I can’t even attempt to count the number of time I have canceled plans with friends due to my crippling social anxiety. My friends have become accustomed to a text something like: “I’m so so sorry, but I really don’t feel up to going out tonight,” followed by some excuse involving being too sick, too tired, getting called into work, or having too much homework. But in reality, sometimes I just can’t bring myself to enter a situation where I have to interact with others—especially situations like parties where I will have too meet and interact with large groups of new people. While I do feel very alone in this experience at the time, social anxiety is something that many people live with on a daily basis. My experience and the experiences of others can be understood using self-presentation theory.
Even if I do get myself out the door to go to a party, I usually do one of 3 tactics in order to avoid interacting with others: First, if the person who threw the party has a pet, I will spend as much time as possible petting it and playing with it. Second, I will gravitate towards the snack table and stand there eating. Or third, I will stick to whoever I came to the party with like glue (not once in my life have I attended a party alone). Then, the real nightmare begins when someone I don’t know begins talking with me. I am smiling on the outside, but inside my chest is tight from pure terror. I stumble as I speak in conversation, stuttering and running my words together, because I am so lost in my head worrying about saying the wrong thing and making a bad impression. It’s not that I don’t like people—it’s that I’m afraid that people will not like me.
My experience with social anxiety perfectly aligns with self-presentation theory as outlined in our textbook. Self-presentation theory defines two factors which must be present for a person two experience social anxiety (Schneider 2012). The first factor is high self-presentational motivation. “Self-presentational motivation refers to the degree to which people are concerned with how others perceive them” (Schneider 2012). This concern with what others think definitely is relevant to myself. Since I was a child, I was always extremely concerned with what others thought of me—my friends, my teachers, new people that I met—I always feared that they wouldn’t like me. The second factor of self-presentation theory is low self-efficacy. “Social self-efficacy is defined as a person’s level of confidence in his or her ability to convey a particular image to another person” (Schneider 2012). If someone has low self-efficacy, it means that they have low self-confidence in their own ability to make a good impression—a quality that is very applicable to myself. I always describe myself as awkward, and by that I mean that I perceive myself not being very skilled in interacting socially, often causing my to embarrass myself.
When high self-presentational motivation and low self-efficacy are combined, these factors lead to high negative outcome expectancies. “Negative outcome expectancies are defined as anticipated aversive repercussions that are contingent on creating an undesirable impression”(Schneider 2012). From my experience, I always feel sure that I will embarrass myself before even stepping through the doors of a party. This can also be referred to as anticipatory embarrassment (Schneider 2012). And when someone, including myself, feels sure that social interaction will lead to a negative outcome, this leads to the feeling of social anxiety.
Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.