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Shying Away From Life

Dov Finkelstein, LCSW

Some of us feel a little self-conscious at times. But for some people, it becomes a real stumbling block, causing them to retreat into loneliness. What’s really behind this anxiety — and how to overcome it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Avigail is curled up on her sofa late at night, staring at the wedding invitation in her hand. She’s been thinking about this event ever since she first received the invite three weeks ago.

I’m going to make a complete fool out of myself if I go this chasunah, Avigail thinks. I don’t know anyone there. I’m going to sit there like a dummy and have nothing to say. And if someone talks to me, I’ll probably say the wrong thing. Then my face will turn bright red and everyone will stare.

Most of us are a little nervous about meeting strangers or being in uncomfortable social situations. But for some people, that nervousness becomes a crippling fear, causing them to withdraw into loneliness. They worry constantly about being watched, judged, and criticized in social situations. When self-consciousness and shyness rise to this excessive, intense level, it’s called Social Anxiety Disorder, or “social phobia.” Of all the anxiety disorders, social phobia is the most common, affecting up to 13 percent of the population.

At the root of all worry is a reaction to some threat. With social interactions, however, there is no real danger or risk beyond the possibility that the other person might react negatively. So why is the mere chance of that happening enough to provoke long bouts of worry and, at times, a full-fledged panic attack?

The reason behind this seemingly irrational behavior is that social relationships are almost as essential (or perhaps even more essential in some ways) to a person’s sense of well-being as is physical safety. Social science surveys have shown that people say they’re happiest when in the company of friends and family. When asked to list pleasant, mood-boosting activities, people commonly respond, “Being with happy people,” “Having people show interest in what I say,” and “Being with friends.”

People even need others in order to fully enjoy their own good fortune. The Acharonim teach us that even if a person could go to the heavens and see the angels, he would not fully enjoy this great vision until he came back down to earth and shared it with his friends.

Social relationships also have a strong impact on one’s sense of self. A person who feels respected by society feels more confident; conversely, a lack of respect from others can send one’s self-esteem plummeting. The Alter of Slabodka said that it’s impossible for a person to live without any feelings of self-respect, and if there were a way to completely remove a person’s self-respect, that person would die. Chazal, understanding the human need for social acceptance, even likened the punishment of cherem (social exclusion) to a death sentence.


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