Emotion as a sign of weakness? Think again.

Unknown“Pull yourself together.” “Why are you crying?” These are the phrases we hear early on that makes us think that emotion equals weakness. But what if it was just a window into something greater?

A recent review recent article on Social Anxiety touches the surface of this issue by describing how our emotions and perceptions can affect our life.  The article begins by defining social anxiety (SA) as a common human experience marked by an intense fear of evaluation from others in social situations. They theorize that

  1. This process begins with the perception of an audience (perception being the operative word).
  2. This creates a mental representation of being seen and evaluated by the audience.
  3. A person with SA will then take this mental representation and feed it negative self-images of prior experiences or a distorted self-perception (or way of looking at oneself) and then…
  4. Comes to the conclusion that their performance is poor in whatever domain this “evaluation” is taking place.

Psychologists describe this situation as a simple math problem: A person compares their mental representation of themselves as perceived by the “audience” with the “audience’s” expectations, which leaves the person in the negatives. This threat of being evaluated runs rampant and anxiety becomes nearly inevitable. You still tracking? Just hang in there…

Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle of self-focus (click here for my post on that): you think about your fears, the evaluation, the thoughts of doing poorly and just keep feeding yourself thoughts things. People will shift their attention towards this virtual threat and perceived evaluative component. This shift in attention towards the perceived negative event is not just a shift towards the negative situation, but also a shift away from other positive stimuli that may be coming in. In fact, it’s been shown that it was a shift away from positive social stimuli that mediated the effect of social anxiety on state anxiety in response to a social stressor (Taylor et al., 2011). This basically just means that social anxiety influences an individual’s sense of anxiety when stressed (obviously), but this really happens as a result of a shift away from positive attention. So it is not necessarily that the anxiety itself that is bringing about these feelings of anxiety, but it is this mental shift away from positive stimuli. It’s the loss of focus on the good, the positive things that have come, and the silver lining or piece of gratitude in the situation.

This all just brings me back to what Morrison and his colleagues conclude in their article. They talk about how those with social anxiety suppress the expression of the range of emotions and believe that the expression of emotion is a sign of weakness. This is exactly what Dr. Brené Brown (click here for her TED talk), a vulnerability and shame researcher at the University of Houston, has talked about so much. Dr. Brown recently spoke of  an instance when she was giving a speech on vulnerability and had people translate in sign language. The sign for “vulnerability” was basically weak in the knees. After some debate with the translators, they realized that there was actually another sign for it, which was the opening of your chest or the opening of the heart.

Dr. Brown talks about how there is a cultural perception that being vulnerable and putting yourself out there is weakness. This involves: speaking in front of a group, being evaluated, chasing your dream, starting your business, or whatever situation you put yourself in that could possibly result in failure. We are constantly faced with situations in which we may fail. We may not do as well as we thought, not get the grade we wanted, the promotion we worked hard for, the “perfect” relationship we desired, etc. and these are all moments of vulnerability. It’s the same thing that this article talked about. However, it doesn’t matter whether you have social anxiety, regular anxiety, daily stress, fearful thoughts, it’s all the same. At the core of this is this feeling of being poorly evaluated, making an a** out of yourself and below that is not doing well enough and perhaps not being good enough.

But what does vulnerability offer? Dr. Brené Brown talks about how vulnerability is really the birthplace of joy, creativity, innovation, and connection. If we weren’t afraid of failing, telling people we messed up, telling people we needed help, and simply letting ourselves be seen as who we are without fear of what others thought, many of our anxieties would dissipate (in an ideal world). What would you do if you weren’t afraid? If we knew we couldn’t fail, and that even if we did that we would have the courage to ask for help, admit our wrongdoings and move forward, then we would go through life much more openly and ready to receive whatever moment life had to offer.

Related links:

Citation: Morrison, A. S., & Heimberg, R. G. (2013). Social anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9, 249-274.

Rubin Khoddam, PhD Clinical Psychology student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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