Want better relationships? Study on social anxiety says don’t hide your personal weaknesses

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People have a tendency to hide the personal characteristics that they identify as being weaknesses. This denial can manifest in several ways, from simply withholding information to the outright rejection of one’s authentic self. Downplaying weaknesses may seem like a reasonable strategy when attempting to strengthen relationships with others, but new research by Leili Plasencia, Charles Taylor and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia suggests that the use of this safety behavior can actually have a negative impact on our perception of interpersonal interactions.

The study, published in the February 2016 edition of Clinical Psychological Science, evaluated the effectiveness of a weakness-denial reducing intervention on 72 subjects with social anxiety disorder (SAD). People with SAD and similar psychological conditions often report both a dissatisfaction with the quality of their relationships and a tendency to hide the personal characteristics that they believe to be weaknesses. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups, only one of which would receive the experimental treatment.

Prior to the introduction of the intervention materials, subjects participated in open conversations with interview partners who were otherwise not involved in the study. The participants then completed a series of standardized questionnaires to establish baseline measurements of their perceived SAD symptoms, desire for further interaction, use of the safety behavior and sense of personal authenticity.

Each group was then briefed on strategies to use during a second conversation with the same interviewer. This step also served to ensure that both groups were aware of the basic concepts, so that the experimental effect wouldn’t be confounded by differences arising from exposure to new information in general. The only variance between group treatments during this stage was the instruction to reduce weakness-denial safety behavior, which was given to the experimental group alone. Following their second conversation, each subject was once again measured on symptoms, motivation for furthering the relationship, safety behavior use and authenticity.

Statistical analysis revealed that people in the experimental group reported a significant decrease in the use of weakness-denial safety behavior after receiving the treatment interventions (exposure to information plus specific instruction). Perhaps more importantly, they also reported significant improvements in their sense of self-authenticity, the perceived positivity of partner responses and the desire to continue interacting with their partners.

Subjects in the exposure-only group displayed no such changes. These measures are typically impaired in people with SAD and similar psychological disorders, leading to a reduced ability to form interpersonal connections. Accordingly, the researchers suggest that enhancing one’s sense of personal authenticity by reducing the denial of personal weaknesses can be an effective strategy for building healthier relationships.