Social Anxiety – Vulnerability Doesn’t Feel Safe

posted in: Recent, Stage 2, Stage 2: Step 5

Humans want to feel safe. Feeling or being safe reflects profound shifts in your body’s chemistry to “rest and digest.” Not only do you feel a deep sense of contentment, openness and play, your body refuels and regenerates. Your safety needs aren’t met if you don’t feel heard, validated, and nurtured; and your body shifts to a “fight or fight” state. The next reaction is to achieve safety progressively using power and control. The final phase of this reaction is anger. It is a last-ditch survival effort and while it is protective for you, it is destructive to those around you.

There is no reward for being vulnerable for any species of life from one-celled organisms to homo sapiens. Consequences are severe and often swift. It is never safe to be off-guard, and different species create ways to be safe. They need to replenish fuel to fight another day. For example, a dolphin sleeps with one eye open. Many species form protective groups. Consider the number of ways creatures hide or camouflage themselves. Many species simply have thousands of offspring, so a few will survive. When these strategies fail, the final phase is whatever aggressive response they have available to them. The more strength and power, the better.



The added dimension of language

Humans have language, which creates another level of issues around seeking safety. We possess abstract thinking that allows us to engage in the arts, create coordinated societal actions, and have complex relationships with others. We rose to the top of the food chain because of our capacity to cooperate with each other. We have a strong evolutionary need to have close connections and relationships. For example, being socially isolated or lonely has the same effect on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1 Look how much effort is put into seeing close friends and family during the holidays. We want to be with each other and the closer the better.

But one of the most perverse aspects of being human, is that successful thriving relationships require vulnerability and trust. These traits are the antithesis of feeling safe. Additionally, emotional/ mental pain is processed in a similar manner as physical pain.2 “You hurt my feelings” and You broke my heart” reflect this phenomenon. So, we don’t like pain in any form, yet we have to become vulnerable in order to have deep and satisfying relationships. It is a huge problem, and it is not playing out well for the human race.

By definition, every interaction with another person requires taking a risk of being rejected or hurt. Even checking out at the grocery store involves trusting him or her to accurately document your purchases and help you with your bags. It is nice if they are in a good mood and are friendly. But what if they are having a bad day? Then there are deeper relationships such as being on a team, doing a project together, starting up any type of relationship, and living together. Being rejected at some level of the interaction is not only common, but also the rule. As you become more and more trusting, at some tipping point the level of vulnerability for that relationship will be reached, and one person will pull back or even reject it.

Your options

At this point, your choices are to 1) quit taking risks associated with interacting with others 2) engage but experience social anxiety 3) use whatever power you possess to control others 4) learn to be vulnerable. Since we don’t inherently possess the ability to feel vulnerable, the other less functional strategies are more commonly utilized.

Some form of anger is universal. Why? It keeps you safe. It protects you from both emotional and physical pain. Even if you don’t actually have the power to change the situation, you may feel like you do. Raw anxiety is intolerable and why we hold on to anger.

Why let go of anger?

  • The main reason is that you simply cannot heal or thrive when you remain angry. The essence of healing is normalizing your body’s neurochemical state to that of a safety profile, which is profoundly restorative. If your whole system remains fired up, how can that happen? It can’t and won’t.
  • Your brain structurally adapts to your focus of attention. You cannot move forward until you let go of the past, especially your deepest wounds. Most people in chronic pain remain angry at the situations or people who have harmed them. The more legitimate your gripe, the harder it is to move on. But how does holding on to the past make your life more enjoyable?
  • Anger is destructive, as it is supposed to be. It’s your body’s last ditch effort to escape threat. It is destructive in every direction, including self-destruction. It is the reason why many people completely neglect every aspect of their health. It is tantamount to slow suicide.
  • Anger is abusive and destroys relationships. The key element of successful human interactions is awareness of your needs and others’ needs. How else can you constructively interact with those close to you? Anger completely blocks awareness.
  • Anger destroys families. Human consciousness evolved through language and social interactions. The ability to cooperate took homo sapiens from the bottom to the top of the food chain. The need for human connection is deep. Unfortunately, close connections are also the strongest triggers. Why would you ever be unkind to someone you care for so much? Why is the incidence of domestic abuse so high? It is maybe the most disturbing paradox of our human existence.
  • Anger is the manifestation of the fight mode of the survival response. All organ systems are affected. The blood supply to your gut, bladder, and the frontal lobes of your brain diminishes and is shunted to your heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles. You can’t think clearly, although it might feel like you can. It is critical to, “Take no action in a reaction.”

Interacting with others involves taking the risk of being rejected or even hurt. There are physical risks, such as trusting a business partner who might run off with your money. What about your partner or spouse, who takes off with another person? These are deep ones, but simply reaching out to another person in friendship creates some level of anxiety.

Train your brain

You can use avoidance, suffer from chronic social anxiety, or resort to power and control to feel safe. The healthiest and most satisfying option is learning to be vulnerable and process rejection. In other words, being with anxiety. Being or feeling rejected is inherent to relationships, and unless you understand this, your world will become progressively smaller. Training yourself to lower your threat physiology (anxiety) instead of fighting it allows you to navigate life more easily. BTW, social connections are anti-inflammatory and lower anxiety.3 Addressing social anxiety is a bi-directional process. You can nurture joy, more easily interact with others, feel safer, and create the life you desire.




  1. Cigna US Loneliness Index. Cigna: 2018.
  2. Eisenberger N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosom Med (2012); 74: 126-135.
  3. Dantzer R, et al. Resilience and immunity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2018); 74:28-42.