"I never feel at ease, whether it's on the job or at a family reunion. I'm always anxiety-ridden and worried that someone is looking at me, and I don't measure up. Whenever I have to make a team report at work, I get a lump in my throat and my mouth gets dry. Whenever I'm in a social setting, I feel self-conscious and insecure."
Ever felt that way? Do you know someone who does? Millions and millions of good-hearted people are in the grip of social insecurity. While it may not paralyze their relationships, it certainly suffocates their efforts. They may want to join a conversation but withdraw out of fear. Or, conversely, they may boldly enter in and then wish they hadn't. Their social insecurity makes relating to others often nerve-racking and sometimes painful.
Why do so many people suffer socially? Those in the know point to several predictable pitfalls. So before we delve into the ins and outs of becoming more socially competent, let's take a look at each of these pitfalls.
Pitfall #1: Comparing ourselves to others
"Loneliness and the feeling of being uncared for and unwanted are the greatest poverty." — Mother Teresa
"There is something not entirely displeasing in the misfortune of our close friends." The seventeenth-century French essayist who wrote these words must certainly have suffered from social insecurity. All decent human beings feel sorry when something bad happens to someone we care for, but for the insecure, another's misfortune is a means of feeling better about themselves.
What insecure people do not realize is that their very compulsion to measure their status against others is what is feeding their insecurity. With each comparison they diminish their potential to become intrinsically stronger and more stable on their own.
Now let's be honest: Everyone, no matter how healthy, occasionally pulls out the proverbial yardstick to compare their performance and their achievements to others'. It's only natural. But people entrenched in social insecurity are forever comparing themselves. It is their main means to feeling worthwhile—and that's why they rarely do.
Social comparison inevitable leads to feelings of bitterness. There will always be someone who has more than you, makes more than you, does better than you, and feels better than you. Always. Still, some choose to torture themselves by comparing themselves to others, and the result is hollow vanity at best but most likely feelings of inferiority.
Pitfall #2: Shyness
"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less." — Matthew 5:5, The Message
It is a nearly universal human trait. Most everyone has bouts of shyness and half of all people describe themselves as shy. Perhaps because it is so widespread and it conveys a sense of vulnerability, shyness can be viewed as endearing. Princess Diana, for example, garnered countless admirers with her "Shy Di" manner. There is nothing inherently wrong with shyness—not until a person feels imprisoned by it. Once shyness engenders excessive self-consciousness, to the point of preventing connections, it crosses a dangerous line.
Harvard researcher Jerome Kagan has shown that by eight weeks of age, babies display innate shyness or boldness. Yet, many shy babies become gregarious ten-year-olds and some outgoing babies become shy adults. This tells us that while a genetic predisposition plays a role in our timidity, shyness need not cripple our relationships.
There are many steps the shy can take to develop satisfying relationships without violating their basic nature, but when people categorically dismiss the possibility of social competence because of their shyness, they are making a big mistake. This will inevitably lead to a level of shyness that borders on social phobia where they will barely utter a sentence without obsessing over the impression they are making.
Pitfall #3: Sensitivity to criticism
"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
No matter how hard you work, how great your ideas, or how wonderful your talent, you will be the object of criticism. Even the perfect motives of Jesus were often misunderstood, resulting in malicious criticism. No one is exempt. And how you respond to criticism will play a major role in your sense of security.
Consider Walt Disney. He was bankrupt when he went around Hollywood with his little "Steamboat Willie" cartoon idea. Can you image Disney trying to sell a talking mouse with a falsetto voice in the days of silent movies? Disney's dreams were big, and he had plenty of critics. People closest to him, however, believe Disney thrived on criticism. He was said to have asked ten people what they thought of a new idea, and if they were unanimous in their rejection of it, he would begin work on it immediately.
A single critical comment, for many, is enough to shut down all sources of creativity. Few among us actually thrive on it like Walt did. But on the other end of the continuum are those whose sensitivity to criticism creates a social stalemate. They stymie all progress for fear of someone saying critical. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have been so sensitive to criticism that he withheld the publication of a paper on optics for fifteen years, until his main critic died.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Henry Bayard Swope once noted: "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: Try to please everybody." The people who are overly sensitive to criticism are trying to do just that.
No wonder they feel socially insecure.