Understanding social anxiety : an existential phenomenological investigation
This project draws upon existential phenomenology as a new way of understanding the
experience of social anxiety. It is claimed that by aiming for an explanation, existing
psychological approaches (trait theory, biological research, behaviourism, cognitive and
socially oriented perspectives, personal construct psychology) neglect the situated
meaning of events as they are `lived' by individuals. It is argued that a phenomenological
approach is needed in order to produce an understanding of the phenomenon - that is, a
non-reductive, non-mechanistic model (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).
The process of data collection assumed two strands. Firstly, eight participant
interviews were conducted with a view to seeking `lived' accounts of social anxiety.
Secondly, a series of literary extracts were selected in order to derive rich insights into
the experience. All of these sources were analysed using the Sheffield School of
phenomenological enquiry (see Ashworth, 2003), and the resultant descriptions
interpreted by drawing upon existential phenomenological thought and modem
developments of this approach.
The empirical procedure revealed that social anxiety primarily involves the way
an individual strives to present a desired sense of selfhood to other people. This sense of
self is derived from previous experience and oriented to an imagined future. The person
must engage in a pre-existing social world, adopting some of the cultural prescriptions of
each new situation in the form of appropriate discourse (use of language) and a suitable
deployment of the body (correctly fulfilling behavioural expectations). If this cannot be
managed, then social anxiety will invariably result; the individual struggles to gain
control of the problematic circumstances, feels exposed, and loses `grip' of the physical
space around her/him. Nevertheless, the person who experiences habitual social anxiety
is not condemned to perpetual failure: by transforming the meaning of the situation
through perceptual and/or behavioural intervention, s/he is able to engage effectively.
Finally, some reflections are offered with regard to how the present understanding
supplements mainstream psychological models, while proposals for future research are