Telling People You Have Social Anxiety
If you have social anxiety, either an official diagnosis or just a sense that you get really nervous around people, you may be wondering if you should tell anyone. You think it might help, but also worry about getting a bad reaction. This article will look at some of the factors that go into that decision, and go over some strategies for letting people know. It's about possibly telling new acquaintances, friends, partners, or family - people you know in your day-to-day life. I won't get into talking to teachers or employers, which is a bit different.
(As an aside, this article make references to things like telling friends or romantic partners, or being nervous at parties. Some people may be thinking, "Wha? I thought social anxiety sufferers were all lonely and isolated. How would they get nervous at a party? They don't have any friends to invite them to one in the first place." Many people with social anxiety do have friends and relationships. The nerves they feel in social situations may be unpleasant, but not strong enough to completely keep them from away. That or they only get anxious in specific circumstances, and can function otherwise.)
Potential benefits of letting people know you get socially anxious
Each person's situation is unique. I'd never say everyone reading this should tell every last person they know about their anxiety tomorrow, but overall I think being open about your nerves can help in a lot of ways:
In general, the relief of knowing you don't have to keep your struggles with anxiety hidden
Many people with social anxiety are embarrassed they have it, and think it makes them weak or unlikable. It can be exhausting to keep it a secret, to gut it out through conversations with friends and family while trying to seem calm on the surface, to have to constantly cook up excuses to get out of plans. When you let people know you take that weight off your shoulders. You still have to deal with the anxiety itself, but at least you don't have the extra burden of trying to hide it.
In specific interactions, the reduced pressure from not having to worry about concealing your nervousness
Social anxiety is about worrying you'll be rejected or humiliated in a social setting. That fear comes in two main forms: The first is that you'll embarrass yourself by making some sort of mistake or bad impression. The second is that your nervous symptoms themselves will make you a laughing stock - that you'll tremble, or blush, or throw up all over yourself. When you're talking to someone and you just put it out there that you're nervous you take charge of the situation and reduce that second type of worry. Yeah, people know you're anxious now, but at least you can deal with it then and there, rather than having the fear of being caught gnaw at you all evening.
Being able to clear up why you sometimes act the way you do
If your anxiety's been worse lately your friends or family may be asking why you're staying home more often, or turning down or cancelling on so many invites. New people may wonder why you seem quiet and distant, and think you're mad at them or stuck up. If you tell them anxiety is behind your behavior it fills them in on what's really going on, and keeps them from jumping to any false conclusions.
Understanding and emotional support
Many people are accepting and supportive when they learn someone has mental health struggles. If nothing else, it just feels good knowing at least a few people are aware of your situation, and that they don't judge you for it and will do their best to be there for you. It also feels nice when someone tells you they've had their own run ins with anxiety, and knows how it hard it can be.
A sense that now that you've told people it's time to take the next step and start doing something about the problem
When you're trying to keep your anxiety hidden you can put so much energy into that task that you don't even think about trying to get rid of it. Once you've told some people it can leave you with a feeling of, "Okay, the secret's out. My friends know I have this issue. I can't just hide in my room all day. So.... what am I going to do about it?"
Aside from giving purely emotional support, if your friends and family know about your social anxiety they may be happy to help in practical ways. Like if you tell them the main thing that sets you off is having to eat in front of people, they'll know to suggest plans other than going to restaurants. Or if you do end up at one, to not bug you if you don't order anything or finish your meal. It's not necessarily that they'll coddle and enable you forever so you never have to get over the issue, but at least know not to put you in stressful situations while you're figuring out the next step.
Access to paid support
If you're younger and are thinking of exploring therapy or medication, you may not be able to access those options until you tell your parents, and get their help with things like setting up appointments, paying for sessions, and tapping into their health coverage.
A way to screen for people who understand you can be anxious
If anxiety is a part of your life then you'll want to surround yourself with people who accept it. One way to screen for those kinds of people is to briefly mention your social anxiety when you first meet someone. If they seem fine with it you know you can be yourself around them, and that they could potentially be a closer friend down the road. If they don't take the news well, you quickly learned they're not compatible with you. (I know if you're currently really embarrassed about being socially anxious the idea of being so open about it and embracing rejection may seem unimaginable, but you can get to this headspace eventually).
Maybe indirectly helping other people
There may be other people in your life who are battling their own anxiety, or another mental health condition. When you're open about your struggles, you're showing them that they're not alone. You're also modelling that it's possible for someone to have mental health issues and not have to hide it.
Some considerations about whether you should tell people
So that's my case for why telling some people about your social anxiety may help. Of course, it's ultimately your call. Depending on your circumstances, it may be an option you can mull over and put off for a while, or something you may have to do soon, like it or not.
Factors that make telling more optional, or which may keep you from saying anything at all:
- Your anxiety isn't outwardly obvious
- No one has said anything about how you've been acting different lately
- Your anxiety is limited to one or two not-super-common or important social situations
- Your anxiety bothers you, but isn't horribly interfering with your life
- You have a sense anyone you tell wouldn't be supportive or understanding (although sometimes it's hard to trust your instincts here)
- You see having a mental health condition as shameful
Factors that may force your hand, or make you think, "I may as well":
- Your anxiety is really noticeable
- People have started commenting on your behavior (e.g., how you've backed out of a lot of plans lately)
- You get anxious in most social situations
- Your anxiety is more severe and really starting to limit you
- The people you want to tell are likely to be understanding and supportive
- You don't see mental health conditions as shameful
How to tell people about your social anxiety
Again, I know telling someone can feel like a big, scary step so it's totally normal to go back and forth about whether to do it. If you do get on board with the idea, the points below should give you some direction on how to do it. If you're still not convinced, the ideas and options I cover may help clarify your thinking.
Remind yourself you don't have to tell anyone
Telling someone is often helpful, but in the end it's your decision. Even if some people are asking why you've been so quiet or flakey lately, you're not obligated to give them an explanation. Even if your anxiety is really bad and many of your friends have already guessed what's going on, there's no law that says you have to say anything. Just knowing it's still your choice may make you more comfortable delivering the news.
Try to have a non-ashamed attitude about your anxiety
That is, try to hold the view that while your anxiety might be uncomfortable, and you're unhappy that it interferes with your social life, it doesn't make you an inherently bad person. You may not be able to develop this mindset in a day, but try your best to come around to it. It will feel easier to tell people about your anxiety if you don't think it says horrible things about you.
Try to examine and refute any fears you have about how people will respond
As you probably already know, being able to objectively examine your nervous thoughts is one of the key ways to handle anxiety. Try to question any worries you have about how people will act when you tell them about your social phobia. Here are a few examples:
"People will reject me if I tell them I have social anxiety" - Most probably won't, especially if you tell people you believe will be supportive. Your friends and boyfriend/girlfriend like you and want the best for you. That's often the case with family, co-workers, and strangers as well. Anxiety, stress, and social awkwardness aren't mysterious concepts to most people. They know how hard it can be, even if they've never experienced those problems at the level you have.
Some people may reject you, but even if they do it's highly unlikely they'll mock you to your face. In the moment they'll say something like, "Uh... oh... okay" then change the subject, and pull away in the weeks to come. That's not the ideal outcome, but if they rejected you for having a common problem like social anxiety, did you really want to be close to them anyway? I know that's a bog-standard thing to say, but as trite as it sounds there is truth to it.
"People will see me as a burden, especially if I ask for help" - Again, many of the people in your life want the best for you and are more than happy to make your life easier. As long as you don't ask for anything unreasonable, and are putting in at least some effort to work past your anxiety, they won't think you're a burden. For example, if you're going to a party with a friend it's reasonable to ask, "I'm okay coming to this party with you, but you're buddies with a bunch of the guests, and I don't know anyone. So can you not ditch me to catch up with everyone as soon as you get in the door? Can I stick with you for the first half hour or so, until I find some people to talk to and get more comfortable? And later on in the night if I'm worn out and want to take off early, can you not badger me to stay?" If you were to demand they talk to you the entire night and never speak to anyone else, that would be asking too much.
"No one will help or understand" - I know it can feel like a certainty that no one will understand what you're going through, but you can't know that for sure until you try. Odds are some of the people you tell will be supportive. Some may surprise you by sharing they've been through the same thing in the past.
"People will judge me for having a mental illness" - Some might, but that doesn't mean their view of you is correct. Lots of people have had a mood disorder at some point in their lives. It doesn't mean they're all-around defective. Aside from that, these days more and more people are aware of issues like anxiety and aren't judgemental about those who have it. As the point below explains, you don't have to tell everyone about the full extent of your anxiety either.
Realize telling people doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing deal
You don't have to talk to everyone about your anxiety, and of the people you do tell, you don't have to give all of them the full story. If you're worried about letting people know, you may unconsciously assume you have to spill your guts to everyone, when you can actually pick and choose what you reveal.
You may want to give your family and closest friends all the details of your anxiety, but for most people you just need to generally let them know you get nervous in certain situations. It's also fine to spin your issues to make them seem more relatable or less serious. As long as it still gets the overall point across. Someone you don't know well doesn't need to hear your biography. You could say something like:
- "I can be shy at first."
- "Sometimes I get nervous at parties. I'm a worry wart that way. I always tie myself in knots beforehand."
- "I'm not good at speaking up in larger groups."
- "Ha ha, sorry. I can be awkward around new people."
- "I've got this thing about eating in front of other people. It makes me self-conscious. Ha ha, it's weird, I know."
- "Sometimes my brain likes to mess with me. I'll get worried about blushing for no reason... which makes it happen because I'm thinking about it too much."
You don't even need to go that far. If you just want to take some pressure off yourself, you could only tell someone you're feeling nervous at that moment, and not bring up that it's a recurring problem (e.g., "Sorry, I'm stumbling over my words. I'm not used to these networking events and am feeling a bit on the spot.")
If you're nervous about telling people, build up to it
You don't have to begin with a full confession to your closest friends and family. Start with sharing the news under circumstances you feel comfortable with, then work your way up. Here are some easier ways to do it:
- Make an anonymous post about your situation on a social anxiety forum
- Talk about your anxiety with a volunteer on an anonymous mental health support line
- If you can access one, tell a therapist, doctor, or school counselor
- Attend a drop-in anxiety support group and tell some of the other attendees (I realize showing up for this type of group may be scary for other reasons, but when it comes to telling people about your anxiety, it's a safe, supportive environment)
- Briefly mention your anxiety to someone you've just met, but who seems like they'd be supportive
- Briefly mention your anxiety to a casual acquaintance who you guess would be supportive - someone you're friendly with, but who you don't see all the time
If you hope to tell someone quite a bit about your anxiety, but aren't sure how they'll react, you don't to give them all the details right off the bat. You can test the waters and ease into it by sharing a few tidbits, or by generally mentioning that you're shy or stressed out, and seeing how they react. If you get a positive or neutral response you can share a bit more.
Style of telling people
The exact way you deliver the news is less important than the fact that you're doing it
Don't stress over nailing the perfect presentation. If you have to tell your parents everything in a raw, vulnerable way because you're going through a hard time, so be it.
You'd be justified in sharing the information in a straightforward no-big-deal tone
Your anxiety is a challenge many people face, not a fatal flaw. You can talk about your anxiety in a tone that says as much. Be matter of fact, as if you were telling them about any other kind of obstacle, like how you can't play sports with friends because you get back spasms.
It's not mandatory, but you can even go beyond that and seem self-assured and at peace with your anxiety. There's something endearing and admirable about someone who's able to be open about their struggles and weak points (just don't overshare). It won't captivate people every time, but it's generally a trait that gets good responses.
Talk about your anxiety as if it's an outside force that's cramping your style, not a core part of your personality
For your own sake this is a good way think of your mental health struggles, but framing your anxiety like that can also make the news easier to deliver and a tad simpler for people to wrap their heads around. Rather than feeling you have to admit that a core part of you is broken, you can portray yourself as the person they've always known, who is being hindered by their nerves.
In some cases, also be sure to reassure people you're not brushing them off
The odd time you can tell someone about your social anxiety and accidentally have it come across like a half-hearted excuse (e.g., if you tell them you can't come to their birthday party because you get nervous having to make small talk with people you don't know). In these cases tell them in a friendly, reassuring manner. Try not to speak in a flat, quick, indifferent tone. Go out your way to let them know that while your anxiety may keep you from hanging out with them in certain ways, you're open to seeing them under circumstances you can handle.
Ways to tell people
Formally telling them
If you've known someone a while, and want to tell them about your anxiety in depth find a quiet moment where you can talk to them about it. There's no one right way to deliver the news, and how you word things isn't going to affect their response much either way. Still, here are some points you might want to get to, with examples. Don't feel you have to bring up all of these, or follow them as a rigid template. It's just to give you an idea of how telling someone may go. You can tailor your message to each person you talk to. You may give one a wordy speech that elaborates on everything. With another you may keep it short.
- Intro / lead in: "There's something I want to tell you, about an issue I've been struggling with lately. It's a little hard for me to say..."
- Why you're telling them: "...but you're a good friend and I wanted to fill you in on what's been going on with me, and explain why I've been acting a bit differently lately. I'm not sure if you noticed..."
- Overview of your anxiety: "I've always been a bit shy and prone to worrying, but for the last few months I've been feeling extra nervous around people."
- What your anxiety is subjectively like: "I'll get shaky and queasy and my mind will lock up. I get really worried about what people will think of me. I know logically there's nothing to be afraid of, but the nerves take hold I can't help but feel jittery. After I'll obsess over all the ways I'm sure I screwed up."
- How what you're going through is worse than run-of-the-mill butterflies: "It's more than the regular kind of nerves everyone gets. It's way more intense, like regular shyness turned up to 10. It's not the kind of thing where I can just take a deep breath and push past it."
- The specific situations that bother you: "I'm okay hanging out with one or two good friends, but I get really tense in bigger groups..."
- A particular situation where your anxiety struck: "...like I was pretty nervous when we all hung out at your place the other week, and your boyfriend brought his friends with him..."
- Explanation for certain behaviors: "...That's why I said my stomach was bothering me and I didn't talk much all night. I mean my stomach technically was bothering me, but it was because of nerves. That seemed like a good enough excuse at the time. I'm sure your boyfriend's friends thought I a snob, but I was just really on edge."
- The impact it's having on your life: "It sucks. It's really starting to get in the way. Like hanging out in groups just isn't as fun as it used to be, and I find myself wanting to skip things so I don't have to deal with how nervous I get ahead of time."
- A quick history with your anxiety: "I've actually struggled with this before, back in high school before I'd met you. My freshman year was rough, but it got better. I guess the anxiety's back now..."
- If it applies and you're okay bringing it up, some details on any formal diagnoses you have: "I actually went to the campus counseling center the other week and they say what I'm dealing with sounds like Social Anxiety Disorder. It's basically what I've described, I get overly anxious around people to the point where it's interfering with my life."
- Your plan going forward: "Now that I realize things have gotten bad, I'm going to try to read some books on it, and see if any of the exercises help. The counselor I've been assigned to is easy to talk to, so I'll probably keep seeing her too."
- What you need from them, if anything (even if they're supportive, don't assume they'll know to offer it on their own): Anyway, like I said I wanted to let you know this is something I'm dealing with. I mainly wanted to tell you so I could get it off my chest and not stress myself out feeling I had to hide it all the time. I'm not asking you to go out of your way to help or anything, though I hope you can be understanding if I have to bail on some get togethers."
- Wrap up/ inviting them to say something: "Anyway, that's my spiel. Any thoughts, questions?
Casually dropping the news into a conversation
If you've just met someone, or don't know them that well, it may be easier to slip the news in somewhere as you're chatting. If you just want the relief of putting your anxiety out there, that's all you may need to do. If they need more details they can always ask. For example, if you're meeting your partner's friends for the first time you could offhandedly mention that you're feeling shy, then go back to introducing yourself to everyone. If you're talking with someone about what you like to do for fun, you could tell them you like seeing concerts, and quickly add that crowds set off your social anxiety, but you still try to go.
Only saying something if you have to
You can use this one on a situation-by-situation basis. Go into the interaction with the intent to only tell people about your anxiety if your nerves get out of hand. If you turn out to be calmer than you expect, you don't have to bring it up. But you know if the anxiety gets to be too much you can explain yourself, which should take away some of the pressure to hold it together. For example, "Ughh... sorry... I just gotta say I'm feeling a bit shy right now... I can be like that at first... but what were you telling me?..."
Similarly, you may decide to only talk about your anxiety if someone else comments on it:
- "You're not saying much" - "Yeah, I can be shy in groups until I get to know everyone better." (Of course, that's not the only way to respond to irksome "You're so quiet" comments)
- "Whoa, you're turning beet red" - "Ha ha, my face does that sometimes. I guess I'm feeling on the spot because everyone turned to listen to me tell my joke."
- "You're shaking", "Yeah, to be honest I'm kind of nervous right now. Hopefully it'll pass soon."
Sharing the news electronically
You could send a friend an email, or tell your social circle through a social media status update, or post a video and send the link to a few people. I know not everyone will be comfortable delivering the news this way, but it has some advantages. For one you can take the time to craft your message and say everything you need to say. You also don't have to worry about people's immediate responses. You can post or send off the message, then wait a bit to see if there are any comments or replies.
More on some of the reactions you might get
If you're hesitant to tell anyone about your social anxiety, it's your worries about the reaction you'll get that's stopping you. I'll go over some common ones, which should take away some of the fear of the unknown:
Subdued, anti-climatic reactions
When we're fretting about every possible outcome our mind always seems to miss this one, then gets caught off guard when it happens. We'll imagine telling our friends, and picture them enveloping us in a warm, tearful embrace, or turning up their nose in disgust and storming off, or having a million questions which leads to a long, cathartic talk. Sometimes when you tell someone, especially in a more casual way, they'll say something like, "Huh... okay..." and leave it at that. If you quickly drop a reference to your anxiety into the conversation, they may not seem to acknowledge it at all.
It's not necessarily that they don't care. It's that they don't know what else to say, don't think the information is that big a deal, don't have anything to add, or are glad you told them, but aren't curious to get more details. If you were hoping to hear more of their thoughts on what you just told them, you can always ask if they have any questions. You should also give them some time to process what you said. They may bring it up again down the road.
- "I'm glad you felt you were able to tell me."
- "If there's anything you need to me do, let me know."
- "Sorry to hear you're going through that, but I don't judge you for it. I know lots of people deal with that stuff."
- "I understand... Actually, from what you've told me, I went through the exact same thing at your age."
These reaction are obviously what you're hoping for. There's not much more to say about them than that, other than to do your best to take them at face value. Your anxiety may try to trick you into thinking they're just pretending to be caring, or that they're only offering to help to be polite.
Responses that are unhelpful or dismissive
Not every gets what it's like to have problems with anxiety. They don't realize what you're going through is nothing like how they get a bit nervous before presentations or job interviews. Immediately after or in the weeks to come you may get some well-intentioned but misinformed comments such as:
- Being told to magically make yourself stop feeling the way you do: "Well just don't be nervous then."
- Being told to just suck it up: "Everyone gets nervous before parties. You should just push through it."
- Being told things you already logically know, but it doesn't matter because your anxiety overrides it: "You know no one will care if you make a mistake, right? Everyone's too worried about themselves to focus on you."
- Vague, unhelpful, easier-said-than-done advice: "You should just fake it 'til you make it", "You should put yourself out there"
- Being told you don't seem that anxious: "But you don't seem that bad. You still hang out with us all the time. How anxious can you be?" (Sometimes hearing this is reassuring, but it can also feel invalidating)
- Someone telling you they know what it's like when they clearly don't: "I get nervous around people too." (Coming from someone who's been really confident and outgoing as long as you can remember - even if they're more nervous under the surface than they let on, there's no way they know what it means to have full-blown social anxiety)
- Accusations: "You're just exaggerating for attention", "You're just lying to try to get out of going to school."
- Being told your anxiety isn't justified: "What do you have to be stressed about? You're a teenager. You don't appreciate how easy you have it."
- Being told you're not trying hard enough: "I don't know why you stayed in the last three weekends. If you really wanted to get over your anxiety you'd have figured out a way by now."
You can get these comments, but don't let the possibility of receiving them scare you off telling people entirely. If you hear them you can manage. For one, if you get them from the first people you tell, don't get discouraged and conclude there's no use in telling anyone else, or that no one at all will be understanding. The next person you tell may respond better. Also, when you get a dismissive remark, remind yourself that they're wrong. You're the one dealing with the anxiety, and who knows what it's really like, not them. On the off chance that most of the people in your life aren't helpful, look for other, more reliable sources of support like a therapist or an online forum.
As I mentioned before, this is unlikely, especially if you're selective about who to tell. And if it happens, it's something you can handle, even if it doesn't feel that way at the moment. It can still be painful, and I don't want to downplay that, but it's not a death blow.
How people are likely to treat you in the weeks and months to come
Your friends and family have this new information about you, but in the future they may not treat you as differently as you expect. You may worry they're going to walk on eggshells or stop talking to you or inviting you out, because they'll assume you can't handle it. They may mostly treat you as they always have. That's mainly because they already have an image in their heads of what you're like, and patterns of how they act around you.
If you already came across as fairly shy and withdrawn, they may already have be used to working around that. If your anxiety is mostly internal and hidden, they can continue to treat you as if you're comfortable in social situations, because that's how you come across on the surface. Their abstract knowledge that you're inwardly nervous won't always be at the top of their mind. Sometimes you may even have to jog their memories that certain things still make you nervous.