Being concerned with what people think of us is a universal human experience (with a few exceptions), be it when we are being observed, when we meet someone new, or are encountering a social situation we’re not familiar with. This caution, in the right doses, helps us to monitor and regulate our actions according to what is socially acceptable and what is not. If we didn’t have a care in the world about what others think of us, civilization would look very different, considering that this caution is essential in avoiding conflict (Gilbert, 2001). When there is an excessive amount of this caution, it is experienced as anxiety and fear of certain social situations. Here, it is no longer adaptive, since it causes the person significant distress.
Social Anxiety involves a persistent fear of being negatively criticized, judged, or observed by others. This inevitably interferes with the person’s daily life and the individual attempts to actively avoid the anxiety provoking situation or has to endure it with significant discomfort (Association, 2013).
The following will explore the understanding and approach of Gestalt therapy towards Social Anxiety.
The Critical Attitude
Within the experience of social anxiety, the persistent negative judgement that I would fear is coming from others towards me, is actually coming from an inner harsh judgement of myself. This critical attitude towards myself leads me to feel small, unlikeable, or as if I am doing some wrong. Being immersed in this self-critical attitude fosters anxiety and creates a distance between myself and others in certain situations. The resulting anxiety would stop me from interacting freely with others.
Needless to say, this critical attitude towards the one’s self diminishes the person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Gestalt therapy offers a safe and supportive space where you may begin to experiment with a better way of relating to yourself (Stevens, 2016). This is a process which takes time and energy. It also involves working on introjects.
Introjects are other people’s beliefs which we have taken on as our own without questioning them from our end. Some introjects come from what our caregivers used to tell us in our childhood, and some introjects are actually really useful for us to learn things when we were growing up (like not touching the stove when it’s hot). We would have taken on others’ beliefs as our own, without analyzing them to see whether we agree with them or whether they suit us. These introjects could be anything from ‘’don’t be so loud’’ to ‘‘you’re lazy’’. An accumulation and mixture of negative introjects may result in a critical inner voice which distresses and inhibits the person from interacting more freely. In therapy, you get to explore and become more aware of this critical attitude and accumulation of introjects, which sets the process of change into motion. Once you start noticing this critical attitude more and what it’s about, then you may experiment with engaging in dialogue with that critical attitude, and slowly challenging it (Stevens, 2016).
Learning how to speak to ourselves from a place of compassion is essential in challenging that self-criticizing attitude.
Other aspects of working with Social Anxiety include Projections; which are instances when I would disown an aspect of myself and place it on another person, situation, or object. This is a natural and often unconscious mechanism we all possess. Social Anxiety steers us into placing our own critical voice onto other people, as though they are thinking we’re dumb, ugly, incompetent etc. – when that’s actually our own self-criticizing attitude (Stevens, 2016).
While the feared social situation does not present an actual physical danger to the individual, the distress caused is significant. This distress may be relieved once it is given the time, space, and energy it needs within a therapeutic context.
Amber Tabone practices Gestalt Psychotherapy with individuals and couples at Willingness. While currently reading for a Master’s in Psychotherapy, she has developed an interest in working with relationships, gender, and sexuality thanks to her experience with families and domestic violence issues.
Association, A. P. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington. Retrieved 9 10, 2020
Gilbert, P. (2001). Evolution and Social Anxiety. Psychiatric Clinics. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0193-953X(05)70260-4
Stevens, A. (2016, 10 16). Alexandra Stevens Therapy. Retrieved 9 10, 2020, from http://alexandrastevenstherapy.com/blog/2016/10/16/3-steps-to-beating-social-anxiety