In my NYC art therapy practice, I work with a lot of folks who are looking for therapy for social anxiety. Many who seek this sort of help find that in social interactions they are so uncomfortable and in their head that it renders them completely stumped and stuck around others. Initially in therapy, it is so often a relief just to have the space to be able to voice some of these insecurities and to no longer feel so alone with them. However, overcoming social anxiety is really rooted in the therapeutic relationship itself.
So much of what I hear folks talk about when it comes to social anxiety is fear. Fear about how they will be perceived. Fear about what others will think about their thoughts, opinions, and values. This causes many to become more and more withdrawn and show their true self less and less. The tough thing about this pattern is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less opportunity we give others to see our true selves, the less opportunity there is for us to feel truly accepted. So when social interactions begin to feel bland and unfulfilling, many interpret that as rejection or a reflection that their fears or true, rather than the truth, which is that there is more realness needed.
The Relationship as the Therapy
In my NYC therapy practice, I expect that anyone who feels social anxiety with others will likely feel some of that same discomfort with me. With two people sitting alone in a room together, therapy is intimate and there is nowhere to hide. This can be intimidating for many people and provides many opportunities for any social barriers that come up outside of therapy to happen in session.
This is where there is an opportunity to do things differently and cut the self-fulfilling prophecy off at the pass. In the therapy office, we get to talk about the social barriers as they are happening in real time. People can tell me what in our interaction made them feel self-conscious, what they fear I am thinking about them, and the ways they feel caught in their head. This process is incredibly helpful for the patient because they get to experience a new level of openness with another person who cares for them. They also get test reality a bit and learn that their worst fears are, in fact, not reality. This is a trust-building exercise in itself–they open up a little bit, take relational risk, and if it goes well, we have a more solid, trusting relationship.
As the social anxiety begins to melt away in the therapy room and people’s worst fears are not realized, there is more and more opportunity to replicate this new sense of freedom in outside relationships as well. As confidence builds in the therapeutic relationship, people often feel more open and prepared to take risks in other relationships and be more authentically themselves.
Art Serves the Relationship
In addition to talking as a way to communicate and build trust, I often use art materials as well. Words are limited and are often not able to fully convey the entire human experience. Art can be a relief for people with social anxiety. Art is a tool that can help people communicate without the pressure to do so verbally. Art gives me the opportunity to bear witness to how someone is feeling in that moment.
Art also lends itself particularly well to help chip away at social anxiety because art helps the maker get out of their heads. When using art in therapy, patients are able to focus less on things like, “What should I say?,” and more on the present moment. This allows for more freedom and spontaneity in addition to all that good stuff that I mentioned above, like building trust and a foundation.
Whatever the avenue–whether it be through words or art–therapy is a space to learn how to be with others in an authentic and honest way. It is through the act of being accepted by others that confidence can grow and anxiety will fall away.