Social anxiety is described simply as a “fear of social situations.” If you have social anxiety, you know how tough it can be to hold a simple conversation let alone make a friend. Estimates reveal that just under 20 million people in the United States suffer from various forms of social anxiety. Symptoms can be more disabling in certain individuals compared to others, but generally involve fears of social situations, being judged and/or rejected, and declining social invitations due to anxiety.
If you are a sufferer of social anxiety, a major problem that you may have is making friends and/or maintaining friendships. Many people who have social anxiety simply become reclusive and avoidant because the discomfort associated with being around other people is too high. This leads people with the disorder to believe that they aren’t equipped enough to handle a friendship.
Social Anxiety Skews Self-Perception in Friendships and/or Relationships
According to new research though, social anxiety skews your self-perception of friendships and/or other relationships. It makes sufferers feel as though they aren’t good enough friends to handle a relationship. The new research indicates that although the first-hand perception from sufferers is that they aren’t good friends, people without the disorder who are friends with them may consider them good friends.
Although your social skills may not be the best, and you may get nervous easy, someone probably likes having you in their life and considers you a friend. Feeling anxiety in social situations can prevent suffers from forming an emotional “bond” or connection with another person. Additionally their high level of anxiety makes them constantly worry about impressing the other person and/or being a good enough friend.
Washington University Research (2014): People with Social Anxiety Can Be Good Friends
New research that surfaced from Washington University in St. Louis reported that individuals with social anxiety tend to have inaccurate perceptions of their relationships and/or friendships. In a person’s head with social anxiety, they tend to believe that they don’t have any friends or that other people don’t really like them. The study found that in reality, the person without the social anxiety in a “friendship” viewed the anxious individual as a good friend.
A co-author of the study, Thomas Rodebaugh was quoted as saying, “People who are impaired by high social anxiety typically think they are coming across much worse than they really are.” He continued by saying, “This new study suggests that the same is true in their friendships.”
More details from the study…
Researchers tested 122 total adults – some of who carried the diagnosis of “social anxiety disorder,” while others who had no mental health issues. During the experiment, every participant in the study was assigned a non-romantic (platonic) friend participate with them who had agreed to partake in the study.
Results: Individuals with social anxiety disorder reported that their friendships (in the study) were worse than the participants without the disorder. Not only were they reported as being worse, but worse to a “significant” extent. In other words, they viewed themselves as being a bad friend, even when feedback from the other person indicated that they were a good friend.
The co-author of the study talked about how friends of individuals with social anxiety knew that the person with anxiety was “different” and “were having trouble” and viewed them as being “less dominant” in the friendship. The poor self-perception of a friendship among those with social anxiety disorder was age-related. The study revealed that individuals who were “younger” had a poorer self-perception of the relationship than they probably should.
Note: The results of this study can be found in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
How the findings could be beneficial: Reshaping faulty perceptions
If there’s any takeaway message from this study, it’s that individuals with social anxiety disorder are likely doing better in relationships than they expect or perceive. This is a finding that could be applied to cognitive-behavioral therapy, which attempts to address faulty thinking and other beliefs don’t accurately reflect reality.
The study shows that having social anxiety really makes those with the condition believe that they are poor at social relationships, when in fact others may like having them around. Assuming the research is supported by future studies and gains more credibility, it could be a teaching that is applied directly in the practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy, a clinically effective treatment option for those with anxiety.
If you have social anxiety the study is basically saying that you are probably a better “friend” and/or “spouse” or even an acquaintance than you give yourself credit for. The social anxiety can essentially make us think we are doing a poor job interacting with others, even though others actually may value interactions with us. As someone who has social anxiety, these findings aren’t really all that surprising and actually make a lot of sense.
Why these findings may not be totally accurate…
There are several reasons why the findings in this new study may be subject to inaccuracies. The sample size used was relatively small and limited to adults. Additionally there is no way of knowing whether the interaction in a “study” setting would reflect the realities of friendships for those with social anxiety. Follow-up studies with superior designs must be conducted to verify the accuracy of results.
- Participant pool: Think about it for a second. People who “agreed” to participate in a study don’t exactly sound the most socially anxious. Although some likely had social anxiety disorder, the severity of social anxiety disorder wasn’t mentioned. Therefore those with social anxiety disorder that agreed to participate in the study may have only “mild” cases. It should also be noted that all participants were adults – many of whom may have learned to mask their social anxiety and/or function in social situations throughout their lives. One would argue that adults have significantly more experience than teens or younger individuals with social anxiety.
- Small sample-size: Sure 122 people sounds like a lot, it’s a good amount of people for a small study. Additional studies with significantly more people (thousands) need to be conducted before the small-scale study can be verified.
- Study may not reflect reality: Some would say that a staged social meeting and interaction in a study is somewhat off-base with reality. In the study, one could argue that the people were just going along with what was assigned. Had they met the socially anxious person in real life, would they really want to maintain the interaction? This is somewhat less likely. Since everyone was probably being a good sport about it, they probably treated the other person with respect to complete the study.
- Feel sorry for the other person: Those without the social anxiety may feel somewhat bad for the person they are working with. They may see that the person is anxious and is a nice, but highly timid person. In the friendship ratings, they may perceive them as a good person and may feel somewhat sorry for them which results in rating the other person better at being a friend than they actually may be.
- Personality traits: Some would suggest that in a study like this, nearly anyone would be perceived as a good friend that is capable of communicating as long as they have favorable personality traits. As long as some effort is put into the interaction and the person treats the other with respect, they may be viewed as good “friends” in the study. Those with unfavorable personality traits such as a uncontrollable anger and/or narcissism may be rated worse friends.
- Study “friends” aren’t real friends: In the real world, people want people that can relate to them on a spontaneous level. Simply functioning in a study doesn’t accurately reflect friendships in the real world, outside of a study setting. Participants may have been just going along with the study for some sort of reimbursement and/or for something to do.
- Varying levels of social anxiety: Keep in mind that everyone has varying levels of social anxiety and the findings may not apply to everyone. It should also be noted that some people in this study may have had extremely low social anxiety, making others view them as a good friend. Those on the other end of the spectrum with high anxiety may not have even been able to make it through such a study.
- Further research warranted: The findings in this study were interesting, but clearly further research is necessary to support the claims. Assuming additional research confirms what was found here, we can give more merit to the claims. However, the future research would benefit from noting the severity of the social anxiety among participants that have it.
Verdict: Social Anxiety Is Still a Problem In Relationships
It makes complete sense that individuals with social anxiety disorder would perceive themselves as being worse “friends” than in reality. However, the results of this study are highly-debatable based on a number of factors such as: sample size, participant population, as well as the fact that the study may not accurately reflect real-life friendships. It may help some people with social anxiety to know that they aren’t really doing as bad with friends as they think.
On the other hand, the fact that the participants knew that the individuals with social anxiety were “different,” “having some trouble” and “less dominant” is still troubling. This is troubling especially in the minds of social anxiety sufferers because they want to be perceived as “normal” and not have any trouble with the friendship. Some non-sufferers may be sympathetic to those with social anxiety disorders, but most people are drawn to people who are dominant, interactive, and spontaneous friends – characteristics often lacking among the socially anxious.
This puts people with social anxiety in an awkward situation. Although the study suggests that they are probably doing alright as a friend, knowing this fact doesn’t take away the discomfort. In addition, people with social anxiety may be perceived as socially weak and easy targets of social exploitation for the more uninhibited and advanced extroverts. In certain cases the socially anxious may be easy to dominate and “drag around” or control in a relationship; this is highly-unfortunate.
Ultimately, the best option for individuals with social anxiety disorder is to learn how to deal with anxiety and seek treatment. This may be using supplements (e.g. herbal remedies for anxiety) and/or pharmaceutical drugs that are proven to help with this condition and/or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Most people with social anxiety are able to eventually find something that treats their symptoms and allows them to cope with social functions in life.
- Source: https://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/27665.aspx