I’m not interesting because I don’t have anything exciting going on in my life. I’ll stutter and I won’t have the perfect response. There will be an awkward pause. I won’t make the perfect joke. It won’t be perfectly smooth. My mind will go blank. I’ll forget or won’t know what to say. I’ll blush. I won’t look relaxed. I won’t feel relaxed….
These are just some of the many thoughts that individuals with social anxiety disorder (SAD) have, when asked what will happen in a social situation. If you’re thinking that these thoughts reflect some pretty high standards for how a social situation “should” go, you’re not alone.
Current models of SAD indicate that individuals with SAD enter social situations with perceptions of high and unattainable social standards, leading to greater anxiety in social situations.1 Take, for example, the statement “I’ll stutter and I won’t have the perfect response.” Chances are, we’ve all stuttered or fumbled a word when speaking. We are, after all, human. It happens. Chances are even greater that we’ve all had moments where we just didn’t feel like we had that “perfect response.” Again, it happens.
What is a perfect response, anyway?
For individuals with SAD there is the belief and the expectation that they should have the perfect response and that they should talk without ever stuttering or fumbling a word. If you believed that everything you said always had to be perfect, you would likely feel anxious every time you had to interact with other. After all, the chances of any of us ever saying something perfectly, is rather slim. In other words, because individuals with SAD expect themselves to have perfect social interactions, they feel greater anxiety in social situations.
Given these high expectations, it may not be surprising that numerous studies have shown that perfectionism and social anxiety are significantly associated with one another.2, 3 However, what these studies do not account for is the role of neuroticism – the tendency to experience negative emotions such as fear and anxiety – which is strongly associated with both perfectionism and social anxiety.4
Because of this, it has been unclear if perfectionism is associated with social anxiety, or if it is neuroticism driving the relationship instead. To address this, researchers at Lakehead University examined the relations between perfectionism and social anxiety, controlling for neuroticism.5 Using a sample of 271 individuals, the researchers found that neuroticism and perfectionism were both associated with social anxiety. Additionally, even when controlling for the effect of neuroticism, perfectionism was significantly associated with social anxiety.
In other words, it is possible that trait levels of perfectionism are uniquely associated with social anxiety. Although the findings are cross-sectional, indicating that we don’t know if perfectionism causes social anxiety, or vice versa, the findings do point to the importance of attending to perfectionistic tendencies in those with social anxiety. Doing so may not only lower their expectations of what a successful social interaction looks like, but also help break the cycle of SAD.
1. Hofmann, S. G. (2007).
2. Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2014). Perfectionism and perfectionistic self-presentation in social anxiety. In S. G. Hofmann, & P. M. DiBartolo (Eds.), Social anxiety: Clinical, developmental, and social perspectives (pp. 160–183) (3rd ed.). London, UK: Elsevier.
3. Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456–470.
4. Naragon-Gainey, K., & Watson, D. (2011). Clarifying the dispositional basis of social anxiety: A hierarchical perspective. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(7), 926–934.
5. Newby, J., Pitura, V. A., Penney, A. M., Klein, R. G., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2017). Neuroticism and perfectionism and predictors of social anxiety. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 263-267.
Carol S. Lee is a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with a background in psychology from the University of California San Diego. Her research with Dr. Sarah A. Hayes-Skelton focuses on understanding the effectiveness of anxiety disorder treatments, especially in the context of engaging in behavior despite fear or anxiety. Carol and Dr. Hayes-Skelton co-author articles for Anxiety.org, blending social and clinical psychology in their work.