Status and Social Anxiety

All of us aspire to advance our position in the society, as we derive a variety of advantages by having a higher status. Such benefits include greater influence, perceived competence as well as higher quality of life and well-being. The desire and potential for higher socioeconomic status motivates us to work hard for educational and career progress. 

This aspiration has an evolutionary basis. We exist today at the end of a long evolutionary line of people, only because our ancestors managed to form strong social groups and effectively used these communities to survive. Those who failed to secure group membership did not survive for long, lacking the resources and critical protection that the communities provided. 

Alain de Botton defines Status Anxiety as a nagging worry that we suffer from, about our status in our community. This anxiety results in persistent fearful feelings in us that we are in danger of falling short of the parameters of success as laid down by our own society. We constantly worry that we may be stripped of our dignity and respect. 

Nobody is completely immune to such an anxiety. Botton has an interesting take. He says “Even Bill Gateswill suffer from status anxiety. Why? Because he compares himself to his own peer group. We all do this, and that’s why, we end up feeling that we lack things, even though we’re so much better off than most people.”

Social anxiety is somewhat similar to Status Anxiety and occurs when we fear social situations in which we anticipate negative evaluation of us by others. We may also have a tendency to perceive that our presence will make others feel uncomfortable.

In psychiatry, anxiety disorders include Social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobias, and the like. Social anxiety disorder is the most common among all of these anxiety disorders. It is ranked, in comparison to all the other mental disorders, as one of the most common disorders, next only to depression and substance use disorder

According to authors Ferda Izgic, Gamez Akyuz, Orhan Dogan, & Nesim Kugu, there is an  increasing interest in Social anxiety because of the higher number of diagnosed cases leading to severe anxiety and depression. This is the reason why, Social anxiety has been included for the first time, as one of the psychiatric disorders within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Ellen Hendriksen, author of the book, ‘How to Be Yourself’, questions the general belief that socially anxious people mostly fear the negative judgment by others of their frailty. She clarifies that this is not really the case. The real fear or anxiety is that the judgment by outsiders may actually turn out to be right, thus exposing their hidden flaws. She calls this process as “The Reveal.” She writes “We think there is something wrong with us, and we avoid in order to conceal it. In our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass, we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.”  Thus, according to her, Social anxiety is a perception that there is something embarrassing or deficient about us and that unless we work hard to conceal or hide it, it will be revealed and then we will be judged or rejected as a result.

Feelings of insecurity and self-doubt often come and go throughout our life. While it’s perfectly natural to compare ourselves to others, overwhelming sense of inadequacy can be a sign of inferiority complex that is bound to create Social anxiety. The American Psychological Association describes inferiority complex as a “feeling of inadequacy and insecurity stemming from true or imagined deficiencies.” These perceived deficiencies can be physical or psychological and can lead to a range of negative behaviours such as severe timidness or excessive competitiveness or uncontrolled aggression.

The reasons why people develop inferiority complex include growing up in childhood with strong feelings of being under-valued, or being regularly compared unfavourably with other children or experiencing social exclusion during childhood etc.

Media in a variety of forms has thrived for a long time, by presenting glamorized and sanitised versions of lives of high status individuals. Unfortunately, such glamour does attract people to take notice with a mixture of envy and fascination. Fortunately for us, few decades ago, there was then a sense of separation, that these people were living in a different world from ours. This gave some protection from negative comparisons with the glitterati. Our social circles and peer groups made up of family members, co-workers and friends of similar social status to us, adequately provided a more realistic and grounded arena for status comparisons. 

However, in the current age of social media, the way we present ourselves to our immediate peers has come to resemble some of the glamorized and artificially curated forms of representation, which was once limited to only the rich and famous.

Social Media Use (SMU) has skyrocketed in modern society, especially among young adults. Research findings suggest that heavy SMU is likely to lead to Social anxiety and loneliness. Research indicates that socially anxious and lonely individuals appear to prefer and seek out online social interactions on social media.

The explanation is that socially anxious individuals take recourse to the Internet to regulate and compensate for their social fears. They perceive the Internet as a more comfortable platform for socialising rather than face-to-face. Many people may also be using social media excessively, so as to compensate for the lack of tangible social support in their personal physical world.

According to one estimate published in a BBC article, around three billion people, which is about 40% of the world’s population, use online social media. These people are spending an average of two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms.

Social media users more often than not project the best versions of themselves, and sometimes exaggerated images of themselves, because, they have full control over what other people can see and know about them.

Unfortunately, this results in making more than half of users of social media feel inadequate, according to a survey of 1,500 people conducted by disability charity Scope. Given the unrealistically boosted profiles in these media, half of the youngsters surveyed in the age group of 18 to 34 years, indicated that these sites made them feel unattractive.

A study of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and less confident. The researchers concluded: “When Facebook users compared their own lives with that of others who had seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they felt that their own lives are less successful in comparison.”

Exposure to such highly idealised representations of lives of others, generates feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead more happier and more successful lives. This  creates Social anxiety and unhappiness.

Social anxiety disorder emerges from a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, childhood experiences and unusual brain functioning. People have around 30 to 40 percent chances of developing this disorder if their parents have suffered from Social anxiety disorder.  

Research has identified specific genetic markers for Social anxiety. A gene called SLCGA4 is involved in the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical that can help soothe our nerves and stabilize our moods. Both shortage and excess of serotonin have been linked to Social anxiety symptoms. People with Social anxiety disorder have been found to struggle to produce serotonin consistently and without fluctuation.

“Spotlight Effect” is defined in psychology as the phenomenon where all of us tend to overestimate how much other people are noticing various aspects of our appearance as well as our behaviour. This kind of thinking, unfortunately, causes a lot of Social anxiety. While we may be worrying about what negative things others are noticing about us, in reality, these people are too preoccupied thinking about themselves. 

Research actually shows that we are inclined to think and speak about ourselves 78% of the time. Our brains are also wired to focus and think about ourselves when we are not otherwise engaged in other external activities.

Extensive research has confirmed the connection between negative parenting styles and anxiety disorders, including Social anxiety disorder. The behaviours of parents towards the children that cause real problems later include the following. Excessive control over them, tendency to quickly criticize them for everything, reluctance to show strong affection and finally giving excessive importance to the opinions of outsiders on their children. We need to realize that the child’s self-image and her impression of the world are bound to be shaped by the attitude, words and actions of her parents.

Thus, children and adolescents are likely to become more fearful and less trustful of other people, when they are raised in this kind of environment. Their self-esteem and self-confidence take a big hit due to inappropriate treatment by the parents.

Adolescence is the phase in life when a person begins to detach himself from his parents moving towards own socioeconomic position. It is also the time of significant changes in social behaviours. Adolescents are most vulnerable at this stage and can develop Social anxiety disorder very easily. Thus Social anxiety is common among adolescents with an estimated 5‐16% of them reaching clinical levels.

Social Anxiety, Shyness and Introversion.

Study published in the journal “PLos One” in the year 2020 shows that social phobia is on the rise globally. The survey of 7,000 individuals aged between 16 to 29 years drawn from seven different countries found that 36% respondents met the threshold criteria for having social anxiety disorder. 

An introvert is a person with qualities of a personality type known as introversion, which means that they feel more comfortable focusing on their own inner thoughts and ideas, rather than what is happening externally. 

There is one key difference between introversion and social anxiety. Introversion is a personality trait, not a mental health condition. Introverted people draw energy from within. They dedicate plenty of time to solitary pursuits. Relaxing and unwinding appeal to them. Thus, they prefer to make plans with themselves rather than with others.

Laurie Helgoe, is a clinical psychologist, educator and author of “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength”. She explains that “the introvert will be the one at a meeting who stays quiet much of the time and then when she speaks, she really has something to say. This is because introverts like to work a thought or problem through to completion before sharing a response.”

Introverts have the wonderful ability to sit down, pay attention and actually remember what others tell them. Even if only in appearance, introverts have the ability to exert extreme control over their emotions. In her New York Times best seller book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”,  Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts. 

Elias Aboujaoudewho is an expert on Anxiety disorders, distinguishes between Shyness and Introversion. He says “An introvert can be described as someone who requires alone-time to recharge, whereas a shy individual is someone who is often excessively preoccupied by other people’s perceptions and evaluations of him”.  

Psychiatry professor Asim Shah puts it: “Shyness is a form of anxiety. Introversion is not a form of anxiety.” Bill Gates is quiet and bookish, but apparently unfazed by opinions of others on him. Thus he is an introvert, but not shy.

We also need to realize that Social anxiety is different from shyness. Shyness can make socializing quite difficult, but it does not disrupt life to the same extent as Social anxiety. Social anxiety is persistent and overwhelming and may affect everyday activities, such as shopping for groceries.

Shyness is a feeling of nervousness or discomfort, usually caused by fear of social situations. Shyness is often linked to low self-esteem and is characterized by excessive self-consciousness, negative self-evaluation and negative self-preoccupation. These three characteristics of shyness require a sense of self. A sense of self does not begin to develop until about the age of 18 months, which suggests that we are not born with shyness. Research shows that shyness is influenced by social experiences, especially those with our parents. Overprotective parents make the children feel too shy and make the development of social skills more difficult for them. 

Social anxiety in kids starts between the ages of 8 and 15. Children can usually hide these feelings in the beginning and parents and teachers may not notice that anything is wrong.

Social anxiety may be experienced by them in small things like answering a question in the class or eating with friends in the cafeteria. They are scared of these kind of situations because they feel that they may accidentally do something embarrassing or offensive. 

The kinds of situations that can cause social anxiety in kids will be different for various kids.  One child might see her friends whispering and laughing which she will interpret negatively, as if her friends are laughing at her. Another child might want to ask the teacher a question but will refrain from it because she is afraid that the question may sound stupid.

Intense competition for higher status drives people to display conspicuous status symbols by way of expensive and branded goods. 

There is substantial evidence that status consumption, defined as the motivational process by which individuals strive to improve their social standing through the conspicuous consumption of consumer products that confer and symbolize status’ increases under conditions of greater income inequality.

Research indicates that people in more unequal societies spend more on status goods. They also work longer hours and tend to land into debt.

Women invest more time and attention in trying to enhance their appearance, again if they happen to live in economically unequal environments. These attempts to enhance their looks is driven by Status anxiety.

Research by scientists at the University of Melbourne, Australia, found that women assigned to economically unequal societies chose more revealing, sexy outfits for their first night. They did so because they were anxious about their social status.

Humility is the ability to both view ourselves accurately as individuals possessing certain appreciable talents but also as having some not-so-complimentary flaws. This accurate self-evaluation results in displaying behaviours that are devoid of arrogance but without compromising self-esteem. It is unfortunate that humility is not acknowledged as a wonderful and valuable trait that needs better appreciation.  

There is a wrong conception in some circles that people with humility have low opinion of themselves, have low self-esteem and also lack self-confidence. There is more than enough evidence that exactly opposite is the truth. 

A growing body of research suggests that people who are more humble tend to enjoy better physical and mental health than individuals who are less humble. Humble individuals have been found to have higher life satisfaction and self-esteem. This is coupled with less depression and less anxiety.

1 thought on “Status and Social Anxiety”

  1. Sir, very nicely written. The last point about humility is very timely and pertinent and puts the whole issue of social anxiety in perspective.

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