Battling the Butterflies

Gavriel Eagle, Baltimore, Maryland
Anxiety & Fear / Essays 2019

A Chassidus-Based Approach to Curing Social Anxiety

Humans, by nature, are social animals. We cherish relationships with other people and the feelings of love and acceptance generated from them above all else. In fact, love is a primary need, and children who do not receive sufficient love and nurturance are at physical risk of death due to a syndrome called “Failure to Thrive.”[1] However, our social interactions can sometimes be hindered by fears that others will reject us, judge us negatively, and otherwise deny us love. This essay offers a strategy to overcome social anxiety that addresses both the cause of shyness and the ultimate tool to gain social confidence. The solution is drawn from various Chassidic teachings concerning the inherent worth of every Jew and a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to a woman struggling with social anxiety. Additionally, the concepts of adam hu medini and bitachon will be explained.

The Cause of Shyness

Although many people who struggle with social anxiety think that “I am the only one who feels this way,” studies show that over 15 million Americans are affected by social anxiety and 50% of people identify as shy.[2] What is it that causes us to worry about what others think of us, feel uncomfortable around other people, and fear rejection? Dr. Aziz Gazipura, a leading expert on social confidence, contends that social anxiety stems from the feeling that “on some deep level, I am not something enough as a person,” whether it be that I am not smart enough, attractive enough, successful enough, or motivated enough. Furthermore, “because I am not enough in this way, I will not be loved. People will not accept me. They will judge me, mock me and reject me. I will lose connection and be isolated and alone.”[3]Chassidus addresses this fear by teaching that every Jew is essentially valuable, worthy of love, and has a unique role in fulfilling the purpose of creation. A Jew’s inherent worth is linked to his nefesh elokis (G-dly soul), which, the Alter Rebbe—the first Lubavticher Rebbe—explains, is “an actual part of G-d.”[4] Because a Jew’s soul is a piece of G-d, who is eternal and unchangeable, his connection with G-d is likewise eternal and unchangeable. In this vein, Chassidus teaches that “a Jew neither wants to nor is able to become severed from G-dliness.”[5] Conversely, there is also nothing a Jew can do to strengthen her connection to G-d, not even learning Torah or fulfilling mitzvot (commandments); a Jew’s relationship with G-d is completely unconditional, like that of a parent and child.[6]

In an interesting application of this concept, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that the command to “love your fellow as you love yourself” is an extension of “love G-d your G-d,” since when one loves the G-dly core of a Jew she is really loving G-d. If a Jew’s G-dly essence is the basis for loving one’s fellow, it is also the foundation for healthy self-love. Specifically, recognizing your G-dly core can help you defend against the feeling that “I am not good enough”: you are enough because you have an everlasting and unconditional relationship with G-d.

Another Chassidic teaching that is helpful for dealing with feelings of inadequacy is that every person has a unique role in accomplishing the raison d’etre of creation. The classic source for this idea is the verse v’asu li mikdash v’shechanti b’sochom, “They should make a sanctuary (dedicated) to me and I will dwell b’sochom.”[7] The sages interpret the use of the word b’sochom (in their midst) rather than b’socho (in it) to mean that G-d will dwell in each and every Jew. The Frierdiker Rebbe—the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe—explains that this refers to the reason created the world, which is because He desired to have a dira b’tachtonim (abode in the lower world). Jews realize this purpose by revealing G-dliness in this world through refining their animal impulses and general lot in the world.[8] In light of this teaching, the feeling that you are not enough loses its potency:  you have ultimate and irreplaceable value because G-d created you in order to elevate your unique portion in this world.

Unlike the Chassidus-based approach, the standard psychological method for building self-esteem is to identify and acknowledge one’s strengths.[9] While it is important to have a realistic understanding of your capabilities, basing your value on personal qualities such as intelligence or beauty will inevitably lead to feelings of inadequacy, since these attributes can fluctuate. When one anchors his self-worth in something outside of himself, and furthermore in something which is eternal, it is guaranteed to last. Indeed, true value, whether that of a person, object, or idea, must come from G-d, since He is the only being that is infinite and immutable.

Practical Application

The above-mentioned notion that “I am not enough,” which is the root of social anxiety, is not a fleeting feeling. People, especially those with social anxiety, have a constant self-critic who tells them things like “you’re such a loser,” “you’re so awkward,” “there’s something wrong with you,” and “you messed that up again.” The purpose of this negative barrage is to prevent you from taking risks that might lead to rejection or embarrassment.[10] However, as you repeat these messages to yourself day after day, week after week, month after month, and even year after year, you start to view them as unalterable facts about yourself.[11] This causes you to be more nervous and withdrawn in conversations and to avoid social opportunities, which in turn confirms your self-critic’s appraisal that you are a failure, you are awkward etc. In order to disrupt this cycle of self-criticism and build a positive self-image, which is crucial for social confidence, you must make a conscious effort to repeat positive messages to yourself every day. Here are two example phrases that you can say to yourself, based on the previous section: “I have an unconditional and everlasting relationship with G-d, since my soul is “an actual part of G-d” and “I have a unique and irreplaceable role in fulfilling the purpose of creation.” You can say these phrases to yourself while doing laundry, brushing your teeth, driving, or while you are waiting in line at the store. If possible, say the words out loud for added emotional impact and intensity.[12]

The Ultimate Tool

At the end of the day, all of the meditations, books, and exercises in the world will not make you a more socially confident person. In order to truly overcome shyness, there is one thing that is more effective than anything else, which is to repeatedly place yourself in social situations that make you uncomfortable or nervous. This could include speaking in public, attending a party, voicing your opinion in a conversation, making eye contact, or calling someone instead of texting him. In a letter to a woman struggling with social anxiety, the Lubavitcher Rebbe illustrates this point by giving the analogy of learning how to swim. It is impossible to learn how to swim while standing on the edge of the river bank; you must jump into the water and only then will you gradually learn the movements necessary for swimming. No amount of contemplation on the river bank about how exactly you are going to move your arms and legs will help; you can only learn once you are in the water. [13] The process for becoming more socially confident is exactly the same. Having endless back-and-forths with yourself about what to say and do in a certain social scenario—or worse, avoiding social situations—us unproductive and only heightens feelings of anxiety. Instead, you must continually “jump” into social situations, choose action over passivity, and leave your “comfort zone.” As you do this again and again, you will notice that no longer have to force yourself to be more social, since you will start to feel comfortable around other people and enjoy the connections you make with them.[14]

Although “jumping” into social situations is the most important step, there are two meditations that you can use to place yourself in a conducive mindset for this and to alleviate anxiety. The first is to reflect on Maimonides’s statement that adam hu medini, or “man is a social animal.”[15] This means that man is naturally inclined towards civil behavior and cooperation with others. While this may not seem particularly relevant to social anxiety, the idea that all humans are innately sociable can help debunk some of your self-critic’s claims. Although many shy people believe that being awkward or uncomfortable around other people is “just the way they are,” the exact opposite is true: every person naturally capable of interacting comfortably with other people and “fitting in”; it is only a matter of acclimatizing yourself to social settings in order to reveal this in-born state.[16]

Another tool to help reduce the fear of “jumping” into social “waters” is the concept of bitachon (trust in G-d). Bitachon means, in the words of Rabeinu Bahya ibn Paquda,

“Peace of mind of the one who trusts. That one relies in his heart that the one he trusts in will do what is good and proper for him on the matter he has trusted him with, according to his ability and his understanding of what will further his good. But the main factor, which leads one to trust in the one trusted, and without which trust cannot exist, is for one’s heart to be confident that the one trusted will keep his word and will do what he pledged, and that he will also think to do what good for him even on what did not pledge out of pure generosity and kindness.”[17]

One who has bitachon is impervious to the fears of rejection and embarrassment that shy people often experience in social settings, since he trusts that G-d will only do for him what is truly good. Additionally, one who has bitachon feels no need to seek favor in other people’s eyes or do them false kindnesses, since he knows that it is G-d—not other people—who provides for him.[18] This is a powerful tool for overcoming people-pleasing tendencies, which are a common symptom of social anxiety.”[19] Most importantly, however, bitachon can help you deal positively with what Gazipura dubs the “backlash”­­­­­—“an intense feeling of shame discomfort, embarrassment, humiliation, fear of disapproval, and general self-loathing” that will inevitably occur as you begin to toe the edge of your “comfort zone.” [20] If you have bitachon, you will realize that whatever rejection or humiliation that you suffered (real or perceived) was not the doing of the person who outwardly caused it but rather the work of G-d. Furthermore, whatever suffering you experienced was itself good since its ultimate purpose is to cleanse you of sin.[21] Additionally, having bitachon actually causes a positive outcome. Along these lines, the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, famously said “Think good and it will be good.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this doesn’t mean you will receive a “freebie” from G-d since He grants endless bounty to everybody and everything, whether they deserve it or not. Rather, it means that through the spiritual service of bitachon—placing your trust in G-d—you merit ultimate goodness.

Conclusion: Why Should We be Social?

Although psychology does a masterful job of identifying and treating the symptoms of social anxiety, it fails to address and important question: what benefit is there to being social? If the point of treating social anxiety is assist shy people in accessing enjoyable parts of life that they are missing out on, then there is no need for someone who truly enjoys being alone to seek help. Judaism, by contrast, emphasizes the spiritual significance of groups of people in the concept of minyan (public prayer which requires at least ten men).[22] Thus, the Jewish approach would be to encourage even those who prefer solitude to leave their shells in order to experience the unique spiritual energy associated with groups of Jewish people. Similarly, there is  a Chassidic adage that “It is far worse to be alone in Gan Eden (heaven) than together with others in Gehennom (purgatory).” This saying illustrates the power of the many to the extreme: it is better to be at a lower spiritual level but with other people than to be at a higher level by yourself, since the spiritual potential of a group people is far greater than that of an individual. It is my hope that this essay will provide some tools for those who struggle with social anxiety to access the amazing spiritual power of social interaction.

[1]Dr. Aziz  Gazipura, The Solution to Social Anxiety: Break Free From the Shyness That Holds You Back, 29.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Tanya, Likutei Amarim, Chapter 2.

[5] Hayom Yom 25 Tammuz.

[6]If this is so, one may ask, what is the purpose of learning Torah and performing mitzvot and what is the problem with aveirot (sins)? The answer is that learning Torah and doing mitzvot allows us to recognize and “tune in” to our relationship with G-d, although it does not actually enhance our bond with Him. Similarly, doing aveirot desensitizes us to the spiritual and conceals our relationship with G-d.

[7] Exodus 25:8. Translation based on Gutnick Edition chumash.

[8]Basi L’Gani 5710.

[9]The Solution to Social Anxiety, 109-125.

[10] Ibid., 61 and 138.

[11] Ibid., 109-10.

[12] Adapted from the exercise on ibid. 123.

[13]Iggeres HaKodesh 18, page 534.

[14] Ibid., 535.

[15]Morah Nevuchim, Section2, Chapter 40 .

[16] Based in part on Iggeres Hakodesh, Section 18, 534-535.

[17]Chovos Halevovos, “Shaar Bitachon,” Chapter 1. Translation from

[18] See introduction to “Shaar Bitachon.”

[19] See The Solution to Social Anxiety, 47. See also Moishe Chaikoff’s essay for a thorough treatment of how to stop being a people-pleaser.

[20]The Solution to Social Anxiety, 192.

[21]Likutei Sichos, Volume 36, 3.

[22]Iggeres Hakodesh, Volume 18, 535.