups of people. In practice, more people come into my office with symptoms that align with social anxiety. While we all experience a level of anxiety, Social Anxiety Disorder is a chronic mental health condition and includes “fear, anxiety, and avoidance that interfere with relationships, daily routines, work, school or other activities.” This may be a fear of specific interactions, being observed, or performing in front of others that is out of proportion with the actual threat posed by this specific social situation.  Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder may experience physical symptoms like nausea, trembling, or muscle tension, as well as a pattern of avoiding social situations. It is important to talk to your therapist or licensed psychologist to determine a diagnosis. 

However, in our world of social media, prevalent online harassment, and an odd normalcy of filming strangers, it is no wonder that after years of quarantine and isolation, many of us feel nervous being out in public and comfortable with ourselves. More and more clients seem to be concerned about how they are perceived, and judged by others, to the point that they are struggling to do the activities and attend events that they want to. If you’re struggling with an increase in anxiety around being perceived, or judged by others, consider these next steps in addition to therapy: 

Practice compassion and self compassion: 

Be aware of how you judge others and inadvertently judge yourself. Some people grow up in families that are overly critical or judgmental. Others are exposed to this within their peer group. When it comes to being authentic in public, it is important to practice compassion towards other people as well as compassion towards yourself. Reflect on the times where you find yourself highly critical of others, including strangers, and practice extending them compassion and understanding. Sometimes we have to deliberately practice the type of relationships we want to engage in. If you grew up or learned that you have to be perfect, always look good, or behave properly to be loved and accepted, then you might struggle with replicating this in adulthood. Be the type of person who others can safely embarrass themselves around, and notice how your relationships become closer. When we stop expecting perfection from others, we can extend that same welcoming and accepting attitude towards ourselves. 

Expose yourself to uncomfortable or embarrassing situations: 

Avoidance can heighten anxiety. Avoiding specific situations reinforces a narrative that we can’t tolerate the hard thing, making it even more scary in the future. Instead, gently offer yourself experiences where you can do something difficult or uncomfortable, notice your anxiety peak, learn how to cope with heightened anxiety, and allow your emotions to naturally decline back to baseline. It is important to start small, whatever that may mean for you. For example, go by yourself to a coffee shop and talk with the barista, attend a workout class by yourself, or play a game you know you’re bad at. It is hard to do things before you feel confident and comfortable, but that is exactly how you build confidence. Maybe along the way you will be able to enjoy yourself and have fun without ever feeling confident. 

Explore your inner narratives

Lately, I’ve seen an increase in individuals not wanting to be “cringe.”  Something is deemed “cringe” when it is particularly embarrassing or awkward, goes against popular aesthetics or behaviors, and is often associated with physiological responses in the body. Furthermore, people who experience cringe may also experience feelings of shame, and subsequent negative or self critical thoughts. Our brains are quick to add narratives to the facts of a situation. If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, or shameful, these narratives may be more negative in nature. For example, while you might feel embarrassed if you go to a new exercise class and don’t know how to set up your equipment, that does not mean you are “so stupid and embarrassing and probably look so dumb,” as someone once explained to me. If we’re going to add meaning to behaviors or experiences, then it may simply mean you are new to the class and need assistance setting up your equipment properly. 

Another example is someone going to a movie by themselves. I’ve had clients tell me they would never do this, stating “I’ll look like a loser who doesn’t have friends.” While that is one way to make sense of someone existing in a space by themselves, there are many other narratives that we could apply to this solo experience. By practicing awareness of our thoughts, and our inner narratives, we are better able to catch the stories we are telling ourselves. It is normal to want to be liked by others. We are social beings and have survived by being safely included in the larger group. So we can understand the fear, both presently and evolutionarily, of being disliked or rejected. However, we can also hold space for both: having compassion for ourselves and our desire to want to fit in with our community, feel socially supported, and avoid the negative consequences of harsh external judgments. And, we can challenge ourselves to uncomfortable situations by challenging our own negative narratives we may be adding to neutral experiences. 

Connect with your values:

Lastly, we can always return to our values. Take some time to consider what you value, both individually and within relationships. Some ideas may include authenticity, acceptance, adventure, and other words that don’t start with an ‘A.’ When we struggle to do hard things, we can gently remind ourselves that of which we value, and pick the path that best aligns with those values. For example, I value community and connection, so I remind myself of this whenever I want to isolate myself and avoid social outings. If you value acceptance and openness, you might practice more compassion for individuals who show up in public as their authentic selves, even if others find their behaviors “cringe.” To reflect further you can ask yourself in what ways are you struggling to live according to your values and where could you use more support? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is one modality that uses values to increase psychological flexibility and change behavior. However, connecting to your values is something you can do regardless of whether or not you’re seeing a therapist. 

Overall, not feeling comfortable existing in public and worrying about the judgment of others can take a harsh toll on our mental health and wellbeing. It makes sense why as clinicians we’re seeing more clients struggling with the fear of being perceived. If you’ve noticed more symptoms of social anxiety and avoidance, reach out to one of our therapists and try some of the tips above. 

Valued Living Therapy

We are a dynamic, trauma-informed, multi-specialty group practice of mental health professionals offering therapy in the heart of Edina, MN and online throughout Minnesota.

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