14 Sep 2014
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Why is My Coworker so Cold and Unfriendly? It May Be Social Anxiety

Before you label your coworker's standoffish nature as arrogance, consider social phobia first.

Why is My Coworker so Cold and Unfriendly? It May Be Social Anxiety

The content on Dr. Kira Stein's Patch post is for general information only and is not intended to be professional medical, legal, or other advice for any specific situation or individual. It is intended that individuals and their families will find this information useful when discussing issues and consulting with a qualified health professional.

Sandra and Jeff stood by the water cooler shaking their heads.

“What’s with that guy?” Jeff shrugged and signaled towards the conference room. “Just because Sam’s a year ahead of us he thinks he’s better.”

Sandra nodded, “I know. He never smiles or faces me when I talk to him. I’ve heard that the partners don’t appreciate his attitude either.”

Sam was alone at one end of the conference table. He had endured a particularly grueling night working on a very complicated legal case and was not in the mood to endure the stress of socializing. Several other associates on the case had been working all night by his side, and he was uncomfortable with their chit-chat style of interacting. No, he was more than uncomfortable; he 
was overwhelmed by how relaxed they were with each other, which made him feel isolated and depressed, like he didn’t fit in.

Despite working at his firm for two years, Sam’s humble, kind and whimsical nature has remained a mystery to his coworkers and bosses. While he manages to participate in team projects, he does so as briefly as possible, averting eye contact. His colleagues have no idea how anxious and tense interacting with them is for Sam, and so they mistake his aloof behavior as arrogance or snobbery.

In his competitive law firm environment, Sam is expected to work with his colleagues as a team, and to socialize with them after-hours. Unfortunately, he deals with them at arms-length, trying to “play it safe” by engaging them on an as-needed basis. In the office, while his colleagues leave their office doors open, he closes his, hoping he can get his work done as quickly as possible without any stressful interruptions. At social events, he drinks several beers in order to subdue his panicked desire to run away and disengage.

As a young teenager, social situations began to distress him when he developed acne. Before going to school or parties he would worry about how he would walk into the room and start -- or even continue -- a conversation, particularly when he felt so flushed, hot and tremulous. He was sure everyone around him noticed he was sweating and could hear his heart pounding. While he was comfortable with his close friends, one-on-one, he found excuses not to go to events or join groups, where he felt trapped and scrutinized. Though his acne eventually subsided with time, his anxiety in social situations persisted. Luckily, Sam was able to master his studies through college and law school, but speaking in public or dealing with groups of people always became overwhelming challenges and he avoided potentially fulfilling social and career opportunities.

Sam suffers from social anxiety disorder, formerly known as social phobia.

Social anxiety disorder is a paralyzing condition that involves fear of embarrassment or humiliation in a wide variety of social situations. The condition is the second most common behavioral disorder, and affects 13 percent of Americans at some point in their lives.

When untreated, social phobia tends to become persistent and pervasive and often has serious negative consequences on one’s social and work relationships.

People suffering from moderate to severe social phobia tend to stay single, have fewer friends, and have a harder time keeping or getting jobs. Sufferers of social anxiety are at increased risk of developing clinical depression and more likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

The good news is that social anxiety is highly treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Medications may also be helpful. Group therapy teaches participants (1) that they are not alone and (2) how to build confidence while refining social skills. 

So, when someone you know seems aloof and disconnected, don’t take it personally and don’t assume they are arrogant or obnoxious. There is a chance that he or she suffers from social phobia and could use a little reassurance, encouragement, and patience. If you have a friend or family member who endures social situations with great distress, or avoids them altogether, consider encouraging them to talk to a doctor to become familiar with one or more of the highly effective and available treatment options for this disabling condition. Your encouragement may make a lifelong difference!



NOTE:  The characters described in this post are fictional and do not represent a specific individual in any way.

Dr. Kira Stein is a psychiatrist and director of the West Coast TMS Institute in Sherman Oaks and is devoted to providing the most advanced alternatives for the treatment of emotional and behavioral conditions.  

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