As a society, given how everyone likes to be up everyone else's business apart from their own, South Asian families can be quite judgmental. It starts small. As a child, you must recite a poem/sing a song/do something to show how talented you are to the guests. Please don’t be shy, that’s not a trait that shows strength. This later blooms into this bubble of perfection and success that must be projected at all times. Please whitewash and paint all the cracks, the exterior must shine in the sun. Given how competitive our society is, there really isn’t much slack cut out for any kind of weakness. This is why a blanket fear and taboo prevails all over anything mental health related. You cannot be vulnerable let alone let it show on the outside.
Social anxiety manifests differently in different people. However, the main key elements include a fear of social interactions which often makes the person feel very self conscious of being judged negatively. Making friends is hard anyway, add on a constant nagging fear that people don’t actually want to speak to you or are getting bored of every word that you say. In our culture, we often don’t go deep enough to understand the underlying root of these behavioural struggles. They are simply labelled as “problematic” behaviour that needs to be “changed”. “Be like that person, they are so successful and have so many friends.”
Oftentimes, social anxiety comes across as a lack of interest due to avoidance strategies used as coping behaviours. How many times have we seen people who struggle with social anxiety wrongly labelled as arrogant, snooty or weird?
Let’s dive deeper and see how social anxiety manifests in our South Asian context and what we can do to cope with it better:
1. Avoiding social interactions
A male identifying client had come to me with familial issues. His parents were always critical of him and how he was never interested in putting himself out there, be it contributing to conversations in family gatherings, like the others kids did or having a group of friends to play with. Their worries and concerns about how something in his behaviour was off often translated in anger and yelling matches. After exploring his emotions underneath his lack of interest in family gatherings, we found a lot of fear of comparison, feelings of not being good enough and uneasiness in such situations. In this kind of situation, it is important to actively explore and solidify one’s foundation and sense of self. Maladaptive thought patterns often make us see skewed negative versions of reality that stops us from actually connecting with our true selves.
2. Direct attacks at self worth
Our physical appearance is given a lot of value in our society. One must work on being fair, have good clean skin and be thin to get married. I’ve had a number of young girls come to me with underlying body image, and self esteem issues that manifest in the form of social anxiety. A female identifying client was stuck in an abusive relationship because she was grateful to her partner for thinking she was beautiful enough to be with him. Because she felt she had no other options, she endured years of abuse.
3. Holding oneself back in life
A female identifying client, who was raised by a strict grandmother, found it incredibly hard to make friends or talk to boys in college. She felt that the value system and the restricted exposure that was mandated as part of her upbringing left her inferior to her peers. Her acute self doubt, feelings of inferiority and fear of being ridiculed left paralysed in social situations. We worked endlessly towards compassion towards self, self esteem building and learning to identify, sit and process the different emotions and thought spirals that she would get stuck in in such situations.
I believe that once we learn to sit with situations that bring us distress long enough to unpack the actual emotions we are feeling, we are further able to understand the origin of the thoughts and experiences that lead us to feel that distress. Once identified, we can work on engaging ourselves with dialogue that helps open up different kinds of perspectives to help us down a different and healthier path in life.