Explaining your struggles with social anxiety disorder to family or friends is a difficult, and often times impossible task. As with anything there are more effective ways than others to explain the condition so that the other person understands. I have decided to create a step-by-step checklist of things to do which may increase the other person’s receptiveness towards your explanation. This checklist is by no means perfect, and it is impossible to create a checklist that works for everyone because each situation is unique. But, if you follow these guidelines, you should in general see better responses to what you are trying to explain.
- Gauge the likelihood the family member/friend will listen to what you are saying. On a scale of 1-10, consider in your mind how likely it is that you think the other person will listen and attempt to understand you, instead of dismissing your social anxiety disorder, or interrupting you and trying to fix it right away. Some of us live in families where we know that any talk of any personal issue will only result in judgment and disapproval. In this case, it is impossible for you to explain things so that you will be heard. In some cases, you might not be sure, and may gauge a level of 4-7 for receptiveness. In other words, sometimes your family member/friend can listen and hear what you are saying, but sometimes they don’t tend to hear what you are saying as well. If you are pretty confident that your family member/friend will listen and understand (a score of 8 or better), then go ahead and take the risk!
- Avoid the words social anxiety disorder altogether. When you start labeling yourself, you begin to put a distance between yourself and others. People will back away and think you’re “different” or “have a problem.” Not knowing how else to deal with it, they will naturally back away and keep a personal distance from you. Instead of explaining that you have a mental condition called social anxiety disorder, explain that you are “stressed out” by certain situations such as interacting with others in groups or at parties, or talking in front of a class. Or, maybe it stresses you out to leave the house and meet a friend for lunch. People who don’t have social anxiety disorder can often relate to these fears, as they are common among all people (it’s just that the fear is a little stronger than usual in people with social anxiety disorder). Explain also that it takes a lot of mental energy for you to get out and interact with others, and while you enjoy interacting with other people, you are a person who prefers time alone too.
- Avoid portraying interaction with other people as an annoyance or inconvenience in your life. When you get right down to it, people with social anxiety disorder want to interact with others too, although not as much as other people might prefer. If you start discussing how much of an inconvenience other people are in your life, this will make you look like you have a negative attitude to others, and other people will dismiss you or try to avoid you. Your family members/friends will be confused by what you are saying and will want to try to “fix” that attitude. This will only further isolate you from others, which you already know that you don’t want. Since the truth is that you really want to interact with other people to some degree but that it conversely stresses you out, be truthful about it. Tell your family member/friend that you would like to interact with others more, but that it is too stressful and overwhelming right now.
- Keep in mind that you are one of many people who finds social situations stressful. Do not focus on how you are different from other people. If, when explaining your fears to a family member or friend, you keep focusing on how different you are from other people, you will essentially be isolating yourself from others even more. People will only think about what it is that makes you different, why you are different, and how to “cure” or “fix” your being different. Instead, keep focusing on the fears that make you the same as other people, as even people without social anxiety disorder have many of the same fears as people who do have social anxiety disorder. Keep the focus on how you can explain your fears so that they make sense to the other person. Even people who have been in the public speaking industry for many years continue to get somewhat nervous before their presentations.
- Explain to your family member/friends what you are doing right now to make your situation better. People respond much better to someone who is being proactive about your situation. When you tell others that you are staying home all the time and watching television or playing video games, then it is much harder to have sympathy for that person. Tell them that even though you are afraid of going to parties or hanging out with groups of people, you still are joining the Pro-Gun Club on campus (or whatever your interest might be). People have respect for people who are afraid to do certain things, but instead are challenging themselves to do those things that terrify them. The word for people who do that is courageous. And even though you may not succeed, you are still respectable for having put forth the effort.
- Explain to your family member/friends examples of things they say which are not helpful. You might have a parent who says, “Why don’t you go out more often?” Explain to them that this makes you feel anxious, ashamed, and guilty and that it makes you feel like going out less often. Or, you might have a friend who says, “Just go up and talk to her. What’s the big deal?” Explain to him that this again makes you feel anxious, ashamed, and guilty and that you are simply afraid of saying the wrong thing and failing. Always provide the feelings that are provoked by what your family member/friend says, and if something they say is not helpful, provide them with something they can say that will be helpful.
- Explain to your family members/friends what it is that they can do to help. In general, people are trying to help others, and we social anxiety sufferers are all-too-familiar with people who are trying to help, but end up making mostly a negative impact on our lives. Explain to your friend that it would be helpful if he/she went to you with a party and introduced you to other people because that is a very challenging situation for you. Explain to your family member that you may want to find a new job because the one where you work now involves too much interaction with people and stresses you out. Explain things that they can say to you which are helpful. Maybe your friend could be helpful by telling you how much other people enjoyed your company the other night, but remind him or her to not exaggerate because you will pick up on that and feel ashamed and embarrassed. Maybe your parent could help by sharing their experience with jobs they worked at, which would help you make your decision about which jobs might work well for you.
In sum, these are some tips and techniques that you can use to improve the likelihood that other people will understand what you are saying and respond to you in a positive manner. However, as noted at the beginning of the article, keep noted that there are no guarantees – this is a RISK that you are taking! It may or may not work out, depending on the unique circumstances of the situation. The reason that you want to take the risk is that it will help to improve your relationships with family members and friends. They’ll understand you better, and this improved relationship will help you to get better from your social anxiety disorder!