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Social Insecurity

Photo: "Scared" by graur razvan ionutWhen I was a teenager, I frequently felt like I didn’t quite know the right things to do when it came to interacting with people. What do I say in this situation? How do I word that request? What can I expect here? What was expected of me there?

I woke up the other morning to the spontaneous discovery that somewhere deep down inside me, I still feel like that kid who doesn’t know the rules of social engagement.

The Joy and Pain of Self-Discovery

While I willingly engage in all kinds of socializing, I’m becoming aware of a sense of vulnerability at the base of it all. There’s a level of relaxed self-acceptance that I find hard to achieve during polite conversation.

Till now, I never thought beyond the fact of my extraversion. That was all I believed I needed to know. Socially speaking, the story was, “I’m an extrovert, so I’m fine.”

The truth is, I’m often less comfortable in social situations than I want to be. It’s pretty subtle, so I’m not sure how much it shows on the outside. One friend called me in response to my post, How We Change, to say, “What are you talking about? You’re one of the most open people I know!”

In some ways, I am open. But there’s something else I can feel on the inside. I’m not as relaxed in my skin as I thought I was.  … Damn!!! Who wants this kind of self-awareness? Well, too late. It’s here.

Now that I know how I really feel, I realize I’ve known it all along. But there’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing it.

This realization explains a couple of things.

For a few years after I started my private therapy practice, I facilitated a group for people with social anxiety. It was hard to keep it running, probably because it was a group for people who hate groups. Finding “live ones” to commit to coming every week was not easy. So, regretfully, I don’t offer it anymore.

(Click to read my article, Social Anxiety: 8 Mistakes Sufferers Make)

Now I know why I always felt such empathy for the people in my social anxiety group. I don’t usually experience conscious distress in social situations. But I’m on the spectrum,  as it were, because of my apparently deep-seated concern about “getting it right.”

I was like the simple country cousin to my group members; I may have been ignorant of all the ways of Social Anxiety City, but I was still family.

And maybe the family is bigger than anyone realizes.

Misunderstood … But Not Alone?

There’s a second thing that became clear through this realization of my let’s-call-it social insecurity.

I now understand why it’s so painful, and even alarming, when my actions or words are interpreted differently from how I mean them. If my actions or words are misinterpreted, my fear has become a reality: It feels as though I failed to communicate in the “right” way. And that triggers shame. Which makes it hard to relax.

… Unless the interpretation is charitable, of course. Like when my partner, Mike, thanks me warmly for making popcorn even though I only made it because I thought he wasn’t home and I could hog the whole bowl to myself. That’s the good kind of misinterpretation.

What I told my social anxiety group members is absolutely true: Social anxiety is not a yes or no proposition; we’re all on the social insecurity continuum. If we didn’t have concerns about how we’re doing in social interactions, we’d be sociopaths. And nobody likes a sociopath. (Not that sociopaths care.)

If you’re on the social insecurity spectrum too, let’s celebrate! I’m pretty sure it means we’re human and, quite possibly, normal.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Social Insecurity"

  • Rosie
    June 23, 2012 - 12:45 pm Reply

    Wow! Something else I am “supposedly” normal about. LOL! But seriously, I do understand the thought of being an extrovert and then finding out that you aren’t. For me, it comes from a place of not knowing who I truly am. As a kid, I thought I had to always “be right.” Now I am finding out that this may have a lot to do with the fact that I was adopted. After all, if I am not what they want me to be, they might give me back. These were very subconscious thoughts, but were there all the same. Now, grappling with the confusion of not being sure that my thoughts and actions are my true thoughts and actions, is very difficult. How do you know what is true, and what is not.

  • Tina Gilbertson
    June 25, 2012 - 1:26 pm Reply

    Great comment, Rosie. And a compelling question: “How do you know the real you, as opposed to the adaptive you?” Anyone want to give that one a shot?

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