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For people with social anxiety, interacting with other people — a necessary part of most people’s daily lives — can be fraught, and even terrifying. The socially anxious live in near-constant fear of overstepping imagined social boundaries, and often spend way too much time imagining the social consequences of that one slightly weird thing they said. Not that I would know anything about that.
Studies have found that there are a number of things the socially anxious can do to reduce their anxiety, including seeking out ways to be kind to others, playing video games, talk therapy, and exposure therapy, specifically in the form of embarrassing oneself in public, and watching as the world (and one’s life) does not fall apart. Sometimes, too, it’s nice just to witness someone else going through what you do, which is where a few of the following book recommendations come in.
Because here is one good thing about being socially anxious: plenty of time to read. Whether you’re trying to move past your social anxiety, or just make peace with it, here are five books (fiction and non-fiction) you might want to add to your list.
For the homebody who’s sick of feeling guilty: How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, by Ellen Hendriksen
Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety (and host of the podcast Savvy Psychologist), and her book is a compelling mix of science, advice, and relatable stories from real people with social anxiety. Hendriksen, too, suffers from social anxiety, which lends a layer of sympathy to her writing. The moral of her story, while familiar, feels refreshingly kind: be yourself, even when what she calls the “Inner Critic” tells you you’re being judged.
Sample lines: “Your true self is the self that emerges when you are with close friends, trusted family, or in blissful solitude. Underneath all that anxiety, you’re equipped with everything you need. There’s nothing you need to fake, no image to manufacture. You are enough just as you are.”
For the prolific texter who clams up IRL: Emergency Contact, by Mary H.K. Choi
Emergency Contact is a sharp, funny, and adorable young-adult romance, but it’s also a pretty great story about two people living with differing levels of anxiety (both social and otherwise), and the things they do to cope — the main one being texting each other for hours, at length, sometimes preferring to do so even after they’ve started hanging out in real life. For young people especially, expressing oneself online (or by text) is second-nature, even when doing so in person feels impossible. If bridging the technology barrier has ever felt impossible for you, you’ll relate to the characters in this book, and you’ll root for them, too.
Sample lines: “Penny rolled onto her back and smiled. She considered what to write back. The screen beneath her thumbs was so shiny. God, her phone was beautiful. Rose gold, in a black rubber case that read Whatever, Whatever, Whatever, it was easily nicer than anything she’d ever owned … Penny sent a generic smile emoji back.”
For the super-shy teenager who needs an ally: Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella
Written by the author of the internationally bestselling Shopaholic series, Finding Audrey is a young-adult novel about a deeply anxious high-school student, Audrey, whose experience being bullied has resulted in a bout with agoraphobia (which often coexists with social anxiety). (Even still, because the author is Sophie Kinsella, it’s a funny book.) As Audrey develops feelings for a sensitive boy named Linus, she’s forced to face her fears, and to reckon with the “mean girls” who pushed her to this point.
Sample lines: “To put you out of your misery, here’s the full diagnosis: Social Anxiety Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, and Depressive Episodes. Episodes. Like depression is a sitcom with a fun punch line every time. Or a TV box set loaded with cliffhangers. The only cliffhanger in my life is ‘Will I ever get rid of this shit?’ and believe me, it gets pretty monotonous.”
For those looking for social anxiety’s silver lining: Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, by Joe Moran
While this book focuses on shyness, which we as humans can of course experience in non-problematic, non-anxiety inducing ways, people with social anxiety will find plenty to relate to here. Moran’s book is a cultural history of what it means to be shy, and he provides biographies of some of the world’s better known (and highest achieving) “shrinking violets,” like Charles Darwin, Charles Schulz, and Agatha Christie, among others. While Moran is honest about the pain sometimes associated with shyness, he also provides readers with hope, and a new way of thinking — perhaps being shy need not always be a burden, but also, sometimes, a gift.
Sample lines: “Nature is messier than the human-inflected metaphors we attach to it, and human shyness is messier still. Hermit crabs do not all hide timidly in their shells, nor is this an especially good way of imagining shyness. It is true that shyness can make us retreat from others, tongue-tied, blushing, and subdued. But it can also make us the opposite of these things: awkwardly loquacious, aloof-seeming, or skillful in wearing social masks.”
For the socially anxious nerd with a lot of downtime (a.k.a. me): Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, by Philippe Rochat
This is one of the denser reads on this list (okay, the densest), but it’s also one of the most fascinating — in it, psychologist Phillipe Rochat places what he argues is the locus of all self-consciousness (which, in turn, informs social anxiety) in human infancy. In a sense, Rochat’s often-philosophical arguments are comforting; if being self-conscious is human, and if it starts when we’re babies, then we never really stood a chance. Like so many other books on the list, Rochat also reassures in reminding us that every last one of us is worried what other people think.
Sample lines: “It is constitutive of the human psyche to have others in mind. It is at the core of human mental struggles, struggles with the representational ghosts of evaluating others. Such ghosts are by definition products or ‘figments’ of the imagination rather than tangible enemies that one can confront and grapple with easily. They are mental creations and more often than not obligatory obsessions. But let us be clear: this kind of ghost does not exist!”
And for a bonus read by the Cut’s own Melissa Dahl, check out Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.