Dr. Kristin Schaefer-Schiumo| Manhasset NY

A New Look at Social Anxiety.

As a psychologist, I have always valued looking at life from a strengths-based perspective Generally speaking, I work with people to help them identify and use their existing strengths and talents to tackle difficult situations. I have found this to be far more optimistic and effective than working from a deficit perspective alone. For many years, psychologists and other mental health and medical professionals worked from a more medical model, focusing on what was wrong or missing. As many now agree this model, while needed in some ways, is lacking or incomplete and seems to demoralize those "treated" within it.

So, you can imagine my excitement when reading a recent article by Dr. Ryan Niemiec, which asks us to begin to look at social anxiety from a strengths based perspective. In this article, we're asked to view social anxiety as being overuses and underuses of character strengths. This very new research, which means we'll be needing much more research on this topic, suggests a possible pattern of overuse and underuse of strengths specific to people struggling with social anxiety. Let's take a closer look at what that actually may mean.


Most of us would agree that humility is a good human characteristic. But, research seems to be showing that an overuse of humility might be concerning. An overuse of humility means that you tend not to like to talk about yourself or your accomplishments at all. When people do praise you or acknowledge your achievements, you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable and saying little to nothing in response. So how is this overuse of a clear strength related to social anxiety? Well, if you use too much humility people do not have the opportunity to know about you. If people can't learn about you, it can be hard for them to connect with you. This leads to less than ideal social situations.


Like humility, self-regulation is a strength. It is helpful to manage your reactions to others or to control your feelings or habits. People who underuse self-regulation often struggle to control their responses toward others and are seen as lacking control of their behaviors, speech and feelings. They are often viewed as undisciplined. And the connection to social anxiety you may ask? Positive social interactions involve a balanced back and forth of questions, sharing about oneself, and communicating. If you underuse self-regulation you may come across as insensitive toward others or overly self focused.


Like humility and self-regulation, social intelligence is viewed as a strength and something valued in interpersonal interactions. But what does an overuse of social intelligence look like? Oftentimes, it means over analyzing your thoughts and feelings, as well as over analyzing the thoughts and feelings of others. Once again there seems to be a connection between this overuse of a strength and social anxiety. How? Well, you likely give too much attention to your own nervousness, worry or discomfort, and less attention to more balanced thoughts and positive feelings, such as interest, excitement, compassion or hope. For example, you may interpret a facial expression, neutral comment or neutral body language as "proof" that someone doesn't like you. This too interferes with positive and consistent social interactions.


What does all of this mean in terms of taking action and making change? First, awareness is the initial critical step. Begin to consider how your social anxiety may actually be related to overusing or underusing character strengths in social situations. This will provide some ideas on how to take action. Of course it is still important to focus on getting ride of negative, ineffective thinking, alleviating symptoms, and changing parts of yourself that you no longer want in your life. But now you have an empowering frame of reference or a new lens for looking at this challenging problem.


Kristin Schaefer Schiumo, Ph.D