Just about four years ago I wrote an article titled “For all the Christian introverts out there.” It was about the pitfalls of being an introverted Christian in a culture with an “Extrovert Ideal.” Apparently it struck a chord with quite a few readers, as it ended up on Converge’s Top 10 Articles of 2014 list.
What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that not only do I struggle with being introverted in a culture that highly values extroversion—I also struggle with social anxiety. The Social Anxiety Institute defines social anxiety (SA) as “the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.”
Looking back, I equated any and all symptoms of SA with introversion, mistaking the two. While it is true that introverts are more likely to be socially anxious, extroverts can experience it as well. I can remember feeling that there was something “wrong with me,” but attributed it to simply needing to accept myself more as an introvert in an extroverted culture. While that was a valuable, worthwhile, and helpful conclusion, I now know so much more than I did back then.
What I have learned is that social anxiety is estimated to affect about 7% of the U.S. population, currently around 15 million American adults, making it one of the most common mental illnesses of our day. And yet, for years I had no idea what I was struggling with.
I had become so good at automatically avoiding or internally withdrawing from the situations that caused me anxiety that I hardly ever felt anxiety-like symptoms: racing heart beat, nausea, sweating, shaking, blushing, etc. All I knew was that even though I cared about people and wanted to be in relationship with others, I usually felt much more comfortable either being by myself, or being with people that I already knew and were comfortable with.
To put it simply, I was controlled by my anxiety to act in ways that would minimize any symptoms before I even felt them.
That is the life-altering influence that social anxiety can have on a person. I am one of those people. Maybe you are, too.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned since the last article I wrote four years ago, which I think every socially anxious Christian needs to know:
1. Your feelings of anxiety around people do not change your standing with God.
Condemnation and judgment from other people does not equal condemnation from God. Jesus came to give us the final word on our standing before God for those who believe in what He did for us on the cross. (Romans 3:21-26). His verdict, you ask? Not Guilty. Forgiven. Loved Unconditionally. Regardless of what anyone else says or does to you. And as we are freed from fearing other people’s rejection of us, we will often find that we internalize the words or actions of others in ways far deeper than they ever intended. Our own fear and insecurity that they are right about us develops shame and intensifies our pain.
2. Self-rejection comes back to bite you.
Self-rejection and condemnation instigates and reinforces negative thought patterns. Over time, repeating these thought patterns makes those neural pathways increasingly stronger, to the point where they begin to become automatic. The Bible tells us, “Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life” (Proverbs 4:23 NCV). Be on guard against beating yourself up.
3. Perfectionism and comparison kills.
God wants you to be content with who He made you to be. Having unattainable standards for yourself, and trying to be just like someone else who you think is “better” than you, steals your joy and peace. Stop striving, and start abiding (Matthew 11:28-29, John 15:4). And remember, everyone out there is insecure about something—nobody has attained perfection.
4. Self-focus leaves you paralyzed.
Focusing on your inner experience of extreme self-consciousness and fear only serves to keep you trapped inside of it all. Find ways to get outside of your head and focus on your immediate, external surroundings. This helps you to engage in what’s going on around you, rather than getting caught up in overanalyzing. Seeking to love and serve those around you in whatever way you are able to brings you closer to the abundant life that Jesus promises (John 10:10).
5. You can trust God with your social anxiety.
Embracing the journey that God has laid before you, though oftentimes on roads we would not have chosen for ourselves, is what reveals our trust in the God who “works all things for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). The Bible says that when we do not try to work on our own behalf, “but trust God who justifies the wicked, [our] faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). God loves to do what we cannot do or change in ourselves, because that is when He gets all the glory.