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What do social anxiety and vulnerability have in common?

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Vulnerability is not a universal concept. The concept has been defined in different ways by various disciplines. For example, in computer sciences, vulnerabilities refer to flaws in a computer system that weaken the overall security of the system or device. In disaster management, vulnerability is defined as the inability to resist a hazard or to respond when a disaster has occurred. In social sciences, vulnerability is the potential for harm or loss.  

When reading these definitions, I can’t help but to think that vulnerabilities are bad things no human being would ever want as they involve a lack of security, risk management, and potential harm and loss. One thing I know about human beings is that we don’t like to lose. As I reflect on this, I can’t help but to also wonder if vulnerabilities are inherent in the human condition. Is it truly possible to completely shield ourselves from threats and hazards and always win in life? Given the state of the world as we know it today, it seems fair to conclude that vulnerabilities are part of the human experience.

Anyone who has accessed mental health therapy would know that therapy is not easy because it requires that we expose our struggles and shortcomings to another person – our vulnerabilities. But what happens when our vulnerabilities are exposed and we don’t suffer any great loss, security breach, or hazard as a result? What do we make of this experience? Perhaps, having vulnerabilities is not so bad after all.

Is it safe to choose vulnerability?
In the human realm of existence, vulnerability and fear in social situations share one thing in common. They both require the experience or a felt sense of safety in the body. Safety can be triggered in the autonomic nervous system in various ways. It could be a verbal agreement to do no harm, a warm smile, a soft gaze and tone of voice, or a relaxed posture, to name a few. One thing to highlight is that this wonderful state of being safe regardless of our vulnerabilities to threats is built-in and available within all of us. That is to say that we were all born with a nervous system that can do this!

When we feel safe and at home inside ourselves, it is easier to connect, be authentic about who we are, and honor the differences within ourselves and others. It is also easier to relate to ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. In this state, we are able to set our judgments aside and fully accept ourselves and others for all that we are.

What if I’m so anxious around others, I just can’t let go?
Accessing the experience mentioned above can seem elusive when we spend most of our time dealing or managing stressful events, arguing with our loved ones, being micromanaged or ignored both at work and at home. In these instances, it is understandable that the protective parts within us are working overtime to help us survive and exist in the world.

This challenge can be further exacerbated by the way we think. For example, people who struggle with anxiety in social situations or being vulnerable with others, tend to overestimate how likely it is that something bad will happen such as making a bad impression or saying something embarrassing. They also tend to overestimate how bad it will be.

How do I change my mental narrative then?
If we tell ourselves that no one can ever see our weaknesses or shortcomings, it will be very difficult to feel at ease in the presence of others and experience an authentic moment of connection. This thought alone has the power of keeping us stuck in a state of survival and self-protection.

Instead of this, you can try telling yourself more compassionate statements such as: “We all have strengths, blind spots, and weaknesses. Perfectionism is not the key to meaningful connection and success. If something bad happens, I will recover from it.”

Having said this, depending on your life situation, not every social setting will be a safe place to expose our vulnerabilities. Being able to discern this accurately is an important life skill to develop. For folks who have faced oppression and racism for a long time, this process of opening up might take a little longer and require more support and skillful discernment.

And what else can I do to tackle social anxiety?
Another strategy that might help you work on your fear of vulnerability or anxiety in relatively safe social situations would be to identify and practice regularly accessing a sense of safety inside your body. What gets you there? What takes you out of this state in your daily life? What helps you be in this experience for an extended period of time? When we have some awareness of the shifts in our bodies, it becomes easier to work with them and not against them.

As a closing remark, I want to say that the process of change is not linear and as such, there is no simple way or prescriptive step-by-step method of engaging in more meaningful social interactions as this varies from person to person. I invite you all to become curious about the armor you carry and show kindness and compassion for all it has done for you. Change begins with self-compassion, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

If you find yourself struggling with vulnerability and social anxiety, you can access our programs by visiting our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace.

 

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.