Elliot Alderson, the main character of the popular hacker drama, Mr. Robot, embodies a modern paradox. Though we proficiently connect with the masses through technology, some of us can be deeply confused by the nuances of direct human contact. As viewers, we are privy to Elliot’s desolate meditations about his social isolation. In episode 8, he asks us to consider what lurks beneath the murky surface of his social anxiety. “We are all living in each other’s paranoia,” he says in his deadpan drone. “You can’t deny that. Is that why everyone tries to avoid each other?”
Though Elliot’s portrayal of social anxiety disorder may be surreal and complicated by other struggles, his question is valid. What compels some of us to dodge social situations rather than move towards the company of others? More importantly, what does it mean if our social avoidance interferes with our responsibilities and relationships?
It is normal to feel nervous before entering unfamiliar social surroundings, or meeting people we don’t know. We often have rational reasons to not attend a social event and we have all backed away from a gathering because we were tired, didn’t have the energy to deal with an awkward relationship dynamic or just wanted to be alone. In all cases, we are choosing, rather than avoiding a situation.
It’s not paranoia that drives a few of us to consistently evade social situations. Those of us who reflexively turn away from others may be experiencing social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is a treatable condition, but it can impair employment, relationships, and general well being if left untreated.
The hallmark symptom of social anxiety disorder is a persistent fear of being negatively evaluated by others in social settings. In contrast to typical nervousness, those with social anxiety disorder are preoccupied with fears of embarrassing themselves through their behavior or appearance, and continue to experience these fears while in the social situation.
Even though their fears are unwarranted, those afflicted with social anxiety disorder will avoid actions that may reveal their anxiety such as drinking alcohol or coffee. They may spend an excessive amount of time preparing for social events by compulsively rehearsing for presentations or social conversation. Sometimes social anxiety disorder does not manifest until we are put in situations that challenge us socially as described by the case study below:
Janet worked as a sales representative for a top-tier computer software company. She was a conscientious worker who often kept to herself, eating lunch alone while reading a book. Janet was well liked by her coworkers and the clients that she spoke with on the phone. She aspired to be promoted to outside sales, and after three years of hard work, was offered the position. Though Janet had concerns about the additional responsibilities of meeting clients and giving formal presentations, she wanted to meet the challenge.
During her initial meetings with clients she felt worried about meeting new people, saying the wrong thing, and possibly embarrassing herself when eating in front of others. She felt distressed for weeks in advance about her appointments and began to schedule telephone conferences to bypass face-to-face meetings. Though Janet valued having more responsibility and the increased self esteem, she could not shake the escalating dread that she felt in front of others during meetings and presentations. Even introducing herself to new company executives or clients in a boardroom setting became a source of anxiety.
Janet began avoiding meetings, and calling in sick on days when she had to make a presentation or meet with new customers. In his kind and understanding way, Janet’s manager shared his observations about her avoidance behaviors and apparent declining confidence. “I was fine when I first started the job” she told him, “but as time went on, I could feel my face turning red, heard my voice crack, and then I’d start shaking. I felt so embarrassed.” Janet’s manager explained that the management team recognized her potential, but could only maintain her new position if she was able to overcome her fearful behavior. It was at this point that Janet pursued psychotherapy.
Janet’s previous job did not challenge her social anxiety. She could be personable while maintaining a comfortable distance with her co-workers, and could accommodate her clients on the phone without the fear of being scrutinized. Her promotion created social conditions that intensified symptoms impairing her occupational functioning.
It is normal to experience nervousness before a social event or possess a shy interpersonal style. Occasional social anxiety or a shy disposition is not pathological. However, if you share Janet’s significant physical and emotional symptoms, a visit with your physician and a mental health professional is in your best interest. Rest assured, you are not paranoid as Mr. Robot’s Elliot suggests, but you may be experiencing signs of social anxiety disorder.