I recently finished up working with a group of 12 individuals, all of whom came out of work and on social assistance. In reviewing their files, through conversations with them and observation, it struck me and not for the first time, how many people are impacted with social anxiety.
Now this particular workshop is one that is only made available to clients if they are referred by myself or my fellow Employment Supports co-workers. What this means is that in order to even get to the point where they’d be considered for admission to this specific workshop, they have to be employment ready. So my criteria is basic computer skills, willing to come for 10 days from 9:00a.m. sharp to 2:30p.m. dressed in business casual clothing, (no jeans and t-shirts). They have to know what kind of work they are after, be open to constructive criticism and feedback, and more than anything else, they have to want to be in attendance and want to work. In short they have to want work more than I want it for them.
So with that kind of criteria, and with the expectations clearly laid out to them weeks before the program begins, you’d think that the people referred, screened and accepted would (for lack of a better term), be the cream of the crop. However, social anxiety isn’t one of the things that up to now I’ve thought about discussing with potential participants. Maybe that responsibility is something I’ll have to own myself in the future. Yes, learning all the time.
Now to some extent, I think everyone if you ask them feels some moments of uncertainty when starting something new. Most of us would call it nervous excitement; the anticipation of beginning something meaningful and wanted, coupled with the questions about who will be there, how you’ll fit in etc. So to that extent, we all have thoughts about the uncertainty, or possibly the anticipation of wanting to see if things turn out the way we imagined or are something different.
So what then is it that causes some people to physically and mentally experience a higher degree of intensity with respect to these feelings; an intensity so rich that they may literally have to withdraw?
In the group I ran, one person didn’t even show up on day one. It took her boyfriend apparently to convince her to show up on day two. As a facilitator, missing day one is extremely annoying quite honestly because so much work goes in to assimilating the participants with one another, going over expectations and ground rules, creating a climate of trust and reassurance. For someone with social anxiety, missing day one can be a disaster therefore, especially if you then on day two you are entering a group already established. This is akin to self-destructive behaviour.
One participant who eventually dropped out altogether exhibited behaviour that made her eventual decision predictable. It started with her stating she took some time to warm up to people, then not voluntarily participating, missing a day due to illness, then a second of illness with an email saying she’d understand if she wasn’t welcomed back. Then sending another email withdrawing even though she’d be told she was welcome to come back. She was obviously wanting the decision to not attend to be made by me, rather than having to take the responsibility for it herself.
What I find sad personally is that so many of the people I interact with who state they have social anxiety are good people, with marketable skills and qualifications, who state they want to work. It would appear that in some cases they are truly incapable of overcoming their anxiety at present; debilitating them to the point where they cannot physically take advantage of opportunities. In other cases I’ve had people eventually tell me that they’ve just got too comfortable not working, but know they have to make a show of looking for work, and therefore use social anxiety as an excuse to quit courses and they put their energy into other things. That is more than unfortunate, it’s deplorable.
So is social anxiety somewhere between full-blown agoraphobia where people can’t leave their homes and simple shyness? I’m no expert and don’t pretend to know. What I do know is that whatever it is, it’s robbing people of the ability to take advantage of many opportunities. It is through socializing, human contact and the discussions that take place that people feel inclusiveness, belonging and a rise in self-esteem and personal confidence as a result.
Social anxiety can lead to isolation, withdrawal, feelings of missing out, and possibly depression as a result. Always good to remember is that other people have issues too, sometimes obvious and self-declared and sometimes hidden, less obvious but every bit as real.
It’s also the case that in joining any new group, all of us have the choice to reveal our barriers immediately and gain support or conceal it as best we can and that can be good too if we can pull it off. After all, people only know what they see and what we tell them.
You have to do what works for you. If you are experiencing social anxiety, having someone tell you to, “just get over it” isn’t helpful. Consider getting counselling if you haven’t already, and take some small, safe risks.