Psychotherapy expert: Fear of groups

Vol XXVII: When it comes to being in a group setting, I feel intensely disliked and rejected. What is it that goes on in group dynamics that people who are like me must be missing?

dr mike 88 (photo credit: )
dr mike 88
(photo credit: )
Dr. Mike is a licensed clinical social worker (USA and Israel) in private practice in Ra'anana and Jerusalem. He is also founder and director of SmokeQuitters. He recently wrote a column called "Psych-Talk with Dr. Mike" in which the feedback from readers was excellent. He has decided to shift gears and invite readers to submit their questions concerning a wide range of topics: child development, adult problems, addictions, ADHD, adjustment problems, crises and transitions, trauma, phobia, mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bi-polar. He also welcomes questions concerning your marital or couple relationship, family issues, parenting, problems at work, self-confidence, shyness and much more. To arrange a consultation (Israel and international), call or e-mail Dr. Gropper at (972) 9 774-1913 or at "I take pleasure having the opportunity to answer your questions in what I hope will be an informative and exciting weekly column in the Jerusalem Post-online edition. Look forward to hearing from you soon." Send your questions for Dr. Mike and please leave your comments on the Q&A below. * * * Psych-Talk with Dr. Mike: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 Click here for Volumes I-IV Click here for Volumes V-IX Click here for Volumes X-XIII Click here for Volumes XIV-XV Click here for Volumes XVI-XIX Click here for Volume XX Click here for Volume XXI-XXII Click here for Volume XXIII-XXIV Click here for Volume XXV -XXVI * * * This column is intended solely to educate and is not a substitute for personal diagnosis or treatment. If you have a difficult problem, please seek advice from your own doctor or mental-health professional. * * * Vol XXVII Q: Since I was a child, I have always been able to maintain close friendships with a couple of individuals at a time; but always, when it came to being with a group of people - be it in a summer camp or college dorm - I felt intensely disliked and rejected. I am unaware of my behavior in groups being significantly different from my behavior with individuals - other than being a bit shy in groups - yet the judgment of groups seems so much more cruel, harsh and unfair to me than those of individual relationships. What is it that goes on in group dynamics that people who are like me must be missing? A: First of all, you are not alone. At about 8% of the population -- men and women almost equally -have some type of social phobia or shyness problem. Although a common problem, social phobia is not well understood by the general public or even among practitioners. Because few people with social phobia have ever heard of their problem and have never seen it discussed on the television talk shows, they think they are the only ones who have these symptoms. Your problem of shyness occurs more in groups than just with a few friends. Psychologists have studied the very problem that you describe and have identified that people afraid of groups are making cognitive errors in their thinking about groups that leads to a lot of anxiety and insecurity and a strong desire to avoid such experiences. When ever you have been in group situations, ask yourself how much emphasis you place on people judging you. An underlying and common fear is that you will be humiliated and embarrassed in such situations. In other words, while feeling comfortable in being around one or just a few friends, the group seems to take on this big overwhelming structure that needs to be avoided at any cost. Some years ago, Sue, a woman in her 50s sought my help for her social phobia. Her husband had recently passed away from cancer. Now alone, she was terrified of meeting people and lacked all confidence in knowing what to say and do in these situations. While there were many deep rooted reasons in her personal history why she had developed social phobia, simply understanding these reasons did not give her the tools to tackle her fears. I asked her to construct a 'fear hierarchy' of the several social situations that she was most afraid of and wanted to avoid. Once this list was completed, we started with the least anxiety provoking social encounter and worked our way up the list. There were many skills that I taught her including relaxation ones like deep breathing, imagery techniques which got her imagine herself in a "safe' place when approaching the feared social encounter, and communication skills that helped her to know what and how to verbally interact in these situations. But, the one technique that really helped the most and I believe could be useful to you, I call overcoming the illusion of groups. The Illusion Like Sue, when in a group setting, you are probably afraid that all of those people possess something in their personalities that you don't, like popularity and super confidence. But if you could read the minds of the people in any group encounter, you would probably discover that one is shy, the other sad, the third is not paying attention and the fourth has a self confidence problems, the fifth had a bad day at work and looks angry, the sixth has economic problems and looks worried, the seventh may find that one of them actually feared you and so on and so on. Those people you are afraid of are humans like you, and according to social science statistics, most of them are down, having self confidence problems and not so sure of themselves. You can only feel self conscious when you think of all of those people around you as super humans and not just normal humans like you. My Advice Whenever you feel afraid when approaching a group of people just stop, close your eyes, then look at them again, but this time look at them as humans, look at them as people like you who have their own problems and on doing so this fear and social anxiety usually disappears. Don't look at a group and see one big block of people, look at a group and see individual humans. * * * Send your comments >> Cafe Oleh experts have been chosen for their knowledge and reputation. Cafe Oleh does not take responsibility for any advice they offer.
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