Social Anxiety and Social Isolation: How Perfectionism Turns Us Into Recluses

I’ve been writing this blog for over a year. What I love most about it is that it gives me a break from my obsessive need to learn. When I focus my mind on writing, my insecurity about how much I know fades into the distance and, for some time, my mind ceases to recall my ignorance. I’m not sure when my desire to be smart (and by this, I really mean brilliant) arose; it was probably when I began to associate it with my identity, when it became the trait by which I wanted to be defined. But, it’s since become a full-blown obsession, one which constantly diminishes the quality of my life.

Social anxiety disorder is the intense fear of being harshly judged by others, of seeming significantly deficient to them in some important way. In some instances, those who struggle with it fall into despair, viewing their inadequacy as nonmalleable; in others, they become obsessive, tirelessly striving to develop the perfect versions of themselves. In both forms, the result is often isolation. And for me, I didn’t want to write or attend any conferences, or even start a podcast, until I was sure I knew enough. On the surface, it seems reasonable, as many obsessions do. I believed that I had to be really knowledgable to be useful. And, in my mind, I considered my value in absolute terms: I was either brilliant or stupid… meaning that I was either valuable or wasn’t. So, most of my time was spent learning and consuming as much information as I could, because, otherwise, it would have been as though I didn’t exist.

Perfectionism and social anxiety disorder are frequently tied together. The underlying belief is that perfection is the only road leading to acceptance and love. And this can hold true in multiple domains, even at once (one can avoid people until she/he believes that they’re smart and thin enough). You can steer clear of romance, school, public speaking, parties, conferences, book clubs, and other types of interactions and relationships until you embody your ideal conception of who you’re supposed to be. And in that time, while you’re progressing, your life simply passes you by.

Black and white (absolute) thinking is toxic because it causes us to view the world in terms of winners and losers, and guess which box we tend to place ourselves in? In a world dominated by the highlights of social media, with only a limited awareness of the lives of seemingly perfect individuals, we convince ourselves that happiness and perfection are inextricably intertwined. But, most of the people I met with those accounts find themselves to be considerably deficient, too, even though their social anxiety doesn’t significantly impair their ability to socialize; they just try their best to hide away their weaknesses, terrified of exposure.

The fear is greater than the truth. I’ve been met with warmth each time I placed my ego on the line. I, sometimes, make intellectual errors on our podcast, and, sometimes, in my writing. And the result is always the same: it really doesn’t matter. Most of us hold onto what Johann Hari calls junk-values, and mine was intellectual perfection, believing that I had to be supremely knowledgeable, and infallible, in order to be accepted. I’m now in a major crossroads of my life; I have to choose whether to continue to isolate myself, learning more and more until I finally feel I know enough, or I could choose to actually live my life.

Like depression, social anxiety disorder is a big lie based on unrealistic expectations and fears, the beliefs of which are the true foundations of distress. It isn’t so much the people that are scary; your distorted imagination is. Keith Frankish, the notable philosopher we recently had on our show, told me that we have to say ten stupid things in order to say one smart one. So, we can find solace in knowing that the best of us are prone to err as well.

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