Some Ways Modern Society Is Better Than Ever For Socially Anxious, Awkward, Non-mainstream People
This piece doesn't have any practical advice in it. I'm just sharing some thoughts I have.
In another article I went over some ways I think current society can sustain people's social anxiety and awkwardness. But I don't want to give the impression I believe our modern culture is all bad, and that there was some non-existent Golden Era where everyone was socially adjusted and confident. Every period has its positives and negatives. In many ways it's never been a better time to be someone who struggles socially, whether it's because you're shy and insecure, or because you don't fit into the norm. I'll cover some of these cultaral shifts below. But first, two disclaimers:
- This article is positive, but I'm not naive or willfully ignorant. I realize that while things have improved in some ways, we still have a long way to go. I'm not clueless enough to think all our problems are solved, and that everyone who's shy or different these days gets to live an easy life full of love and support.
- I'm talking about Western cultures, because that's where I live, though some of the points I cover apply to other parts of the world.
Greater acceptance of mental health issues
Compared to even a few decades ago, the average person is more accepting of mental health struggles. In the past people were likely to see anxiety and depression as a weakness, character flaw, or sign someone was "crazy". Now the odds are better they think of mental illnesses as fairly common conditions that make peoples' lives harder, but doesn't negatively define everything about them.
This change in attitudes means:
- a) If someone is personally struggling with social anxiety, they're more likely to accept it and take steps to deal with it, rather than get down on themselves and try to hide it.
- b) If someone has a family member, friend, or colleague with social anxiety, they're likelier to offer emotional and practical support, rather than shame and stigmatize them.
Greater knowledge of mental health issues
Aside from being more accepting, your average person these days is more knowledgeable about mental health. They can't quote criteria from the DSM-V, but they have a basic awareness of what conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are. It's not like in past generations where someone might have had an aunt who "got in these moods and had to go to upstate for a few months to recover".
- If someone's own mental health starts to falter, they're more likely to recognize what's going on and get support ("I've lost interest in my hobbies and I'm not sleeping well. Hm, I may be getting depressed. I'll make an appointment with my doctor.")
- If someone has a friend who's showing symptoms of a mental illness, they're likelier to recognize what's going on and urge them to get help.
- If someone's friend, co-worker, etc. tells them they have a mental illness, they're likelier to already have some sense of what it entails, and be supportive and accommodating ("Oh yeah, my cousin has social anxiety too. Her friends all know to cut her some slack if she's not feeling up to going to a big party.")
Greater acceptance and knowledge of developmental differences, like being on the autism spectrum
The same progress about mental health issues applies to developmental / brain wiring differences like "high-functioning" autism / Asperger's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In the past if someone had heard of autism at all they probably just had a vague notion that someone with it was mentally disabled. If someone told their co-workers they struggled to get their tasks done because their ADHD brain made it harder for them to focus, everyone would think they were making excuses for being lazy and undisciplined.
Nowadays if you tell someone you have Asperger's they're more likely to understand that while you have some difficulties with socializing, it doesn't mean you're totally unable to function as a person. They may even cut you some slack if you, say, have trouble making eye contact, or correct them on a pointless technicality, or whatnot.
Increased availability of mental health and social skills self-help resources
Self-help books for social skills and anxiety have been around for a while. The well-known title How To Win Friends And Influence People was first published in 1936. Hope And Help For Your Nerves, which goes into how to generally treat anxiety, came out in 1962, and I see people recommending it today.
However, these days there's more free or low-cost self-material available than ever. There are websites like this one. There are YouTube channels and podcasts. There are tons of quality books available in local libraries. Anyone who's struggling with social anxiety or who wants some advice on making conversation has plenty of sources to turn to.
There are also more ways for people to access traditional mental health resources. For example, more and more therapists are offering services through video chat, email, or texting, which can reach people who aren't able to do in-person therapy for one reason or another.
Established, researched treatments for social anxiety
Counselors and researchers have been developing and studying therapies for Social Anxiety Disorder since at least the early 1980's. They've found Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is effective. That kind of counseling focuses on learning to challenge the kinds of counterproductive thoughts and beliefs that sustain anxiety, along with facing your fears in a systematic, manageable way. (Many of the articles on this site draw on CBT concepts.)
Is CBT perfect? No. It doesn't work 100% of the time. Nothing does. But studies have shown that when socially anxious counseling clients go through a proper CBT program three quarters of them will have a meaningful reduction in their symptoms. What this means is that if you have social anxiety and walk into a good therapist's office, or pick up a quality, evidence-based self-help book on the topic, you're going to learn concepts with a proven track record.
And while the core pieces of CBT for social anxiety are established, the treatment is always open to new ideas and developments to make it even more useful (nowadays it's not rare to see CBT programs that teach some emotion tolerance tools from Dialectical Behavior Therapy and mindfulness concepts from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
Upcoming treatments that may make therapy even more effective
For example, in the near future someone with more-severe social anxiety may be able to download a VR app that lets them get used to scary social situations in a totally safe environment. That could be the stepping stone they need to work toward facing their fears in real life.
Greater acceptance of different interests, values, and lifestyles
If you talk to people who grew up in the 1970's or 1980's who were into things like computers or fantasy novels, they don't paint a very rosy picture. They describe living in closed-minded communities where anyone who wasn't into sports, cars, and drinking was an outcast. These days some interests still have more social cachet than others, but it's much, much more accepted that plenty of people have hobbies like playing role-playing games or reading science fiction. The term "geek" used to be much more pejorative. Now people are more likely to use it as a neutral or positive way to describe themselves.
The internet makes it easier than ever to find your "people"
In the past if you were the only person in your small town with an idiosyncratic hobby or a different perspective on life, you were mostly out of luck. You may have had no one to pursue your interests with. It may even have been hard to simply find someone who wouldn't scoff at you if you told them what you believed. At best you might have had the option of driving two hours to a nearby city to find some like-minded friends.
Nowadays you can find a community for any niche interest or worldview on the internet. You may not be able to meet with everyone in person, but you can still talk about your hobbies or beliefs, or watch videos of other people discussing it, and generally not be made to feel like a weirdo.
Less bigotry toward racial and sexual minorities
Like I said in the disclaimer, I know things are faaaaaaar from perfect, but in North American and Europe at least, things are getting better for ethnic and sexual minorities. The interpersonal angle is that people have a higher risk of developing social anxiety and insecurities if they've been rejected or bullied. These days there are more non-white or LGBT kids who aren't being ostracized as they grow up. There are more and more stories of, say, a 13-year-old coming out as a lesbian and everyone in their life being totally supportive.
More efforts to prevent bullying
Childhood bullying can leave its victims socially anxious, insecure, and distrustful as adults, even if the abuse "only" consisted of insults. Schools are much less tolerant of it than they used to be. Overall, parents are less likely to have a "Don't tattle, suck it up, punch them back" attitude. If a kid tells a teacher they're being picked on, there's a half-decent chance the school will put a stop to it.
New ways to communicate with people
There are more ways than ever for people to talk to each other. They can send texts and emails, chat over video, talk over a headset while playing games, leave comments on each other's social media posts, and so on. These new methods may open up opportunities that weren't available before. For example, someone may have a hard time expressing themselves in person, but be articulate and witty when they send texts. Yes, those same mediums may also have downsides (texting can be a way to avoid talking to people face to face or over the phone). However, most societal changes aren't all good or all bad. This article is focusing on the positives.