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Social Anxiety Over the Rainbow

According to Alan Downs in his book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. Gay men learn anxiety and anger early in their development. He refers to this development as velvet rage. “Velvet rage is the deep and abiding anger and anxiety that result from growing up in an environment when I learn that who I am as a gay person is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable,” he explains. “This anger and anxiety push me at times to overcompensate and try to earn love and acceptance by being more, better, beautiful, more sexy – in short, to become something I believe will make me more acceptable and loved.”

“We have created a gay culture that is, in most senses, unlivable. The expectation is that you have the beautiful body, that you have lots of money, that you have a beautiful boyfriend with whom you have wonderful, toe-curling sex every night… none of us have that. To try to achieve that really makes us miserable. The next phase of gay history, I believe, is for us to come to terms with creating a culture that is livable and comfortable.”

There is a significant correlation between gay identity and social anxiety in research. Social anxiety is the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations: Social anxiety can wreak havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it. People with symptoms of social anxiety often….

fear doing or saying something embarrassing in front of other people
worry about making a mistake or being judged by others
avoid speaking to others
fear meeting new people
blush, sweat, tremble, or feel nauseous when self-conscious
avoid social situations and giving speeches
may drink or use drugs to try to relieve their social fears

Researchers at the State University of New York investigated the occurrence of social anxiety in a sample of undergraduate gay and heterosexual men. Gay men reported greater social interaction anxiety, greater fear of negative evaluation, and lower self-esteem than their heterosexual counterparts. Gay men who were less comfortable and less open about their sexual orientation were more likely to experience anxiety in social interactions.

Is it any wonder that individuals who felt the primal fear of rejection, vilification and being ostracized as children and adolescents should develop a fear of social situations? I find that with my clients as we normalize the sexual orientation and work on developing a positive sexual identity and developing a positive, supportive social network that symptoms of social anxiety tend to diminish.

In my experience with my gay clients who suffer from anxiety, we always end up back in the childhood or adolescence. Rejection by parents of their own children, by peers, teachers or church because of their sexual orientation seems to produce a severe emotional impact. Having to lead an inauthentic life for fear of rejection or ridicule can produce a severe sense of core shame. Fear of being found out or judged creates a constant sense of tension or anxiety.

Being able to live an authentic life is key to reducing anxiety for persons of any sexual orientation, but especially for gay individuals who have felt forced to “wear a mask” hiding who they truly are. The mask forces an individual to expend huge amounts of anxiety causing energy projecting an image and worrying what will happen if they are found out. I find that with my gay clients, that getting support and only allowing people into their personal social network who are loving, nurturing and accepting is so helpful in mediating symptoms of anxiety. Taking small risks with safe people goes a long way towards increasing social esteem and diminishing social anxiety.

I have found the most powerful tool to helping my gay clients deal with their social anxiety is to have them talk about it, not only to me, their therapist, but to be open and transparent with their friends and family members about how they feel. Many clients report feeling ashamed of their shame. The most effective way to address shame is to expose it.

Social anxiety sufferers have negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety. If you have social anxiety, you may find yourself overwhelmed by thoughts like:

“I know I’ll end up looking like a fool.”
“My voice will start shaking and I’ll humiliate myself.”

“People will think I’m stupid.”
“I won’t have anything to say. I’ll seem boring.”

Challenging these negative thoughts, either through therapy or on your own, is one effective way to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety.The first step is to identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie your fear of social situations. For example, if you‘re worried about an upcoming work presentation, the underlying negative thought might be: “I’m going to blow it. Everyone will think I’m completely incompetent.” The next step is to analyze and challenge the thoughts. It helps to ask yourself questions about the negative thoughts: “Do I know for sure that I’m going to be judged?” or “Even if I’m nervous, will people necessarily judge me?” Through this logical evaluation of your negative thoughts, you can gradually replace them with more realistic and positive ways of looking at social situations that trigger your anxiety.

Learning to become grounded and centered and addressing the symptoms in the body is very helpful. Identifying the anxious energy and allowing it to flow through the body instead of resisting it and allowing it to become trapped and persist is key. Visualizing the emotion as energy flowing into the body and allowing it to flow out of the body while breathing and staying present can bring quick relief.

Social anxiety is an issue that can be treated. Many have viewed it as something that must be tolerated, but with information, support, the proper interventions and occasionally medication, this condition can be addressed and mediated effectively allowing you to function more effectively and authentically, and to live the life you were born to live!

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