Social Anxiety and Decision-Making

Someone who has never dealt with anxiety (or any other mental illness) may not fully understand just how difficult it can be to go against the anxiety-based instincts and thought processes ingrained into your mind. Just identifying which thoughts and feelings are coming from anxiety, and which are coming from your own personal preferences and personality can be nearly impossible—sometimes I’m not even sure there is a difference to be found.

And yet, quite often, people expect you to make decisions as if your anxiety were not a factor—and if you do choose something to “cater to” your anxiety, it’s seen as a wrong decision, a weakness, a failing.

To juxtapose a different example, if someone were to tell you that they were choosing not to run a marathon because their struggle with cancer made them tired, it would be almost ridiculous to tell them, “Come on, just do it anyway. You’re not trying hard enough.” And the reason that it sounds ridiculous is because cancer can’t be helped, and it can’t be cured or even alleviated by just trying.

…Exactly. There is a pernicious and unfortunate stigma attached to mental illnesses (or difficulties/struggles, in more mild cases) that they can be “gotten over” or “pushed through” if you just try hard enough. It creates a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, atmosphere of blame around a person choosing to do something (or more commonly, not do something) because of their illness. Like it’s their fault that they can’t just decide not to struggle with it, and be “normal.”

There is some room for negotiation here. Encouraging someone to seek help with a professional or even medication isn’t always a bad thing—though it should be approached with caution, and their decision should be respected if it’s not what you would do. And, most importantly, therapy or medication is not an instant or even an eventual guarantee that someone will be able to “get over” their mental illness whenever they need to… just like treatment for cancer or other physical challenges doesn’t guarantee the person will be able to go run a marathon the next day.

I think we are programmed to try to help someone who we think is struggling, so we try various suggestions and motivational positive thinking. In and of itself, it’s a kind gesture. But if it doesn’t work, or the person is not in the right place to receive or act upon it, you can’t blame them for it. When their decision is affecting your life, then do what you have to do for your own health and happiness (creating distance, choosing differently, etc.)—but when it’s their life alone? Then you just have to let them make their own decisions, even if you think they’re the wrong ones.

But have some sympathy and understanding for people who are making these decisions because they have to—for their health, their happiness, and their survival. Sometimes making the “wrong” decision (such as not going after a certain job, or leaving a relationship, or choosing not to socialize) is the right decision for them, at this time, for whatever reason. Just because that reason is anxiety or mental illness doesn’t make it any less valid of a reason.

Let people make decisions for their own health and happiness how they see fit—and try not to judge, berate, or blame in the guise of encouragement.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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