As social anxiety symptoms can suppress one’s sense of self and emotions, a common response is to ‘fake it until you make it’ or perform a role to fill the apparent void. However, if this intense contextual social performing persists for a long-time, the sufferer will inevitably lose or not develop a sense of a stable personality. Rather than being a solution, the performances become intricate safety behaviours which may offer some comfort but, ultimately, may obstruct exposure to the fear which may be necessary to better understand it and to adapt to it.
In a post on Reddit, a user with social anxiety describes using shifting personas or ‘techniques’, both in the virtual and ‘real’ settings, to be “more able to deal with anxiety and the stresses of life.” These include, “faking confidence, trying to find the humor in things and life, thinking more positively, trying to be more talkative, forcing myself to have more energy, trying to enjoy social situations more, forcing myself to concentrate on the outside world so i dont miss something out, trying to put myself in the shoes of someone else so i can see where they are coming from and there are a few others too that i have experimented on throughout the years.”
The writer describes regularly shifting performances and mind-sets depending on circumstances, such that they would even do so mid-conversation, depending on who they were addressing: “As you could imagine, that was extremely confusing for me and lead to me withdrawing from many many social situations. In all honesty I’ve become more of a recluse as time has gone on because socialising became such a drain for me to do.”
Having tried to be their ‘natural self,’ without social performing, for several years, the writer describes experiencing an overwhelming social anxiety and, eventually, returning to the performing: “Without using the techniques the anxiety builds up and i start feeling so low and even paranoid that I feel I just have to change my personality to deal with the stresses of life.”
The most fundamental apparent harm of the performing or shifting of personas has been a continued lack of sense of self in the individual, such that even relaxation methods, such as meditation, “feels like another technique that although helpful, makes me feel unnatural and disingenuous.”
“So i often think i can’t win if i let myself be and just try and be natural because i get anxious stressed easily, but i can’t use different techniques because they just make me feel like i am not being my true self.”
In a separate blog-post, blogger, Sadie, describes her struggle to express her “unfiltered, un-curated thoughts in real time” – ascribing it to: “Fear of rejection, fear of conflict, fear of disapproval. Fear of losing control over myself. Fear of what others might think if they meet the Unfiltered Me — because I don’t even know who that is.” (My emphasis).
Sadie does at least have some sense, it seems, of what she wants, if not who she is: “And I’m tired. Tired of the constant tug-of-war between my true desires and the disorder that stifles them.”
One approach to reducing the persistent and physically draining social performing – which can create, an “internal barrier between me and myself” – is to concentrate on the myriad performances themselves and try to reduce them, as the Reddit user attempted. However, it may not be obvious what is natural and what unnatural. For someone suffering an identity crisis as serious as that individual, any adjustments themselves may seem like an artifice and be rejected.
A compassionate approach may be to resist passing judgement on the naturalness or otherwise of one’s social behaviour – acknowledging that all the behaviour belongs to oneself. Instead focus could be placed on the sense of fear itself and on building capacity to reduce the sense of vulnerability that is giving rise to the debilitating fear. For someone with a quiet voice, this might involve increasing their capacity to vocalise. Or, someone who feels physically vulnerable may choose to develop their muscles through exercise. For an individual with a lot of alienation from their identity, this too might be rejected as artificial. However, the benefit of this approach is to avoid over-analysis of the complexities and vagaries of ideas of self and personhood. If capacity can be built and tested, safety behaviours may become automatically unnecessary.