Your Social Anxiety And Awkwardness Are Not Your Fault

If you struggle with social anxiety, or feel you're socially awkward, I bet you're very hard on yourself. One way that can show up is you believe it's your fault you're anxious or have social problems in the first place. You may never have officially thought about it, but on a gut, unconscious level you assume you've brought these issues on yourself - that you have them because you're weak and stupid or did something wrong.

The fact is you didn't choose to be this way. Really, why would anyone sign up for what you're going through? Who would volunteer to have their relationships hobbled by nerves, self-doubt, or less-polished people skills?

Maybe just reading those opening paragraphs was enough to make you think, "Yeah, that's right... I'm going through life as if my anxiety is my fault, but why would it be? Of course I'm not to blame for it." Will that realization profoundly reshape your life? No. But it may make you go a tiny bit easier on yourself from now on, and every little improvement adds up. Read on if you need a bit more convincing.

A mix of factors set your anxiety and social problems in motion, and they all happened while you were too young to do much about it. I won't cover all of them, but here are the main ones:

Inborn factors

It's not your fault if you naturally have a more anxious, inhibited, sensitive temperament

All humans have the ability to detect threats and become anxious in response. As awful as it can feel, anxiety serves a purpose and can keep us out of danger. However, some of us are born with an anxiety/stress system that can be set off more easily. We can have strong, unpleasant physical and mental reactions to things that aren't particularly threatening. We may generally have a cautious, inhibited, "slow to warm up" approach to the world.

It's not your fault if you have a lower drive to be social

Some people have a built-in desire to spend a lot of time around others, and get bored and lonely fairly quickly if they're on their own. Other people love their alone time. They still appreciate quality time with friends, but don't need as much of it. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying your own company, but practically it can cause you to get less social practice and experience as you're growing up. Then, as an adult you might not feel as sure of yourself in some social situations.

It's not your fault if you have a developmental difference, like being on the autism spectrum, that makes socializing more difficult

People on the autism spectrum aren't completely incapable of socializing, and can get much better with practice, but the condition does make it harder for them. They have less ability to intuitively grasp unwritten social rules. They can have trouble reading non-verbal communication. This article goes into way more detail about the many other effects it can have.

Childhood experiences

It's not your fault if you received negative messages about yourself at an age where you were too young to question them

Children don't have much ability to critically analyze the messages they get about themselves. Instead they can accept them unquestionably. For example, a kid with demanding, perfectionistic parents, or who was picked on in school, may develop a deep sense that they're shameful and defective, or that other people are cruel and rejecting. Children can even draw negative conclusions about themselves from events that have nothing to do with them (e.g., deciding they're unlovable because their father works long hours to pay the bills and can't be around very often). These old beliefs and insecurities can be hard to shake as an adult, even if you logically know they're not accurate.

It's not your fault if you had some particularly memorable, embarrassing social experiences when you were young

Some people can trace their social anxiety back to a specific, extra-scarring incident or two, like peeing their pants in class and having everyone laugh at them. Again, these experiences can create a stubborn sense that the social world is scary, or that you're flawed, even though you might know on an intellectual level they shouldn't affect you as much as they do.

It's not your fault if you were teased, picked on, or bullied

Kids can be horrible jerks to each other. They may single someone out over something they have no control over, like being skinny, belonging to a different race, or having crooked teeth. They may make one kid the class scapegoat for seemingly no reason at all. Bullies may select victims who are small and weak for their age and can't simply "fight back". Being picked on can damage your self-esteem and create a lasting sense of fear, distrust, and resentment toward certain types of people.

It's not your fault if you had a personality and interests that didn't fit in with your peers

Many kids have mainstream interests, like sports, that they share with their classmates. They have an easy time making friends and finding acceptance. Kids with quirkier personalities or more-esoteric hobbies have it harder. They may be rejected for being the way they are, or develop a lingering sense that there's something off about them for not coming from the same mold as everyone else. If they're lucky they can find a few like-minded friends, and not feel totally alone.

It's not your fault if you went through a difficult childhood experience that disrupted your social development

For example, if a child's mother suddenly passes away, they may be so shocked and grief stricken that they withdraw from their peers and miss a year or two of social experience. Years later they may still feel a step or two behind everyone in their people skills.

It's not your fault if you had anxious, awkward, or overprotective parents who instilled an unhelpful social style in you

Maybe your dad had social anxiety and unintentionally modelled for you that other people were scary, and that avoidance was an acceptable response to feeling nervous. Or maybe your mom could be tactless and abrasive, and that became your default way of talking to people. As a kid you just absorb many of the lessons your parents teach you, and have nothing better to compare them to.

Whatever combination of factors affected your genes or childhood, you didn't choose any of them. You didn't ask to be the kid who was quiet and cautious since they were a toddler. You didn't ask to have an emotionally abusive family who shredded your self-esteem. You didn't ask to have parents who couldn't afford to buy you the newest clothes, and so you got picked on for being poor. I could go on and on with these examples.

Like I wrote earlier, I hope by pointing out that your social problems aren't your fault you'll be that little bit more nice and compassionate to yourself.

Though while it's not your fault you currently have a hard time with social situations, this article isn't to say you should give up and be a self-pitying victim. It's not fair that a set of circumstances outside your control led you to become shy and awkward, but you can do something about it going forward. It takes work, but social anxiety can be reduced. You can practice and improve your communication skills. You can increase your self-confidence. The rest of this site is one resource of many that can help you.