5 ways Social Anxiety holds us back at Work

by | May 21, 2017 | Anxiety at work, Social Anxiety

Social anxiety at work

Social Anxiety can be an excruciating experience in the workplace. It has a huge impact on active participation, career potential and progression. People who suffer from Social Anxiety tend to be grossly underemployed given their intelligence and abilities. They are more likely to be working in roles that are less skilled than their capabilities. They are also promoted less frequently than people without social anxiety, and the disorder can take a heavy toll on mental wellbeing.

we believe that everything we say or do is a potential for embarrassment and humiliation

This makes sense when you look at some definitions of Social Anxiety. “A marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur”. Or “The fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people”. Any situation is a “situation in which embarrassment may occur”, if we believe that everything we say or do is a potential embarrassment. Why, therefore, would we put ourselves in roles outside our comfort zone, or under heavy scrutiny, when the likelihood of being humiliated is high? Or, inevitable, as social phoebes believe.


Hide or be exposed

The choice seems to be a stark one. Hide away in an unfulfilling role where I waste my potential, but feel relatively safe. Or push myself forward and live in daily contact with my worst fears. And the thing is, those fears don’t ease with exposure, as with a lot of phobias. The experience is viewed through such a biased lens, that we never observe the actual evidence before our eyes. We are so self-focused that we do not see how our interactions actually go. Our thinking plays such a central role in this. Before, during, and after the event, we think about nothing but our own miserable failings.

We presume things will go badly. We feel they are going badly. We look back and fret about how badly they went.

It is not what happens to us, but our thoughts and interpretations around the situation that can cause problems. So, here are the five ways that social anxiety holds us back at work. Not the only five ways, by the way, but five of many, unfortunately.


1. Staying in a job that does not stimulate or challenge you

What’s good about a job you could do with your eyes shut? Exposure, that’s what…or lack thereof, to be precise. Other than that, it offers little else. Social Anxiety, unfortunately, will tell us that this is exactly the kind of job we need. “Keep your head down, keep out of the spotlight, and don’t draw attention. STAY SAFE”.

But this job doesn’t give us the challenge we need to feel fulfilled. It doesn’t keep us motivated to better ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t give us the platform to stand out and progress.


2. Living up to our own unrelenting standards

Socially anxious people often have standards and rules for themselves that they can never meet. In conversation, we need to be funny and interesting all the time to be acceptable. Emails we send need to be on point, with no chance or misinterpretation, or causing offence. The task we are doing needs to be completed to the highest standard, regardless of its importance or priority.

Perfectionism rarely means we are perfect at everything. It usually means self-doubt, procrastination and inaction. The need to do things perfectly is so strong, that it’s often easier not to try. The pain of not trying, and thus stagnating, is much less painful than trying and failing. And with a perfectionist mindset, failure often seems inevitable.

“Lower your standards”. That’s not a phrase we hear too often in today’s society, especially in the workplace. But if your standards are so high that you are frozen, or if every task is completed with the time-consuming anxiety of checking and re-checking, then maybe it is time to lower the bar.


3. Constantly comparing yourself with others

Our starting point is the belief that others are better, more intelligent, more competent

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this one. Evaluating our peers and seeing how we stack up alongside them can act as a good barometer. It can show us our strengths, but also where we might need to improve. It can spur us on to greater things in the right circumstances.

The ability to compare ourselves accurately with others is therefore a good tool. The problem with social anxiety, however, is that comparing ourselves accurately is impossible. Our starting point is the belief that others are better, more intelligent, more competent. They are funnier, more interesting, more socially adjusted, and more acceptable. They find life easier, have fewer problems, and are generally the opposite of us.

This comparison cannot go well for us. There can only be one winner. There is no room for critical analysis. Until we can acknowledge our own strengths and abilities, just stop.


4. Needing constant reassurance that you are doing a good job

Tied in with unrelenting standards, the need to always know what your boss and/or peers think of you can be a problem. Mainly because if you do not know, you will fill in the gaps yourself. And guess what…what you come up with won’t be pretty. It won’t be balanced. It won’t take into account all the good appraisals. It won’t incorporate evidence of the last few months. It won’t be accurate, and it certainly won’t be fair.

This need can cause difficulty even when your manager gives regular feedback. If your boss is up the walls and stressed, and only has time to criticise and demand more, then anxiety can go through the roof.


5. Getting promoted and advancing in your career

Rapport with colleagues and peers, general people skills and crucially, networking is key

If promotion was down to performance alone, then a lot of those who suffer with Social Anxiety would be doing just fine. Humans are social animals, however, and a lot of the decisions that go into a promotion are based, not on the job we do, but how we relate to those around us. Rapport with colleagues and peers, general people skills and crucially, networking is key.

This is where hiding away and keeping our head down can hurt us. And it does so on two levels, both personally and professionally. Firstly, the support of others has been found to be a significant safeguard against work stress and anxiety in general. Secondly, and more importantly when it comes to work advancement, there is a significant link between networking and progression in work.

Often, if a new manager comes in from a different department, it’s only natural that they surround themselves with those they know and trust. We frequently judge others on how well we get on with them. If social anxiety keeps us from getting up off our seats and mixing with those who make decisions, or who will potentially make decisions in the future, then we lose a significant part of the promotion puzzle.


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