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The University of Southampton

Seeing is Believing: Images and the Self in Social Anxiety

Lusia Stopa

University of Southampton

Social anxiety creates significant distress and leads to educational/occupational under-achievement. Current cognitive models agree that negative images of the self maintain the disorder: socially anxious individuals believe that their distorted internal self-images reflect how other people actually see them. Negative self-images increase anxiety and impair performance in social situations; thus, changing negative images has become a key treatment target. However, the mechanism through which these negative self-images exert their impact is not understood. We draw on three theoretical frameworks — the self-memory system, self-organisation, and retrieval competition — to test the hypothesis that negative self-images represent the individual’s current ‘working self’. These negative ‘working selves’ are retrieved in response to social threat and are characterized by low self-esteem, uncertainty about the self, and fear of negative evaluation by others. They become easily accessible through repeated retrieval, and one aim of treatment is to help individuals to access an alternative, more positive working self that will inhibit retrieval of the negative dysfunctional self. The talk reviews studies that examine the impact of positive and negative self-imagery on self-esteem (both implicit and explicit) and on self-concept clarity. The talk also considers theoretical and clinical implications.

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