The Fear of Being in the Presence of Others

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

We are born with the tendencies and potentialities that make us the kind of persons we become as we grow older.

Scientists call these "traits" or "temperament," which in this article I refer to as "the seeds."  Our family, school, community, culture or the sum total of our environment is the "soil" or the seedbed where these tendencies may either manifest themselves or remain buried forever. The unique experiences of a person fashion or intertwine these traits together and they become the trademark of that individual which make him or her different from others.  These experiences are like the wind, sunshine, rain, etc. that give a tree and its fruit both its "personality" and special flavor.  Interestingly enough, children in the same family may have experiences that are qualitatively different just as the exposure to sunshine and wind may vary in different areas of the same orchard.

Culture may be partially responsible for the fact that more women suffer from social phobia than men. Women are raised to be more self-conscious and inhibited in presence of others, and in many ways the culture tries to impose fear in women and bravery in men.  Likewise, social anxiety is believed to be more common in the eastern counties which tend to use "shaming" as a way to discipline children.

Some people are shy by reason of their temperament.  This aspect of the temperament may be decreased or intensified, depending on the specific environment and experiences a child receives. Social anxiety and shyness are inherited characteristics as evidenced by the fact that some babies who are just a few months old clearly cry more, become fearful and throw tantrums in the presence of unfamiliar adults more than others.

Scientists cannot explain these differences on account of environment or individual experiences.  Some babies, from a few weeks of age, appear anxious and frightened in almost every new social setting.  They act this way even in more relaxed settings such as on the playground.  They blush more, avoid eye contact and refuse to participate in group activities.  As they grow older, they don't raise their hands in class or come forward on their own.  

An individual's experiences play a significant part however in making social anxiety and phobia a permanent trait of an individual.  Generally, when we talk of experiences related to fears, we often think of broken homes, abuse or some terrifying external experience that has left a permanent emotional scar on an individual in the form of abnormal fears.

What we often overlook is the importance of internal experiences in the worsening of fears.  The things we tell ourselves inside our heads, how we feel about ourselves or what we think of ourselves or of our abilities, these (for example) determine how much we can manage social phobia or how much it will manage us.  These become our internal self-generated experiences and influence us just as much as the external experiences which others create for us do.

Thinking from the positive angle, what we tell ourselves inside our heads can also help us to overcome our fears.  Don't we often talk ourselves into doing the very things we are really scared about?  For instance, most people feel anxious about speaking or performing public.  However, only 20 percent of people report excessive fear of speaking or performing in public.  So a large number of people are doing something to overcome their hesitations and fears.  T is really a small group, about tow percent of people who are actually incapacitated by the fear  of performing or speaking in public.

When I was training in England, a fellow trainee who was extremely  articulate and knowledgeable in one-on-one discussion would start turning red-faced several hours before he was scheduled to speak to a group of staff and trainees.  He feared that he might start having hiccups.  He had to absolutely fight this fear every time.  He had succeeded many times in speaking to groups without a bout of hiccups, but, nevertheless, significant fear was still there, each time he prepared to speak.  Being aware of this, I was impressed not just by the content of his speech but also by the victory of his resolve over his fear.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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