Psychology: Fear of groups

Social group phobia is a common fear that may be alleviated with some applied cognitive thinking.

Microphone crowd performance audience 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Microphone crowd performance audience 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fear of groups, and particularly speaking in groups, is more common than you may think. About eight percent of the population – men and women almost equally – have some type of social phobia or shyness problem that shows up in group situations. Although a common problem, social group phobia is not well understood by the general public or even among practitioners. Since few people with social group phobia have ever heard of their problem, they think they are the only ones who have these symptoms.
Psychologists have identified that people who are afraid of groups are making cognitive errors in their thinking that can cause a lot of anxiety, insecurity and a strong desire to avoid such experiences. These vulnerable individuals spend a lot of time unconsciously thinking that people are judging them. An underlying and common fear is that of being humiliated and embarrassed in such situations.
In other words, while feeling comfortable being around one or just a few friends, the group seems to take on this overwhelming structure that needs to be avoided at any cost.
There are many factors that may be responsible for why a person has such social group anxiety. Some people are more biologically prone to shyness, while others may have been humiliated in their families or other social group settings while growing up. One client told me how a first-grade teacher had severely humiliated him in front of his classmates. He never forgot this, and it had a profound negative effect on his comfort tolerance in group settings.
This fear continued to haunt him throughout his childhood, and he did everything in his power to stay out of the spotlight and avoid speaking in front of groups. His insecurity was further reinforced by his narcissistic father’s insensitivity and competitiveness with his son, always putting his son down in group gatherings with family members and friends.
While there were many deep-rooted reasons in his personal history why he had developed social group phobia, simply understanding these reasons did not give him the tools to tackle his fears. He had come to therapy because his fear of groups was beginning to compromise his career goals, which required his making presentations to colleagues.
I asked him to construct a “fear hierarchy” of the several social group situations that he was most afraid of and wanted to avoid. Once this list was completed, we started with the least anxiety-provoking social group encounter and worked our way up the list.
There were many skills that I taught him, including a relaxation deep-breathing exercise, imagery techniques that instructed him to imagine himself in a safe place when approaching the feared social encounter, and communication skills that helped him to know what and how to verbally interact in these situations. But the one method that helped the most was the illusion technique.
If you suffer from social group phobia, try this technique. When in a group setting, you are probably afraid that all those people possess something in their personalities that you don’t, such as popularity and super-confidence.
But if you could read their minds, you would probably discover that one is shy, another is sad, the third is not paying attention, the fourth has a self-confidence problems, the fifth had a bad day at work and looks angry, the sixth is worried about his economic problems and the seventh may actually be afraid of you.
In other words, those people that you fear, are human beings just like you, and according to social science statistics, many may be having self-confidence problems and are also not so sure of themselves. You can only feel self-conscious when you think of all of those people around you as super-humans rather than just normal humans like you.
If 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 people like you who have their own problems.
In doing so, this fear and social anxiety usually disappear. Don’t look at a group and see one big block of people. Look at a group and see individuals, just regular people.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in both Jerusalem and Ra’anana.