In the realm of human interactions, social encounters can trigger varying degrees of nervousness. This phenomenon often puzzles us, especially when considering individuals with seemingly poor social skills or harboring negative self-evaluations. Shedding light on this complexity is the self-presentation theory—a conceptual framework striving to unveil why certain people experience heightened anxiety in social settings.
The Quest for a Desired Impression
At its core, the self-presentation theory posits that social anxiety emerges when an individual, motivated to create a specific impression, doubts their ability to achieve this desired image successfully. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily imply a concern about being unfavorably perceived by others. Instead, the focus is on the aspiration to present oneself in a particular manner.
Consider this scenario: A person might be deeply invested in portraying themselves as confident, knowledgeable, or approachable during a social encounter. However, underlying doubts about effectively achieving this self-presentation can lead to feelings of anxiety. Here, the emphasis lies on the “desired impression,” which might not inherently equate to a positive or favorable impression. The individual’s primary concern revolves around how they project themselves.
The PURPOSE OF ANXIETY IN Social Interactions
Within our intricate social sphere, interactions are significantly influenced by the impressions we form of one another. It’s essential, however, to refrain from misconstruing social discomfort as mere vanity or neuroticism. In reality, anxiety serves as an evolutionary mechanism designed to alert us to potential threats against our social well-being. It compels us to take corrective actions that restore normal social relations.
Social anxiety, therefore, could stem from anticipatory fears surrounding the possibility of creating an unintended, undesirable impression. This apprehension extends to the potential consequences of such impressions—ranging from damage to one’s public image to even the risk of social exclusion.
Expanding on the self-presentation theory, it’s pertinent to acknowledge that concerns extend beyond one’s self-image. Individuals also wrestle with apprehensions tied to others’ impressions. This includes the quest for social approval from peers or the avoidance of negative evaluations.
Consider instances where encounters involve strangers, ambiguous situations, or unfamiliar roles. In such scenarios, anxiety often looms large due to the uncertainty surrounding the impression they project. Empirical evidence further underscores this theory. Notably, a study showcased decreased anxiety levels in situations where making an impression is challenging due to external factors like loud noise. Here, the individual is momentarily relieved from the burden of delivering a flawless social performance.
PROTECTING THE SELF
When socially anxious participants anticipate interpersonal evaluations from their conversational partners, they often adopt protective self-presentation styles. This can manifest as recounting shorter, less revealing personal stories or conversations. The intention is to avert the risk of making a negative impression.
Interestingly, research also reveals a thought-provoking twist: People who exude qualities like physical attractiveness, social prowess, exceptional talents, or extensive knowledge might inadvertently evoke social anxiety in those they interact with. Their socially desirable characteristics seem to cast a spotlight on the potential disparity between their own self-presentation and the desired image.
In a nutshell, the self-presentation theory ventures to unravel the intricate dance between desired self-image and others’ perceptions. It reminds us that social anxiety is a multifaceted interplay of motivations, aspirations, and uncertainties—ultimately shaping the way we navigate the delicate intricacies of human interaction.
Leary MR, Kowalski RM. The self-presentational model of social phobia. In: Heimberg RG, Liebowitz MR, Hope DA, Schneier FR, editors. Social Phobia: Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment. New York: Guilford Press; 1995. pp. 94–112