Laura* was one of the most amazing people I have ever met. All her life she had suffered from social phobia. Her story was as heartbreaking as any I’ve heard.

However, even though she had been to hell and back by the time she met me, she had never given up trying.

Believe me, that girl had guts.

She just kept trucking on, despite waking up each morning with a gut-wrenching anxiety, she just got on with it. I couldn’t help but have the greatest admiration for her strength of character.

You all seem to be so confident and in control. Me? I just think I’m ugly and a nerd

The tragic thing, however, was Laura had the complete opposite opinion of herself.

Once she told me: “I always feel horribly self-conscious,” she told me. “You all seem to be so confident and in control. Me? I just think I’m ugly and a nerd. Over the years, I’ve learned to fade into the woodwork. But I hate it. I hate that I am like this.

“I’m not the most-intelligent person in the world but feeling like this really prevented me from doing well in school. I would have loved to have done well enough to have been able to go to college. I knew though I would never go.

“Going to college was for normal people. I was one of life’s losers. I drifted from one low-paid job to another. I would never let anyone close. Social situations were the worst. I would avoid them at all cost.

Being rejected would make me feel so much worse, that I learned to never take the chance

“I did try to go a few times but would stand there like a wallflower and get tongue-tied if anybody spoke to me. I could see others getting uncomfortable with me, trying to make conversation and looking for an excuse to escape.

‘Being rejected would make me feel so much worse, that I learned to never take the chance.

“I tried loads of things to try to make myself feel better, but nothing ever worked. Every day was just more and more of the same struggle. It’s bad enough when you can’t live with someone. Trust me, it’s a million times worse when you can’t live with yourself.”

Laura asked me if I could cure her. I said that I didn’t have the power to cure anybody, but if she was willing to come see me, I could teach her how to cure herself.

We started by exploring how Laura viewed herself. How by labelling herself as “ugly” and a “nerd” she ended up viewing herself solely by these characteristics and ignoring everything else about herself.

We looked at where she had learned this. The bullying she had endured and how powerless she had been to stop it.

Over time, Laura realised that the more abnormal she believed she was, the more normal she believed others were. As a result, she felt like a nerd, viewed everyone else as normal and kept her mouth shut because if she let people look under the rug, they would see the “real Laura” and hate her as much as she hated herself.

Over time, Laura gradually came to see how all these pieces of the jigsaw kept interacting with each other and were causing the problem. By challenging her beliefs about herself, she could challenge what she believed a normal person looked like.

Eventually, Laura came to believe that she wasn’t the monster she thought she was and that everyone else was as flawed as her. And it was this insight that allowed her solve the social anxiety problem.

We are all socially anxious

That nervous tension you feel when you go into a social situation is social anxiety. It’s perfectly normal and has all to do with how we want to fit in and be accepted by others.

Unfortunately, how we fit in with others will be more determined by our relationship with ourselves, rather than our interactions with people in our lives.

Like Laura above, we train our brain into viewing ourselves in a certain way. This viewpoint is the result of how we have been taught to view ourselves by our world. And is reinforced by how we react to this.

If by our experiences, we view ourselves through a negative lens, our social anxiety grows into a full-blown social phobia.

How we feel affects how we act. How we act affects how we think. How we think affects how we feel.

If we believe that we are less than others, this vicious cycle of thinking, feeling and acting spirals. Our fear of exposure intensifies. How we think people view us deepens and becomes more negative. Until we lose all sense of reality, creating a world in our head similar to Laura’s.

All human beings experience social anxiety, because we all share two irrational beliefs.

  • People will view me the way I view myself.
  • I must accept other people’s opinion of me, even though I don’t agree with it.
  • People may see a version of me that I don’t want them to have. As a result, they will reject me.

    As a consequence, whenever I’m faced with a social event, I will act in a way to try to protect myself. I might talk more or less, stand on the edge of the group, stay quiet or even avoid social situations altogether.

    Either way, my behaviour will reinforce my “stinking thinking” about myself.

    Taking action

    Like nearly everything else in life, we solve our social phobia problem in the same way that we grew it, by practice.

    If you acted your way into wrong thinking, then you need to act your way into right thinking.

    The whole you is greater than the sum of your parts. Learning to accept yourself means accepting that you can’t be measured by your flaws. Understanding this is the key to overcoming social phobia.

    Once you learn to accept yourself, you will also see that everyone else is flawed. You will stop putting yourself down and will stop putting people on pedestals. Achieve this and you’ve overcome your anxiety.

    So, stop blindly accepting your own twaddle about yourself. Nobody is as bad as you think you are. Similarly, you are not that unique. Nature doesn’t create rubbish.

    Google “Social Anxiety Cognition Questionnaire” and “Social Anxiety Behaviour Questionnaire” and you will find loads of lists of the most-common thoughts that go on in our heads in social situations when we are anxious. And the most common behaviours we indulge in to try and “protect” ourselves.

    Pick a social event and go to it. When you’re there pick one of the small safety behaviours, like gripping a glass or standing on the edge of the group. Keep your hands at your side or stand two steps closer to the group.

    Nobody is even going to notice what you’re doing; they are all too wrapped up in their own heads.

    Look at the thoughts that are going on in your mind as to what you think people are seeing and what they are thinking. Try to understand that you’re not transparent and people can’t read your mind.

    Once you’ve started to realise that all this is in your head. You are now able to start to switch off the anxiety.

    Google mindfulness exercises for social anxiety. Practice these over and over again.

    You will feel more anxious at the start, but this will subside over time. Allow the anxious feelings wash over you like a wave on a beach.

    By practice, you will gradually rewire your head and switch off your anxiety. So work it, you’re worth it.

    *Pseudonym used for anonymity.

    Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist and director of Seeme. For more details go to Please email your own queries for Enda to