Social Anxiety and Perfectionism from Early Childhood to University (Social Anxiety in the Classroom: Part 2)
This is the second part of a three part series on social anxiety in the classroom. On Monday (the first part), we discussed the differences between shyness, introversion, social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder (SAD). Now that we are clearer on the terminology, I want to share my personal trajectory from early childhood to university. My hope is that this story will help paint a picture of how these difficulties with social anxiety may arise, at least from the psychological standpoint.
Please note that with mental disorders such as SAD, the causes are rarely completely psychological (i.e., from how you interpret yourself, others, and the world). There are also biological and environmental factors that play roles in the overall manifestation of SAD.
Photo by Soragrit Wongsa
My social anxiety & perfectionism trajectory from early childhood to university:
I was neck-deep in perfectionism by the time I was in fourth grade, so for a long time, I was afraid of showing imperfection to others, thinking that it will skew their perception of me. I was used to being called “perfect”, “intelligent”, and “the smartest” by my parents, teachers, and other peers. In fact, since I had moved schools every year since our immigration to Canada until fourth grade, I developed a life dogma.
I believed that I would only be liked by others (peers, teachers, parents) if I consistently rose to the top of the class in every school I attended. I noticed as a young child that when I achieved perfect grades, I received positive attention. “She did it again!”, my teachers would exclaim. “Our baby is so smart!”, my parents would beam. “Nicole is perfect!”, I would overhear from peers’ discussions. “She’s such a nerd”, I would hear from others. I remember thinking to myself, “The most important thing is to get perfect grades. Being called a ‘nerd’ is not important because perfect grades is what will make me successful”.
Eventually, I ended up believing that because I am “perfect”, I can never make any mistakes. I also thought that I should be able to get perfect grades without much effort, because I was somehow inherently intelligent. Of course, as I moved up the educational ladder, I put in more and more and more effort into my work to keep up my grades. But the mindset that I adopted throughout was one of self-criticism. “Why do I need to work so hard? Aren’t I supposed to be smart?”. I learned much later that this is a common phenomenon called the “fixed mindset”, coined by Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation and determinants of success.
High school – 9th grade
In 9th grade (freshman year), my perfectionism skyrocketed. My grade 7 and 8 teachers fuelled our minds with phrases such as, “High school is not a walk in the park, you know. We’re going really easy on you all”. I thought to myself that I’m going to have to work even harder to make sure I continued to get perfect grades.
There was also the pressure of transitioning from being a big fish in a small pond to an average fish in a large lake. I thought of respect as a finite resource. I believed that I could only gain some of that respect in this larger high school environment through getting perfect grades. However, at the same time, I was extremely non-competitive with others. I never asked for others’ grades and did not concern myself with academic hierarchies.
I only competed with myself. We see all the time in current self-help media that you should “only compete with yourself”, but even this has its unhealthy limits. If I got even one mark off of a test, I remember that I went home and felt like a complete failure. Even though I was spending upwards of 3-4 hours on after-school schoolwork every day and excelling in all of my classes, I called myself nasty names like “lazy”, “unlikable”, and “failure” on the daily.
In grade 9, a new source of social anxiety developed. Being called on randomly in class was one of the worst possible social scenarios I could think of. The idea that I would be called on and then I would respond with a) the completely wrong answer, or b) a series of ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, was my worst nightmare. I thought that if I made a mistake in front of everyone, they would immediately mark me down as “stupid” or “undeserving of respect”. Even so, it was not debilitative. I did not carry any negative cognitions with me outside of the lesson, and I did not worry excessively before or during class.
High school – 11th grade
By the time I was in grade 11 (junior year), was consistently working all the way until 9PM after my extracurriculars. I had a strong cognitively distorted belief that if I did not work until at least 9PM every single weekday, I would fail all of my courses (all-or-nothing thinking, fortune-telling). On weekends, I would often spend almost the entire time studying and working on projects. Yes, I was receiving incredible grades, but I was also chipping away at my once diverse hobbies, writing them all off as a “waste of time”.
In class, I had almost completely stopped raising my hand at all, simply to avoid the possibility that I would give the wrong answer. It was probably nonsensical to see – I consistently maintained the highest GPA in my year, and yet I did very little in class to contribute to progressing the lesson. This is because grades have nothing to do with creative/innovative thinking and everything to do with selective memorization & regurgitation, but this is a topic for another post. By this point, I did not even have any tangible reason why I wanted to achieve perfect grades. I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I did not. I was addicted to the chase – getting a good grade and reflecting that back on my self-worth, and then moving onto the next graded project.
University – 1st year
When I entered the BHSc (Bachelor of Health Sciences) program, things got even worse internally. Coming out of grade 12 (senior year), I had achieved the highest GPA in my school board. But now, I was in university. Obviously, despite my prior academic achievements, I was now a tiny fish in comparison to an ocean. But on top of that, my peers in BHSc were all stellar students themselves (many also with well-developed hobbies and incredible experiences). Not only was it completely unfeasible to receive perfect grades (as in, 100% on every single evaluation), but in this environment, I thought no one would offer respect for it anyway. “Because,” I believed, “they are all already perfect – why would anyone respect anyone who just had good grades and some school band/choir experience?”.
In first year, we had a small 16-person class that was completely based on student discussion. For the first time, there was an added pressure – I felt that it would be much more apparent if I hadn’t verbally contributed for extended periods of time. Also for the first time, there was never anything anyone could say that was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – something that I relied on for most of my life to determine whether or not to say anything.
I started to feel immense anxiety not just from the idea of speaking, but from how my ideas would be received and from how long it has been since the last time I contributed verbally. For the first time, I began to dread attending class simply for the fact that I would feel this intense internal pressure to speak. The cognitive distortions built up in my head without my notice.
All-or-nothing thinking, mind reading & fortune telling: “If I say something, it has to be perfect or else they’ll all judge me”.
Disqualifying the positive: “I said something before and it was well-received, but that’s only because it was obvious. I’m not creative”.
Overgeneralizing: “They just glossed over what I said. They always do that. No one listens to what I have to say”.
University – 3rd year
By third year, these thoughts consumed my mind every time I was in a similar class (and by Jove, there were a lot more of them). I was very aware of my extreme perfectionism – I had even dedicated the prior years in BHSc to reducing the negative effects of my perfectionism. I wrote essays upon essays about perfectionism and its effects on the academic setting and personal setting. I also placed myself into more of these student-led, inquiry-based classes in order to practice overcoming my anxious thoughts and fears.
However, it was not until my “big crash and burn” that I realized there was much more to my perfectionism than its impact on my life balance. It was single-handedly fuelling intense social anxiety in a wide variety of situations as well as periods of debilitative depression (oftentimes, the two are closely interlinked and comorbid). Before this point, I thought that what I was experiencing as a student was completely typical.
It slipped by right under my nose
- I had stopped eating and sleeping properly because I was caught in the perfectionism spiral (i.e., working so hard that I neglect health —> results not what I wanted —> working even harder next time, cutting even more from my health, etc.).
- I had spent a ridiculously long time on any group project task out of fear that my work would be deemed not “good enough”.
- I had practiced for hours upon hours for every single random-selection presentation out of extreme anxiety over making a mistake and appearing that I did not care about the project and was freeloading.
- I still struggled with student-discussion-based classes inside and out of class, but now to the extent where I thought endlessly about all the times I actually spoke and nitpicked every single word and reaction.
- I scrutinized myself in my relationship, afraid that if I did not put in 120% effort into both our relationship and academics, my boyfriend would not respect and care about me anymore.
- When I did not verbally contribute for some time in a student-led class, I would compare myself to others who were more vocal, and, feeling trapped in my heavy self-criticism, I zoned out of class discussion completely.
- Every time I wanted to share an idea with the class, my heart rate would rapidly increase, my breathing would become less consistent, and my mind began swarming with “what ifs” and anxiety.
- Eventually, I had even begun self-harming when I made public mistakes, but alarmingly, did not even realize that I was self-harming. I thought that what I was doing to myself was completely typical.
Heck, I was proud that I was “pushing myself to succeed” and that I was “sacrificing in order to be the best version of myself”. Disgustingly, I had a 4.0 GPA medal to prove this “success”. So when I was struggling immensely one week in January, I was taken to the Student Wellness Centre by one of my dearest facilitators.
I had a problem. It was social anxiety disorder. And it was making me believe that as long as I appeared perfect on the outside in all aspects, what was going on inside did not matter in the slightest.
There is no magical solution for SAD, but the social anxiety struggle is common
Once I was diagnosed, it became easier to find more effective ways to fight my symptoms and improve on various functional aspects (such as speaking in class and performing regular student functions with less intense anxiety). This is partially because a psychotherapist worked with me to identify my cognitive distortions and work on strategies with me. Frustratingly, not only is it currently difficult to recognize if one’s social anxiety and/or perfectionism is causing abnormally high levels of distress, but most of these strategies on overcoming social anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders become accessible after the fact. That is, our focus seems to be more about treatment rather than prevention. This is something that I am seeking to help change through my academic research and my career direction.
I am not a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, so I am not qualified to diagnose anyone. But whether or not you have SAD is irrelevant. The cognitive interventions that I have learned from therapy are ones that I feel can be useful for anyone experiencing any level of social anxiety that they feel is inhibiting them from living the life they want to lead. This is what we will focus on in the next part of this series. There are exercises that I have worked on over the past year to gain more agency and control in situations where I commonly experience intense social anxiety. I’ve already touched on a generalizable method in this post, but I thought it may be helpful if I share ways that are more specific to social anxiety. Stay tuned!
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),