Ministering for Sociophobes: A Practical Guide

If you have social phobia, please know that there are positive things you can do about it.

by Alan B. Sanderson, MD

One of my earliest memories of social anxiety was when I delivered an invitation to the next-door neighbors to attend my baptismal service when I was 8 years old. This simple errand absolutely terrified me, and I found myself unable to ring their doorbell. After a brief and panicked deliberation I left the invitation on their doorstep and ran for home. It would be nearly two decades before I learned the name of this disorder and started making positive changes to address it, but by then my social anxiety had already exacted a significant toll on my life. This toll was particularly heavy on my Church service as a missionary, as a home teacher, and in other callings. In this post I will describe the symptoms and management of social anxiety disorder and will provide some insights from my own experience about how to work through these limitations to get your Church callings done.

The Invisible Disorder

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is the most common anxiety disorder, affecting anywhere from 5% to 12% of the population. That means that in a typical ward you might expect to find 10-50 people with the condition, and even in smaller groups of 8-20 people (like a Sunday school class) you are likely to have at least one. Almost everyone will have someone with social phobia within their sphere of influence, although you may not recognize all of them because we are very good at hiding from you.

People with social anxiety experience intense and abnormal fear of ridicule or rejection by others in social interactions. This anxiety leads to avoidance behaviors, which are actions taken to reduce the anxiety by preventing the feared interactions from happening. As an 8 year old child in the example above, my avoidance behavior was simply running away. The majority of affected individuals have severe anxiety involving one specific type of social interaction, such as telephone calls, but the most severe cases can impair virtually every type of social interaction. Most people with the disorder do not seek treatment from medical professionals.

Sociophobes may appear to dislike or disdain social situations, and their behavior is often misinterpreted by others as “standoffishness,” but this is usually incorrect. In reality they often feel lonely and wish to engage with others, but are afraid to do so. Social anxiety has been aptly described as a “disorder of lost opportunities.

The Hobbled Minister

Social anxiety disorder can interfere with church callings in many ways, as the work of most callings inevitably involves some type of social interaction. As a young missionary I sometimes found myself incapable of street contacting, not for lack of conviction and testimony but for lack of courage. Missionaries under normal conditions face rejection far more often than acceptance, but the fear of rejection was simply paralyzing to me. I would read in the scriptures that “perfect love casteth out all fear,” but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to get my fear under control, and I didn’t understand why. This led to unnecessary feelings of guilt and unworthiness.

I had a similar experience when I was called to serve as a ward mission leader shortly after my mission. One of my duties was to arrange for ward members to attend exchanges with the missionaries, which required making multiple phone calls. My wife would watch with bemusement as I would laboriously psych myself up to make a phone call, then talk myself out of it. On one occasion she picked up the receiver and dialed the number, then handed the phone to me. In a panic I hung up the phone, and complained, “You can’t do that!” She laughed at me, because she didn’t understand what was happening any more than I did. Finding myself incapable of the social interactions required of that calling gave me intense feelings of anxiety and guilt.

Home teaching was equally difficult. Many times I would sit near a member of a family I was assigned to teach in a Sunday school class or in a priesthood quorum meeting, realizing that this was my chance to set up a visit. Sometimes I would have the courage to strike up a casual conversation, and I would always be proud of myself for doing that much. But very often I would fail to ask for an appointment to visit their home, fearing that it would be somehow awkward to do so. I love the gospel, and I loved home teaching, but I really struggled to make appointments and I found myself visiting my families less often than I wanted to and needed to. Again cue the guilt, anxiety, and other negative feelings at my inexplicable failure to perform a basic gospel service.

The Practical Guide

The transition from home and visiting teaching to the new ministering effort is a positive step for the Church, and I am excited about it, but I can see that this will pose a special challenge for those of us with social phobia. Home and visiting teaching provided a lot of scaffolding, as they were very specific programs with monthly expectations. The greater freedom provided in the ministering program could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how the sociophobe approaches the work.

The rest of this post will describe some things I have learned which have helped me in my various callings over the years. I sincerely hope that my experience and advice will be useful to some struggling sociophobe out there.

1. Exposure As Therapy

Most of the classic therapies for phobia involve some sort of exposure to the phobic stimulus. Once you understand and accept your condition, and realize that it will not magically disappear, then you can change your attitude about social interactions and view them as opportunities for therapy rather than as torture. Remember that it is not the fear of social interactions alone, but the fear of embarrassment from or rejection within social interactions which plagues the sociophobe. Once the initial fear of rejection has passed I actually really like talking to people.

Shortly after I identified my own disorder and started praying for help to improve, I was called to be the Elders quorum secretary, and was required to make dozens of phone calls each month to compile the home teaching report. In contrast to my previous experience as a failed ward mission leader, I succeeded in the Elders quorum because I believed that all of these phone calls were helping me to improve and overcome my weakness. My fear didn’t go away, but it did become easier over time to make those phone calls. Church programs are full of opportunities for such self-directed therapy, from children giving short talks and reciting scriptures in Primary, to youth and adults speaking in Sacrament Meetings.

2. Reveal Your Secret

Social phobia is not infectious, and it is not a moral failing. You have nothing to fear from making it known to those around you, and helping others to understand your limitations will go a long way towards enlarging your comfort zone. I once gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting and told all of the members of my ward that I struggle with this. “If I pass you in the hallway without speaking to you, it is not because I am proud or standoffish,” I explained, “It is because I am afraid of you.” Many people later mentioned that comment and said that it was helpful to them, and I found that it was easier for me to get to know the people in that ward than it had been for me in previous wards.

My sister, who has also struggled with social anxiety, told me about a similar comment she made in a Relief Society meeting once. She wrote, “I said something about how I was terribly shy and afraid as a child, but that I had had a clear vision of my mission in life early on which enabled me to put my own feelings aside and serve the Lord. Several people were really surprised to hear that, which made me feel like I had been successful in overcoming some of the problem. I think it also helped people feel that I was more approachable. Revealing weaknesses to others in appropriate ways/times is a good relationship builder.”

As my own insight into this disorder increased, I found that it was helpful to tell the families I was assigned to home teach that I struggle with making telephone calls and setting up appointments. Somehow that made it easier and less awkward to later ask them for appointments. I also found that it was very helpful to pencil in next month’s appointment at the end of the previous month’s visit, while we had everyone in the same room at the same time. It remains to be seen how useful this technique will be in the new ministering program, but this is an important and extremely useful skill for people with social anxiety because it bypasses the hardest part of a social encounter – getting it started in the first place.

3. Use Technology

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I posted this picture on social media and asked, “Where is the slot for introverted mail?” My brother replied, “I think it’s called a blog post.

Many years ago I read on a web technology forum that the first rule of being a geek was to avoid social interaction at all costs. I remember laughing hysterically because it was so true, at least for me. Technology has an amazing way to smooth out these social anxieties. Asynchronous communication like email and even texting can feel far less socially risky than a real time face-to-face or phone conversation. As computer technology has taken over more and more of our communications I have found it easier to ask for home teaching appointments using these new media.

When I was called to be the church building cleaning coordinator I made a computer database to organize the work. (Yes, I freely admit that I am a total geek!) The database kept a list of whose turn it was to help clean the building, ordered by who had gone the longest time without helping. The computer spit out the list, and I obediently called the names in order. When I started to feel overwhelmed by the task I would retreat into programming the database queries for a while, and then get back to work when I felt the anxiety diminish.

4. Feel Your Authority, Not Just Your Responsibility

Social phobia was a liability during the first part of my medical training, but in my clinic today I rarely experience any symptoms. Why? Because I have authority. The doctor-patient relationship is asymmetric, and every patient that walks into my office has come to see me because I have a unique ability to help them. I don’t have to fear rejection or ridicule from patients, who are almost universally respectful and deferential to me. At the time I was making my career choices I had no idea that I was choosing the perfect job for a person with social phobia.

I have found that a similar principle applies to church service: when I am more conscious of my authority as a representative of the Lord, the required social interactions become easier. Focusing on a list of people I have to call within the next week can be terrifying, but focusing on my authority to do the work, and on its ultimate purpose to accomplish God’s work, turns the task into a means to an end. As church members we are given authority from God to fulfill our assignments, and God qualifies those whom he calls. Don’t minimize your power, because it is God’s power. Remembering your commission to serve can give you a boldness which you otherwise could not muster on your own.

5. Who Are These People?

A closely related point is to have a realistic view of who other people are. My bishop once said that he has a hard time getting up in front of the ward because he is shy, but it helps him to think of the members of the congregation as his brothers and sisters. With that perspective in mind he has the courage to get up to the pulpit and do what needs to be done.

The fear of ridicule or rejection in social phobia is extreme and irrational by definition. Remind yourself as often as you need to that the people you are trying to engage with are not your enemies, but your friends and neighbors. In the gospel we are all siblings, children of God.

6. Revisiting Perfect Love

Earlier I mentioned Mormon’s statement that “perfect love casteth out all fear,” but I think I misunderstood this verse when I was deep in the trenches of missionary work. At the time I viewed it as a sort of mathematical formula or challenge, an “if-then” statement. “If you would just develop perfect love, then you would no longer be burdened with this fear,” or the inverse and accusatory corollary, “This burden of fear is an indication that you have failed to develop perfect love.”

A more correct and useful interpretation was given by my sister:

“I can’t tell you how many times I have thought of that scripture in my life. For me, it has become a 1 Nephi 3:7, meaning that I have trusted in the promise rather than feeling the guilt angle of it and have sought after that glorious moment when fear is gone. I said that scripture almost as a mantra, but the way I understood it and have used it in my life is different than how you’ve described it above.  I have come to see that scripture as a promise that interacts with the charity scripture promise–that charity will be BESTOWED upon all those who are faithful followers of Christ.  It’s not something we can grit our teeth and produce ourselves, this perfect love.  It has to be bestowed.  It is so great and exquisite that it is beyond our own capacity.  It is simply and only a gift from God.

“The gift is bestowed at times and in spots, I have found.  When I have given my 100% trust to the promise that perfect love casts out all fear, I have been able to go forward in that moment and be the Lord’s hands, doing what He has called me to do.  It is an exhilarating feeling to be his servant, working without fear.  It isn’t a permanent feeling and I have to get that ‘injection’ of perfect love for the next time around.

“So if the perfect love is really God’s love, given to us because without it, we can’t do His work, it is also true to read the scripture as, ‘God’s perfect love for me will soothe me and cast out all my fear as I cling to it and learn to feel it.'”

7. Take Courage from Moroni, the Sociophobe

I have a theory that Moroni, the last prophet in the Book of Mormon, had social phobia. Spending as many as 35 years alone, wandering in the wilderness, and avoiding all social interactions for fear of his life, had to be bad for Moroni’s social skills. If he didn’t have social phobia before, it seems like those circumstances could certainly produce it, and if he did have a mild case at the beginning then those circumstances would surely amplify it.

Obviously I can’t prove that Moroni had social phobia, but there is some pretty suggestive evidence in Ether chapter 12, and the advice which the Lord gave him in that context has been very helpful for me too. In the middle of his discourse on the subject of faith, Moroni reveals his own insecurity in a prayer to the Lord:

23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;

24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.

25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words. (Ether 12:23-25, emphasis added)

Moroni’s expressed fear is that his writings will be ridiculed and rejected because he didn’t think that he was a very good writer. This fear of mockery is familiar to me, as it is to all people with social phobia. The Lord’s answer provides a key to all of us who struggle with any weakness, whether it be social phobia, depression, addiction, or anything else:

26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

28 Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness. (Ether 12:26-28, emphasis added)

The Lord dismisses the mockery of fools and promises help to those who seek him. Becoming aware of your own weakness is a natural consequence of coming to the Lord, and it will happen to everyone who sincerely seeks Jesus. Realize that your weakness has a purpose in God’s plan, even if it is only to make you humble. Believe that he has the power to help you overcome your weakness. Notice that humility and faith are the two keys which activate the Lord’s enabling grace in your life, and the promise is that he will turn weak things into strong things. The whole point of this process is to bring us to the Lord, who is the source, or fountain, of all righteousness.

How many of us in the church today would say that Moroni was a bad writer? It is true that fools mock his words, but I am one of tens of millions of people whose lives have been changed forever by what this good and humble man wrote in the last chapter of the book:

4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:4-5)

These are among the most powerful and consequential words in all of scripture, and they were written by a man whose weakness in writing was made strong by the Lord. His promise is sure: study the Book of Mormon and ask God whether it is true. The Lord will answer that prayer when it is sincere.

A Case Study

As I described above and in a previous post, social anxiety was the major challenge of my missionary experience. I had entered the Missionary Training Center with all confidence that my mission to England was going to be like the second coming of Wilford Woodruff to the island, but I soon realized that I was quite thoroughly incapable of doing the work. Month after month of soul-crushing rejection ground this lesson deeply into my heart.

But if social anxiety is my kryptonite, then dogged persistence is my superpower. Through constant recourse to prayer and scripture study, my attitude and approach gradually changed. I came to learn that the Lord didn’t want me to do his work by my own power anyway. He needed me to be humble and to have faith in him, and only then could he use me to do his work. This work was not about me or my weakness or strength; it was about the Lord’s power to bless and heal and gather together his children. My participation in that work could only be on his terms, my success could only be by his power, and the recognition or glory for that success could only go to him.

My social phobia did not go away, but I became more capable of doing the Lord’s work because he had humbled me. I began to see myself as a commissioned and authorized servant of God, doing his work and seeking his glory. The more I felt the Lord’s love for the people of England, the more I was able to cast out my fear to speak with them. Like my sister described, this gift of overcoming fear was given to me in episodes rather than all at once and for all time. In one of my last interviews with my mission president he made a statement that healed a lot of the pain in my heart. He said, “Elder Sanderson, you have become the missionary that the Lord wanted you to be.”

Conclusion

Social phobia is a “thorn in the flesh” which many righteous and faithful Latter-day Saints struggle with. If you have social phobia, please know that there are positive things you can do about it. Seek to understand yourself, and come to see that your callings and assignments can be therapeutic for you. Be open in talking about it with others. Use technology to help you with social interactions wherever you need to. Focus on your authority to do God’s work, and not so much on the mountain of responsibilities you have, and remember that all people are your brothers and sisters. Realize that overcoming fear is a gift of the spirit, which is related to faith, humility, and charity. And take courage from Moroni, the prophetic sociophobe who overcame his fears to become an instrument in God’s hands to touch the lives and hearts of tens of millions of readers.

Despite my earlier failure as a ward mission leader, I have been successful in many subsequent callings, including some which required me to make a lot of phone calls. My phobia still rears its ugly head from time to time, and I am still held back from doing all of the things I feel I should do, but I have come a long way and I think I have the upper hand on it now. I promise that the Lord can help you improve, and eventually by the grace of God your weakness will become a strength, through your faith and humility.


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it with them.

About Alan Sanderson

I am a medical doctor, trail runner, and musician.
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3 Responses to Ministering for Sociophobes: A Practical Guide

  1. I love the practical suggestions. Thanks!

    Like

  2. David Green says:

    I love your courage to name and work on your affliction. It shows your humility and determination. Your candor is encouraging and empowering for others. As one who struggles with my own thorns, I appreciate your willingness to discuss how it’s OK to be imperfect, and with our willingness to work, along with the grace of God, we can and will be healed! It’s been a pleasure to get to know you better.

    Liked by 1 person

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