Research, and common sense, tell us that hope is an important factor in recovering from an anxiety disorder – – including social anxiety. So, what makes the difference between an individual who has hope and one who doesn’t? One critical factor is “mindset”: how you view yourself and your situation in relation to others.
By mindset I don’t simply mean whether your attitude is positive or negative. There’s more to it than that. Psychologist Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University widely acclaimed in the fields of personality and social psychology, discovered that individuals’ mindsets will predict success in most realms of life, including school, business, the arts, and the subject of this article: social interaction.
The Difference Between Fixed and Growth Mindset
According to Dr. Dweck, having a fixed mindset means believing that your characteristics, especially your abilities, are set – – carved in stone – – unchangeable. For example, you think that your personality is permanent, your intelligence level is predetermined and your aptitudes are innate. You can imagine how a fixed mindset would interfere with overcoming social anxiety. You might think, “I’m a shy person by nature and there’s no way I’ll ever be comfortable talking with strangers let alone meeting a romantic partner!”
Dr. Dweck uses the term growth mindset to describe individuals who believe that their qualities and achievements can be developed through personal effort. So, an individual with a growth mindset thinks, “I can change and improve myself with effort and experience.”
Socially Anxious Individuals: A Tale of Two Mindsets
If you have social anxiety and a fixed mindset, you think, to quote Dr. Dweck: “Nothing ventured – – nothing lost.” It’s better to avoid a scary situation – – meeting someone new, speaking up at a business meeting, giving a presentation – – than to risk making a mistake and embarrassing myself!
This fixed mindset leads you to either avoid anxiety-provoking situations altogether, or do things to try and cope, which we call “safety behaviors.” Examples of safety behaviors are not speaking up, averting eye contact, cutting conversation short, having a couple of drinks or taking an anti-anxiety drug like Xanax to cope. You think, “If at first I don’t succeed – – it proves I don’t have it. My personality is fixed; I can’t change who I am.” You say to yourself, “If I can’t make conversation easily, it’s because I’m socially awkward. This is how I am and no effort can change that.”
But it may surprise you to learn that not all people with Social Anxiety Disorder think this way.
How Social Anxiety Affects People with a Growth Mindset
Individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder who also have the growth mindset view anxiety-provoking situations differently. They, too, are very intimidated, but they see these events as challenges, opportunities to practice new skills that will help them overcome their fears.
Psychologist Jennifer Beer studied this key distinction in hundreds of socially anxious individuals with a fixed or growth mindset. She developed a way to measure subjects’ mindsets and shyness levels. Then she videotaped pairs of them getting acquainted with each other and had observers evaluate how they interacted. Here is what she found.
While both shy people looked very anxious during the first five minutes of the video, the socially anxious individuals with the growth mindset demonstrated more social abilities, were more likable and made the conversation more pleasant than the shy subjects with the fixed mindset. In other words, after a short time, the socially anxious individuals with the growth mindset did not appear shy at all!
In sum, the shy people with the growth mindset, although scared, approached the situation as a challenge, while the equally frightened persons with the fixed mindset viewed the same event as a risk they would rather avoid.
A Short Story of Mindset and Performance Anxiety
From a young age I always wanted to sing and perform. When I was in grade school the music teacher told my parents that I had talent and should study music. I began taking piano lessons. Although I had a very good ear for music, I struggled to read the notes. Playing piano and singing in front of others caused tremendous anxiety.
I developed a fixed mindset. I thought, “If it’s such a struggle to read music and if performing in front of people triggers such anxiety, it means I don’t have “it.” Since I’m not a natural at performing, I must not have the talent.”
This fixed mindset caused me to turn away from music and performing for a long time. Years later, yearning to sing again, I got a voice coach, joined a chorus, went to karaoke bars and began working on my music in earnest. I started facing my fears. Can you guess what I discovered? As my mindset changed from fixed to growth, I participated in each choral rehearsal and performance with a new attitude – – and, slowly but surely, I began to overcome my anxiety. Guess I did have “it” after all.
What This Means for You: Shifting to a Growth Mindset
Two elements of transitioning from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset are first, being open to alternative interpretations of how others may view you, and second, conducting experiments to try out new behaviors. Both are key aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder.
To gain a different, more neutral perspective – – in other words, one that reflects a growth mindset, you would challenge your pessimistic thoughts. For example, if you believe you’ll freeze up and embarrass yourself if you speak up at a meeting, you can choose a growth outlook: “Even though I’ll be nervous, I can practice offering brief comments and watch how others respond.” Although you haven’t changed your behavior yet, you’ve taken a critical first step just by broadening your thinking.
Then, to conduct the above experiment of speaking up at the meeting, you must temporarily suspend your safety behavior of remaining silent, (or sitting in the back of the room, or avoiding the meeting altogether.) To motivate yourself to take a risk, you’ll need to adopt the growth mindset. This blog post about letting go of safety behaviors will help you get into that frame of mind.
In conclusion, adopting a growth mindset enabled me to start singing again and take the necessary steps toward overcoming my performance anxiety. I’m confident that changing your mindset from fixed to growth can help you achieve your goals too.
Randy Weiss, LCSW
NSAC – Phoenix
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.
Beer, J. S. (2002). Implicit self-theories of shyness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 1009–1024.