Social Anxiety and the Cage of Conformity
Social anxiety and concern for status are a few of the emotional checks that keep cooperative and conformist behavior on track. It is innate for people to seek group connection and acceptance as a means of validating and enhancing their existence and the consequences for not belonging to a group often results in less access to resources. One of my clients described being abandoned by their friends or ostracized by their coworkers as “worse than drowning in hot lava.”
However, getting fired from your job or cold-shouldered by a group of acquaintances hardly means being thrown in a volcano. Still, the need to be accepted among peers is so powerful that social anxiety kicks in even under wholly non-life-threatening circumstances, such as showing up solo at a cocktail party or being called on to speak in public.
We want to prove our loyalty to the group. For most of us rocking the boat and making waves with family members, a spouse, a religious group, etc causes intense social anxiety. Sometimes in our zeal to avoid banishment, we might commit too deeply or for too long. I’ve has some clients that are so keen on fitting in that they fail to ask whether they really benefit from an affiliation in the first place
Of course many people overcome their social anxiety and take risks to distinguish themselves from others in the group. Generally speaking, we want to fit in, but once accepted, we wish to stand out. An individual who shines or stands apart often reaps personal benefits, but there’s also a benefit to the group.
At one extreme, people who either don’t have social anxiety, pretend they don’t, or mask it by using drugs and alcohol, often act without awareness or concern of group standards. At the other end of the spectrum, people debilitated by social anxiety, such as those with social anxiety disorder, are so fearful of making mistakes and being abandoned that they always play it safe and fail to fully develop their authentic self. Ultimately, understanding group norms while also pushing the boundaries of the group by experimenting with individuality is ideal balance for both the individual and the group.