Anxiety and overthinking are inextricably linked.
Broadly speaking, there are two common types of anxiety: Generalised Anxiety, and Social Anxiety.
Generalised Anxiety is partly characterised by overthinking, which often manifests in the form of speculating about everything that can possibly go wrong in the future – a preoccupation with “what if’s”.
The second type, Social Anxiety, involves overthinking too. The individual with social anxiety however, is constantly preoccupied by excessive speculation and imaginary scenarios about what other people think of them. Are they being judged, evaluated and perceived as “good enough”, and therefore worthy of acceptance?
This preoccupation with speculation and imaginary scenarios is only the start of a very pernicious process; it typically evolves and expands in problematic and unhelpful ways. Over time these speculations eventually coalesce into fully-fledged stories about what certain others think of them. To be more precise, individuals suffering with social anxiety are not as a rule preoccupied with what absolutely everyone they have ever encountered might think about them. Rather, people with social anxiety are acutely self-conscious in the context of others that they wish to be valued by; those whose acceptance is highly sought after.
Once these stories have been fleshed out with elaborate details, they start to assume qualities that resemble reality. This process is called “reification”. In other words, these stories are presumed to represent the truth about what others think of them; the individual with anxiety becomes convinced that the story or stories they have created, woven from the threads of their initial speculations, must therefore be true. This further affirms their belief that others see them as “not good enough”, and therefore not worthy of acceptance.
Overthinking: Am I Good Enough?
There are typically two responses to this predicament, and they usually occur in succession.
When the individual reaches the point of being convinced that they are “not good enough” (which is very common amongst people with social anxiety), they either become ingratiating in their attempt to please others, or they withdraw from all social interaction altogether, retreating into a coccoon of isolation and obscurity.
What typically happens, at least initially, is that the individual who now feels “not good enough”, desperately seeks the approval and acceptance of others. They try please everyone in a desperate bid to gain acceptance. One of the pitfalls of being a “people pleaser” is that it makes the individual much more vulnerable to being hurt; the reasons for this is both interesting and illuminating.
Understanding Social Anxiety
The pursuit of the acceptance of others is significantly correlated with an underlying desire and need to feel valued and/or appreciated. This means that one’s self-worth is not intrinsically constituted; rather, self-worth now becomes contingent on gaining approval and acceptance. The individual seeking acceptance becomes acutely self-conscious and significantly more sensitive to signs or “evidence” that they are perceived as “not good enough”.
And when others – especially those whose acceptance and approval is sought after – fail (usually unwittingly) to meet this need of making the individual feel valued or included, the result is hurt feelings. Interestingly, however the individual who feels hurt or discarded typically trivialises or disguises these feelings – because they can’t afford to complain or protest about how they perceive they have been treated. If they were open or explicit about their hurt feelings, the risk of rejection and humiliation increases significantly; the thought of rejection is unbearable. As a result, the individual with social anxiety appears to tolerate “exploitation” and/or “mistreatment’.
This pattern of pleasing is exhausting and needless to say, not sustainable. Not only that, it does NOT work.
The pursuit of approval and acceptance from others is essentially an attempt to gain a sense of self-worth, however this method for constituting a sense of one’s self-worth is fraught with insoluble problems.
Firstly, the pursuit of the acceptance of others is an inadequate substitute for the attainment of self-acceptance. In addition, seeking the approval and acceptance of others comes at a substantial cost. Due to the constant preoccupation with speculations and narratives (stories), the individual neglects their own personal development. Instead of giving shape and substance to theirs own identity, instead they are obsessed with anticipating the needs of others, in the hope of gaining their approval and acceptance. It is not uncommon for a person with social anxiety to “interpret” everything other people say and do as “evidence” demonstrating that they care or don’t care, as the case may be. This is of course a game that can never be won. because the things people say and do are typically vague and ambiguous, inviting misunderstandings and misinterpretations. It is for precisely this reason that individuals who relentlessly pursue external acceptance and approval are often described as “taking things personally”, and are thus more vulnerable to being hurt.
Most individuals, at some level, begin to realise that this method does not work. Because they don’t know what else to do, they typically withdraw from social interaction, sometimes having come to the conclusion that trying to care for others, and pleasing them, is pointless and that no one really cares anyway.
Once the individual has detached from social discourse they become isolated, which of course increases the risk of depression. However because evolution hardwired our brains for social connection, the individual, after recuperating from exhaustion, typically resumes the pernicious process of reconnecting with others by way of pleasing, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
Overthinking is the fuel that keeps this cycle in motion. In fact, overthinking means that individuals with social anxiety are highly attuned to the needs of others at the expense of opportunities for self-development. Hence they feel empty inside, not knowing in many cases who they are, what they stand for, and what they want to get out of life.
In this regard, I have developed a method for treating social anxiety. It involves applying a straightforward technique to overcome overthinking, which is derived from the writings of the philosopherm Donald Davidson. This is followed by a strategy, composed of several stages, for fashioning one’s own vocabulary of self-description. Creating one’s own vocabulary of self-description entails embarking on a project of self-creation. This is not a matter of becoming selfish or arrogant; to the contrary, it’s a matter of attaining self-acceptance.
For the person suffering from social anxiety, the attainment of self-acceptance repudiates the requirement to obtain permission from others to envisage and embody a life of fulfillment.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with adults, teenagers, children, couples and families, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of Brief Therapy and systemic Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.