While it’s not a new phenomenon by any means, the physical distance created between people by the Pandemic has made the topic of social anxiety much more ubiquitous in our culture. The fear of judgement by others, always present in our minds, can suddenly be debilitating. This can make everyday activities become traumatic events and it can be challenging to explain such behavior to our friends and loved ones since doing so reinforces that very fear. We may sense further judgement from ourselves to just “deal with it”. What can Buddhist practice offer us as a real antidote to this experience? In this week’s Sangha, Payton explored the topic of social anxiety, using Buddhism’s practices to see how it functions and what we might be able to do about it.
When I have social anxiety it feels like this:
- Fear of not knowing what to say and not being prepared.
- Fear of saying the wrong thing.
- Fear of what I say causing the other to dislike me.
- Exhaustion with having to become who the other expects me to be.
- Fear of disappointing the other or not being what they need from me.
- Exhaustion with having to read the words and body language of the other in order to understand what they really mean.
- Exhaustion with having to summarize my experience in a way that others can understand.
- Discomfort of having to context switch from something I’m focused on.
A summary of my exploration of this topic:
- What is happening?
I am anxious about judgement and work hard to make others comfortable.
- Why is this happening?
A lack of self-confidence and fear of the unknown.
- What practices may help?
Remembering the eight worldly winds, remembering that no one is immune to blame, returning to the body, willingness to stay with suffering and not escape, touching the earth, practices of impermanence, and all practices of not-self.
Verse 227: It is not new, O Atula! It has always been done from ancient times. They blame one who is silent, they blame one who speaks much, they blame one who speaks little. There is no one in this world who is not blamed.
Verse 228: There never has been, there never will be, nor is there now, anyone who is always blamed or always praised.– Dhammapada, verse 227, 228 from https://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=227
Looking more deeply at the experience:
- I want others to feel comfortable but doing so is a lot of work.
- Why do I want others to be comfortable? Because in their place I would want to be comfortable. For strangers, it’s also because comfortable people are less likely to be dangerous/make me uncomfortable. So the motivation is both kindness and fear.
- Why is it a lot of work? Because I have to stop paying attention to my own needs and instead read the other and adjust my behavior with all my awareness. Depending on conditions this can be easy or hard. With less information, like when I’m on a phone call, this is more difficult still.
- Due to the effort required, even thinking about social interaction can be aversive and causes me to avoid interactions entirely, particularly when I am tired or stressed.
- Underlying beliefs that cause this are a lack of self-confidence and fear of the unknown. I feel inherently unlikable and that my behavior may make others uncomfortable. Uncomfortable people at best don’t want to be friends and at worst may want to cause me harm.
A brief talk on the topic of social anxiety:
Here’s some additional material I gathered as part of the research for this talk:
We need suffering in order to see the path. The origin of suffering, the sensation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering are all found in the heart of suffering. If we are afraid to touch our suffering, we will not be able to realize the path of peace, joy, and liberation. Don’t run away. Touch your suffering and embrace it. Make peace with it. Buddha said, “the moment you know how your suffering came to be, you are already on the path of release from it.“ If you know what has come to be and how it has come to be, you are already on the way to emancipation.– The heart of the Buddha’s teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
A talk by Maria Straatmann on anxiety and the dharma: https://www.audiodharma.org/talks/2522
An excerpt from the Attadanda Sutta: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.4.15.olen.html
A talk by Gil Fronsdal on anxiety in general: https://www.audiodharma.org/talks/7179
A report of an experience with anxiety that was helped by the practice: https://www.stonewaterzen.org/2016/10/shyness-and-the-dharma-by-nameless/