Can Social Anxiety and Unshakable Self-Confidence Co-Exist?

Can social anxiety and unshakable self-confidence co-exist? 

Do they even belong in the same sentence?

Social anxiety or social phobia by definition is caused by the fear of being judged or evaluated by others, or the fear of embarrassing oneself. It follows a pattern of behaviors such as nervousness in social settings, avoiding being the center of attention or avoiding eye contact. One would conclude that such a person would lack self-confidence, and even more so, ‘unshakeable’ self-confidence.

There are varying degrees of anxiety symptoms and how they are exhibited. Some are emotional and some are behavioral. They include nervousness, sweaty palms, blushing and nervous stomach, or avoiding social settings all together and/or buffering with food or alcohol to tame the anxiety. These symptoms can become overwhelming and become a real barrier for people in many areas of their lives.

Social anxiety is very common, affecting as many as 15 million Americans. Yet, fewer than 5% of people seek help.

As an introvert coach, I often hear from my clients, their stories related to social anxiety (and just to be clear, shyness, introversion and social anxiety are not synonymous. They each mean different things). What I often do, is start by normalizing their experience.

Anxiety, in general, is something all of us experience from time to time. In spite of our innate need for human connection, social anxiety is a very common human experience. Most people experience some anxiety, particularly in unfamiliar situations. 

A lot of people eat or drink to avoid feelings of discomfort and exhibit similar behavior, without the label or diagnosis. In fact, many people seek coaching when they want help in changing certain limiting beliefs, negative feelings (which often include anxiety),  and behaviors, so they can be free to move forward.

Yet, I find that some people have difficulty opening up about it. Partly because they don’t like the label, it feels slightly negative to them, it can make them feel boxed in or pathologizing their symptoms or discomfort. The perception of ‘social anxiety’ may bring up images of someone living under a rock, paralyzed by fear and they do not want to be perceived that way. I’ve been told it sounds too 'clinical'. But a great deal of people that experience social anxiety, live normal, high functioning lives and only experience social anxiety in certain situations.

I find it interesting that people don’t seek help because social anxiety is highly treatable with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (it worked wonders for me!). CBT deals with cognitions and behaviors. And while coaching is not therapy, we often spend a great deal of our time examining unproductive cognitions and behaviors.

So the question is, can a person with social anxiety have self-confidence? The answers are yes and yes. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Confidence is not omnipresent. Meaning, confident people don’t experience confidence all of the time, everywhere in their lives.
  2. Confidence is not the absence of fear, nervousness and anxiety. Confident people also experience these things.
  3. We are not born with lack of confidence. It is a learned behavior often shaped by our upbringing, environment and life experiences. Whatever we learn, we can unlearn.
  4. Confidence is a set of skills that can be practiced and learned. The more we practice, the more confident we get.
  5. Our brains are highly evolved and we can be 100% responsible and in control of our cognitions and behaviors, even when it feels we have no control over them. We always have way more control than we think we do.
  6. Understanding and identifying our genetic predisposition, innate temperament toward introversion or extroversion or natural inclinations is not meant to box us in or pigeon hole us. It is a framework for us to examine and learn from. Our temperament does not determine our behavior. We determine our own behavior.

The goal with my clients, as I said before, is to normalize their experience. Then we avoid going into overwhelm by managing their cognitions, emotions and behaviors, through cognitive-behavioral coaching. We study and examine feelings closely and I give them a good understanding of how the brain works using concepts in neuroscience to help them understand what their brain is doing when they are experiencing their symptoms. 

We practice expanding their level of confidence in social settings through exposure to the anxiety-producing source. Finally, as the noise in their heads starts to lessen, and their confidence increases, we increase their capacity for self-confidence. 

Self-confidence is self-belief. Unlike confidence, it is not created by learning and mastering a skill, by former successes, innate talent or ability. It is less skill, more choice. It is a person’s ability to believe in themselves no matter what. It’s their ability to have their own back, even when others may not. It’s a personal and internal choice, that doesn’t require external validation.

If you feel powerless in your ability to handle challenges or are plagued with self-doubt, then you are relying on some lack of historical evidence of having mastery at something. Self-confidence comes from self acceptance. It comes from knowing we are all fallible human beings, equally, not separately. It comes from trusting in yourself and your ability to handle life’s challenges. It’s not a lie you tell yourself and it’s not arrogance, or pretending to be ‘better than’. That comes from fear and self-doubt, the opposite of self-confidence. 

Confidence tells us that confident manner (body language, eye contact, social skills, posture, facial expressions), confident thoughts, confident feelings, confident behavior, are present when we succeed, get better and master something.

Self-confidence has us generating these AHEAD of time. Ahead of success. Ahead of failures. 

Nothing "outside" of you, can give you self-confidence.

No amount of external success can give you the level of self-confidence you get from self-belief and trust in yourself.

You get to claim it.

Because you can.

This is when social anxiety meets unshakable self-confidence.

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