Social anxiety disorder is a debilitating mental illness that causes severe and overwhelming anxiety in social situations. It is not quirky to have. It is not fun. And It is not cute. Social anxiety disorder cannot be cured by being in love. It is upsetting. It is terrifying. And It is doubting yourself and over analyzing every single thing you said and did in a social situation. It is low self-esteem and low self-confidence. It is panic attacks. Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness.
Yet, despite all of this, every day I scroll through social media and find at least one tweet that’s been written about social anxiety disorder for clout. These tweets are usually full of misinformation and completely belittle and dismiss the daily battle those of us living with the disorder go through. So I thought I’d write a post about some common misconceptions about social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety is not the same thing as being socially awkward
Social anxiety disorder is a mental illness. It is an anxiety disorder that causes fear of social situations. Being socially awkward is not a mental illness. While individuals who are socially awkward may not be great at socialising and this can cause them to feel uncomfortable, these social situations may not necessarily produce feelings of anxiety.
Being socially awkward can be a result of being shy, introverted, or even missing social cues. Not everyone with social anxiety disorder has these attributes. Being socially anxious doesn’t necessarily mean we’re shy or introverted. Personally, I am introverted. I do become exhausted from social interactions and require time to myself to recharge my social batteries. However, being an introvert isn’t caused by my social anxiety. Correlation does not equal causation. There are many individuals with social anxiety disorder who happen to be extroverted. While there can be an overlap between social anxiety disorder and being socially awkward, they are not one in the same.
Having social anxiety doesn’t mean we hate people
We don’t hate people. We’re uncomfortable and anxious around people. Often our anxiety can cause us to come across as cold, distant, and even rude. If we appear as though we’re disinterested in a conversation or have taken a dislike to someone, it’s because we’re experiencing overwhelming levels of anxiety in that moment.
I used to give short, one-worded answers when people would engage me in a conversation. It was all I could do to not burst into tears right there and then. To anyone who doesn’t know you or doesn’t understand what social anxiety disorder is, it does come across as rude. Eventually, I and my boyfriend had to start explaining to people that I do have social anxiety disorder so that they understood I wasn’t deliberately being rude to them.
Social anxiety disorder is not about hating people. It’s an intense fear of doing and saying the wrong things and of being judged. We’re more afraid that people will hate us.
Good days do not invalidate our mental illness
It is a fact of life that everyone will experience good days and bad days. For someone with social anxiety disorder, a bad day can make it particularly difficult to leave the house. Meeting friends or popping to the shop may feel impossible. Even sending a text can produce feelings of anxiety. But on a good day we may be able to do all of those things with minimal anxiety.
Good days tend to set a precedence. Suddenly we’ve raised the bar. If we can meet up with friends or go to the shop one day, why can’t we do it any other day? We’re faced with ‘you’ve done it once, why can’t you do it again?’ and ‘why is it so hard for you to do now when you’ve already done it once?’ In my experience, once you’ve had a good day, people tend to be less tolerant of you and your anxiety.
Anxiety levels increase and decrease daily. Like with all mental illnesses, social anxiety disorder is not a choice. None of us wake up each morning and choose how anxious we’re going to be that day. No amount of good days should invalidate the fact we have a mental illness.
Not every social situation causes anxiety
This misconception ties in with the previous. It is widely believed that a person with social anxiety disorder is anxious in every social situation. This is not at all truthful. Some people are unable to go to the supermarket but can manage their corner shop. Some cannot manage the corner shop but going to the supermarket is the easiest thing in the world. And there are some who cannot go to either their corner shop or the supermarket without an anxiety attack. Like all mental illnesses, social anxiety disorder is not a one size fits all. Which situations cause anxiety and how much anxiety they cause is specific to the individual.
Personally, I can cope with small gatherings of people I know, but struggle with bigger settings such as parties. However, I’m less likely to be invited to a gathering, regardless of how big, because of my social anxiety. People incorrectly assume those of us with social anxiety disorder are unable to cope with every social situation and therefore do not invite us. It has taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that it’s not necessarily done to be malicious but rather they believe they’re doing us a kindness by not inviting us.
Even if your socially anxious friend constantly refuses your invitation somewhere, please keep asking them. There will come a time, or a specific situation, where they will accept, but you need to keep asking.
Positive thinking isn’t a cure
When you have a mental illness, one of the many unhelpful comments a vast majority of us receive is to ‘think positively’ as though this is something we are a) unaware of and b) not doing enough of. There seems to be this expectation that a mental illness can be cured through positive thinking. Positive thoughts, such as ‘parties are not scary places’ or ‘I am a confident person’, can be helpful to alleviate anxiety. The more you tell yourself something, the more likely you are to believe it. However, simply thinking positive thoughts is not enough. If it was, no one would ever experience social anxiety ever again. If positive thoughts could cure mental illnesses, there would be no mental illness in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not a world we live in.
It’s easy for those who have no first-hand experience with a mental illness to dish out the unhelpful advice to think positive thoughts, but it can be extremely insulting to those of us who do live with a mental illness. As it is unhelpful to say to someone with anorexia to ‘just eat’ or a person with trichotillomania to ‘stop pulling’, it’s unhelpful to say to someone with social anxiety disorder to ‘don’t be anxious, be positive’. I can tell you with complete certainty that no one in the world has ever been cured of their mental illness thanks to the power of positive thinking.
Have you experienced any of these? Can you add any misconceptions about social anxiety disorder to this list?
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