External Focus in Social Anxiety
By Mark Andrew Collins
Social Anxiety Disorder is a condition suffered by many, characterized by an excessive and
unreasonable fear of social situations. Those who suffer from it struggle with developing selfesteem, find it hard to establish and maintain relationships and can find their career and
recreation options limited. In addition, they persistently fight an inner shameful sense of feeling
different from others, of being a misfit.
Those with the somewhat ironic acronym S.A.D. feel that others are judging them, many times
to the point of not being able to function. So much time is spent looking internally at ‘what is
wrong’ with oneself that it’s easy to miss cues of what is going on in the external world.
A sufferer of social anxiety, for instance, may walk by an acquaintance and think they see a
funny look on the person’s face. They might think negative, destructive thoughts such as “I must
look stupid wearing the clothes I’m wearing,” or “He/She would never want to spend time with
me,” or “I know I’m unpleasant to be around.”
Instead of turning inward, taking steps and practicing at focusing outward on the external world
can be beneficial. Seeing that same acquaintance walking by can be a completely different
experience. A person with S.A.D. can train themselves to gradually move the focus towards
others. For instance, reframing the situation with thoughts such as “He/she looks upset, maybe I
should ask them if they are OK” or “Maybe he/she feels nervous sometimes like just like I do” or
“Maybe he/she is having a bad day, I wonder what’s going on with them.”
The simple choice of stepping outside of one’s self can be a welcome distraction from the
feelings of inner discomfort. Practicing this task can provide some relief from anxiety, help
sufferers of S.A.D. gain reasonable insight about the world them and facilitate the process of
building one’s self-esteem.
A qualified psychotherapist can work with sufferers of social anxiety to develop this skill. The
suggested course for S.A.D. is 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, which may include
psycho-education, lifestyle changes, identifying negative thoughts and developing helpful
thinking. Developing a gentle, forgiving inner voice is central to this work. Establishing a healthy
balance of focusing inward with attending to the external world in concert with this work can
provide an additional skill to cope with the disorder.