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« Social anxiety or low self-esteem? by Rachel Green »

Written by Rachel Green.  The smart emotions coach: Helping people manage their emotions & become resilient, whatever life throws at them. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. She has used meditation to cure herself of panic attacks and had a family member with social anxiety.

Social anxiety or low self-esteem?

Social anxiety is the FEAR of social situations, social interactions and meeting people. It can be felt across all aspects of a person's life and is typically accompanied by significant anxiety.

However, many symptoms of social anxiety may be similar to those of other disorders, especially when they occur in a less severe form. This can make it confusing in some circumstances to clearly identify when the symptoms of social anxiety are present.

Other disorders that seem to have related symptoms, but may not be social anxiety, include phobias, low self-esteem, introversion, shyness, sleeping disturbance, paranoia, panic attacks and agoraphobia. When do such symptoms reflect social anxiety, and when do they mean something else? 

It isn't always clear cut, especially so when the symptoms of low self-esteem are involved. Social anxiety appears to be fuelled, at least in part, by people's belief that others will judge them and judge them negatively. This is one of the typical symptoms of social anxiety that contributes to the fear of social situations. Associated with this belief is a fear of being rejected.

In contrast, people without social anxiety may think others don't like them but don't care. Or they may not think they are being judged at all, and if they are they may not assume it will be negative.

Further symptoms of social anxiety.

Another of the associated symptoms of social anxiety appears to be a strong belief, by people with social anxiety, that they are in some way flawed or not good enough. Because of this fundamental flaw they believe that negative criticism could be true. People with social anxiety can be hurt deeply by criticism. This criticism can then strengthen their anxiety about future interactions.

However, being hurt deeply by criticism is not limited to social anxiety and nor is it a defining symptom. It is usually only when it occurs in conjunction with a fear of social situations, social interactions and meeting people that it is considered one of the significant symptoms of social anxiety.

In contrast, when people without social anxiety receive negative comments they may not believe them to be true or may think the other person's judgement is flawed.

Alternatively, they may be concerned and initially upset by the feedback but get over it and remain confident in social situations. They may even perceive negative feedback to be useful and act on it positively to improve themselves.

For people with social anxiety, the fear of rejection along with the anticipation of "true" and "hurtful" criticism, may lead them to approach social situations already guarded against criticism. This may in turn lead them to look-out for criticism and to perceive implied criticism in what other people say or do.

When they walk into a room and someone near them looks down, they may think, for example, that it is because the other person is thinking, "What dreadful shoes she's wearing", or "Oh my, isn't he fat."

In fact, the eye movement may be nothing to do with the person who walked in but the person with social anxiety presumes it is, and their discomfort increases.

In contrast, someone without social anxiety may go to party not expecting criticism but expecting to have a good time, and thus have no anticipatory anxiety.

They may see someone look down but read it differently. They may think, "Oh he likes my shoes", or "He's looking upset". They may think it has nothing to do with their walking in, think nothing of it and just notice the person is looking down. End of story.

Does this now more fully explain when someone has symptoms of social anxiety and when they don't? No, not entirely.

Do you want to reduce your own social anxiety? There are many ways that may help you do this. One of them is meditation. I used meditation to cure myself of panic attacks. If you want to try meditation I recommend our "Happy not hassled" MP3 recordings to you. The meditations on there are the ones I used. You do need to practice them regularly for the best result.

MP3s $29 (US) Add to Cart

Symptoms of social anxiety or low self-esteem?

People with low self-esteem can have negative thoughts about themselves too.

People with low self-esteem may also believe that these negative thoughts are true. Indeed, clinical psychologist and low self-esteem specialist, Mercurio Cicchini, in his book, "Let your true self shine: How to recognise and overcome the barrier that maintains low self-esteem," says this is the fundamental cause of low self-esteem.

How then does low self-esteem differ from social anxiety? There are many questions we could ask.

  1. For example, which comes first, the low self-esteem or the social anxiety or do they both occur together?  
  2. What are the symptoms of social anxiety as opposed to the symptoms of low self-esteem?
  3. Is social anxiety a specialised and severe form of low self-esteem? 
  4. Or does low self-esteem arise because of failure in social situations? It is not always clear.

My attempt to differentiate the symptoms of social anxiety from low self-esteem, is to say that, fundamentally, social anxiety is an anxiety disorder. Not all people with low self-esteem have an anxiety disorder.

In order for someone with low self-esteem to be diagnosed with social anxiety, there needs to be a significant anxiety plus a marked fear of social interactions, social situations and meeting people as the primary symptoms.

Some people with low self-esteem may not have such an anxiety. Also their low self-esteem may be associated with other aspects of their lives, such as a poor body image. This may then lead to different problems, such as anorexia or other eating disorders.

However, do all people with social anxiety have low self-esteem as an associated issue?

The symptoms of social anxiety may indeed be associated with low self-esteem.

Social anxiety summary

In summary, the symptoms of social anxiety are primarily a fear of social situations and the associated severe anxiety. It may be compounded by other issues such as low self-esteem but it is not the same as low self-esteem.

It is important that we all understand the key symptoms of social anxiety so that those of us who are parents, health professionals, teachers, counsellors or other lay people can recognise when our children, clients, students or colleagues have social anxiety disorder and require specialist help.

It is also imperative that we can identify the symptoms of social anxiety so that people are not misdiagnosed and each person receives the best treatment.

People with social anxiety disorder need access to appropriate mental health treatments and professionals. This can only happen when we know who does and who does not have the symptoms of social anxiety.

I welcome your comments and experiences. Are these the symptoms of social anxiety as you know them?

If you want to try meditation to ease your anxiety I recommend our "Happy not hassled" MP3 recordings to you. The meditations on there are the ones I used to help me overcome my panic attacks.

MP3s $29 (US) Add to Cart


NB: Any information contained in this article is not provided as an alternative to obtaining psychological advice from an appropriately qualified practitioner. Rachel is not a psychologist, Dr or psychiatrist. If you, or people known to you, may have social anxiety disorder please seek professional help and do not rely on this for the diagnosis or treatment of any psychological problems.