While my social anxiety manifests in public spaces like at work and on dates, it also impacts me privately at home when I am doing the most menial tasks like getting dressed in the morning. I worry constantly about how clothes look on me and what people will think of my outfits. Despite spending an inordinate amount of time getting dressed, I’m largely unsatisfied with what I put together. Since I’m never fully content with how things look on me, I buy more things I don’t necessarily need, hoping they’ll look and feel better. Needless to say, they often just end up staying in my closet because I can’t figure out how to feel good in them. I recognize the privilege I have in being able to buy things pretty regularly, if only secondhand, but my shopping habits have previously led me to a really dark place and resulted in credit card debt.
Talking with friends and posting about it on social media made me realize I’m by no means alone in this. In fact, more than 12% of U.S. adults will experience social anxiety at some time in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “When my social anxiety is really flaring up but I have an obligation, I sometimes spiral if I can't find the right outfit,” says Chandra Johnson, a creative director at Day One agency. Emma Zack, the founder of plus-sized focus retailer Berriez, reflects on her own experience: “It's hard to differentiate between whether I used to be self-conscious about my style because of how I'd be perceived in my fat body, or because I was anxious about being perceived in general.”
How Social Anxiety Can Impact Style & Shopping Habits
According to Elizabeth Beecroft, a licensed clinical social worker, social anxiety is a type of disorder that causes extreme fear in social settings. Symptoms of social anxiety can include self-consciousness, excess fear of situations in which one may be judged, worry about embarrassment or humiliation, or concern about offending someone. “For people who struggle with social anxiety or are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, style, dressing, and shopping can trigger feelings of stress, frustration, insecurity, overwhelm, worry, and more,” she says.
For example, oftentimes when it comes to planning a look or an outfit, social anxiety can leave people second-guessing and overthinking their style choices. It can also lead them to hide parts of themselves behind layers of clothing out of shame. “We might feel the need to dress in ways that garner approval, or we might do the opposite and dress in ways that camouflage us because we're afraid of being noticed,” Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist focused on women’s issues, tells Refinery29. “In other cases, people might resort to 'retail therapy' to cope with anxiety, which can cause overspending or emotional shopping.” This is an issue I know all too well.
According to experts, while this is a self-soothing behavior aimed at reducing anxious feelings, it's a short-lived solution because it doesn't address the issue head-on. It’s easy to fantasize that a new outfit will ease your woes — “When we make a new purchase, endorphins are released, which play a huge role in how we feel,” says Beecroft. “It can lead to feelings of excitement and can activate the reward centers of our brain, temporarily masking those feelings of anxiety” — but, in the long run, it can lead to an unhealthy way of coping, by using shopping as a distraction and spending money on clothes you don’t need.
How To Stop The Cycle Of Social Anxiety
According to Fraga, noticing the worries can go a long way. “Start by asking yourself, I wonder what I'm really worried about?” she says. This will allow you to check in with yourself and figure out whether the anxiety is warranted or a product of overthinking about a social scenario that's unlikely to happen.
Another tactic is to imagine your best friend in the same dilemma. “What advice would you offer? This is a great way to get some distance between your worries, which can help widen your perspective.” Similarly, Zack says that something as simple as seeing what other people are wearing on TikTok helps her. “Watching how all the cuties dress themselves is fun and inspiring,” she explains. “It's cool to see so many people express themselves through what they wear — especially people who are the same size as me.”
Next, consider if your worry is keeping you from wearing something you love, or is it merely an annoying thought that dies down once you dismantle the narrative. If it’s the former, one of the best ways to cope with this feeling is to find safe ways to confront it. “Maybe you wear an outfit that gives you anxiety to a coffee shop where no one knows you, which can lessen your fear of judgment,” Fraga says.
Beecroft suggests having a mood board for various emotions and feelings, as well as a lineup of looks and style inspiration: "Have go-to outfits that you feel most comfortable in ready to go.” This might mean trying your clothes on and identifying what you love about seeing yourself in a ‘fit. “If you want to try a new outfit out, plan in advance,” Beecroft adds. Stylist Susanna Merrick echoes this: “Have safe choices in your wardrobe that make you feel good because you're not always going to feel like putting yourself out there every day.” Chandra says she keeps an arsenal of emergency looks. “It's the outfit you do not even need to THINK about, try on, second-guess, etc... For me, that usually comes in the form of a high-waisted, loose trouser with fun texture, a tiny baby tee, and a long leather jacket. It's the foolproof 'IDGAF about what y'all think of me' look.”
With this in mind, wear going-out outfits at home to feel more comfortable in them, and slowly ease into social situations that can bring about feelings of anxiety. Start with things you can control, like feeling comfortable in your clothes, which will help you tackle the anxiety you may feel when you wear them in social settings. “Start small and work your way up to more triggering situations,” Beecroft says.
Lastly, Merrick suggests looking at your closet and considering, “What do I absolutely love in here? What lights me up? What makes me feel like me?” Take inventory of the pieces that you've collected on trips or adventures or outfits that you've worn to special events and re-wear them when you need to feel good. That said, if social anxiety becomes debilitating, go to your doctor or seek out therapy, if it's available to you.