Some people have an extreme fear of disapproval from others. This can often be driven by our evolutionary history (in the past, we depended on social approval from members of our tribe in order to survive), as well as social conditioning at a young age (from our parents and schools). One of the best methods for overcoming this social anxiety is through exposure therapy, where we can gradually recondition our brains to react to social situations in a less threatened way.
Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” defines love and belonging as one of the core needs of a healthy human being. Next to food, water, and shelter, our survival also depends on our ability to adapt to our social world and build positive relationships with others.
According to Maslow, without these relationships, many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression.
Ironically, some people never find fulfilling relationships in their life due to this extreme fear of disapproval. They are too afraid to approach new people, spark conversations, or go out to social get-togethers, because they are afraid that other people will judge them negatively, and ultimately reject them. In the end, their beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Sean Cooper explains in his online guide The Shyness and Social Anxiety System:
“Social Anxiety (SA) is often based on the assumption that you are in some way weak, inferior, inadequate or less good that others, combined with the fear people will notice this (supposedly inherent) defect and disapprove of you. And the disapproval will have dire consequences for your ability to get on with people and to feel you belong.
Because of their fear of disapproval, people with SA react to situations where they think they will experience disapproval or rejection in the same way that most people would react to real danger. They may experience physical or mental symptoms.
In order to avoid getting disapproval, people who have SA will usually be quiet and withdrawn, they donʼt want attention going their way because attention could mean potential disapproval.
Itʼs actually a pretty bad situation for people with SA. By adopting this set of behaviours, other people wonʼt disapprove of them… but they also wonʼt even notice them! Thatʼs the whole irony of the situation: Why do fears of disapproval make people act in ways that increase the chances of disapproval occurring?“
According to Cooper, we sometimes act in these irrational ways due to an evolutionary instinct developed millions of years ago. Back when we were hunters and gatherers, it was crucially important that we had strong social ties to our tribe. If we weren’t accepted by our tribe, that often meant death. Relationships and cooperation were vital in order to find food, security, warmth, and reproduction.
Today, in our modern technologically-driven civilization, it is a lot easier to survive independently, without a strong social network. However, our drive to belong (and not be rejected) is still alive and well. That that is why it is still so important to have positive and meaningful relationships that provide our lives with a deeper sense of fulfillment and belonging – the exact kind Maslow described in his “hierarchy of needs.”
Even though we don’t need tribes to survive anymore, many of us still crave a social network that provides us with a sense of belonging.
So it’s natural to have a fear of disapproval every now and again, and clearly relationships still play a huge role in our society and well-being. However, when this fear of disapproval goes to an extreme – and it makes it more difficult to function in your everyday world or unable to achieve your goals – then it may be time to find ways of alleviating your social anxiety and building a richer social life.
A lot of people’s extreme fear of disapproval may also be contributed by social learning and conditioning. From an early age you may have had negative experiences of rejection, and therefore you learned that acting in a shy or reserved way was the best way to get acceptance from the people around you. You were conditioned to fear showing your personality, because that could mean more rejection.
Cooper claims in his shyness and social anxiety guide that the best way to recondition this social learning is by exposing ourselves to new and better experiences. This is often referred to as exposure therapy (although it also makes up a big component of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as well).
Avoiding social interaction (and sitting at home replaying bad events in your head) only reinforces your social anxiety and your fear of disapproval.
The best way to overcome social anxiety is to get the right type of exposure and thereby give your brain new experiences to learn from and then rewire itself.
This doesn’t mean you jump right into politics or public speeches, but taking small and active steps to get yourself back in the social world can do you a lot of good in the long-run.
The key is to start small. Maybe start by just reconnecting with old friends or family. Then work your way from more comfortable environments to less comfortable environments (making friends with a coworker vs. making friends with a stranger at a bar, or making friends with someone at your book club vs. approaching a pretty girl you see on the streets).
With gradual exposure, your social anxiety and fear of disapproval will often get weaker and weaker.
For more on how to get rid of your social anxiety and fear of disapproval, I highly recommend Sean Cooper’s The Shyness and Social Anxiety System. It applies many principles from Evolutionary Psychology, Social Psychology, and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to help overcome different forms of social anxiety.