What I Should Be and What I Fear Becoming: Self-Discrepancies and Evaluation Concerns in Social Anxiety

Author: Sarah L. Cox

Cox, Sarah L., 2017 What I Should Be and What I Fear Becoming: Self-Discrepancies and Evaluation Concerns in Social Anxiety, Flinders University, School of Psychology

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Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a highly prevalent condition that causes considerable distress and impairment. Theoretical models of SAD have long endorsed fear of negative evaluation as a central component to understanding social anxiety. More recently fear of positive evaluation has also been proposed as an important cognitive component to SAD. As such, regardless of valence, those with social anxiety seemingly fear any evaluation from others. Although the proposition of fear of evaluation in social anxiety stems from a consolidated theoretical background, empirical research investigating mechanisms underlying these fears is lacking. In addition, although the link between fear of negative evaluation and the cognitive processes in SAD is well established in the current literature, little research has investigated the relationships between fear of positive evaluation and these critical processes.

To address the aforementioned issues, the primary aim of this PhD thesis was to investigate a potential underlying mechanism of evaluation fears (both negative and positive) in social anxiety and one of its related cognitive processes, namely post-event rumination. It has recently been argued that self-discrepancy is ‘key’ to social anxiety disorder. As such, it is important to better understand how this ‘key’ concept may be linked specifically to one of the core features of social anxiety, fear of evaluation. Two self-discrepancies in particular were the focus of the current thesis, the actual-ought self-discrepancy and the actual-feared self-discrepancy. The actual-ought self-discrepancy relates to discrepant beliefs about what a person believes they actually are and what a person believes they should be. In contrast, the actual-feared self-discrepancy relates to the proximity of a person’s perceived actual self, to the characteristics that they fear becoming, but do not want to become. It was hypothesised that actual-ought self-discrepancy would influence post-event rumination sequentially through both fear of negative, and fear of positive evaluation (in separate models), and social anxiety, and actual-feared self-discrepancy would influence post-event rumination in sequence through fear of negative evaluation and social anxiety. Findings of the model testing most consistently supported actual-ought self-discrepancy as influencing fear of negative evaluation, which then influenced social anxiety, which in turn influenced rumination. Overall, results provide a better insight into how self-discrepancies influence social anxiety and its related processes.

The second aim of the current thesis was to investigate brief cognitive restructuring and acceptance interventions targeting actual-ought self-discrepancy in social anxiety. Based on the model testing, targeting actual-ought self-discrepancy was expected to reduce fear of evaluation, social anxiety and rumination. Results from this brief intervention study revealed that acceptance may be a more efficacious approach for targeting actual-ought self-discrepancy in order to reduce fear and the cognitive processing in those experiencing social anxiety. The theoretical and clinical implications, within the context of the study limitations of the research, are discussed.

Keywords: social anxiety, self-discrepancy, fear of negative evaluation, fear of positive evaluation, rumination, brief intervention, cognitive restructuring, acceptance

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Psychology
Supervisor: Dr Junwen Chen