By Brian Robinson.
There are several reasons why we blush. For example, we may get caught in a lie; it might be a sign of guilt or embarrassment; or indeed we sometimes blush when we are attracted to someone. But here, we are only concerned with blushing in social situations; where there is no obvious reason why it should happen; and where it causes a problem.
Blushing is often a feature of social anxiety and for some people it can be a problem. Most of us try and maintain a certain image in relation to others. We want to appear confident, cool and in control. Blushing, however, gives the game away. We lose control of how we project our image onto others, and we may feel that our unease and discomfort has become obvious. We then tend to over-focus on the blushing. We predict that we will blush in certain situations, and this prediction can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem is, blushing isn’t something you can simply switch on or off. So if we want to make some headway with it, we need to have a better understanding of why it happens and what purpose it might serve.
The sort of blushing we are discussing here is part of the fight or flight reaction. However, if you blush in certain social situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an anxiety disorder or even a significant social problem. It may be just a passing phase you are going through, and many people gradually grow away from the tendency to blush.
To understand the problem, it helps to understand that many people are born with instinctive fears. For example, we instinctively dislike snakes; are scared of spiders; or are afraid of heights. This tendency is in our genes. In most cases these do not amount to a phobia, however, we can understand them better if we treat them as mild phobias or phobic traits.
All phobias centre on the idea of the avoidance of danger. We steer clear of snakes; we watch out for spiders; and we avoid heights and so on. We are imprinted with this avoidance behaviour and this helps to keep us safe.
However, many of our fears are irrational and we do not seem to be able to reason our way through them. The problem is, our instinctive genes do not understand our current reality. They do not understand that there are no snakes in Ireland for example, or that there are no dangerous spiders in the UK. Our instinctive genes are rooted deep in our past and their understandings are locked in the caveman mindset.
We now have to ask what is it about being in a group of people that represents a danger? Indeed, aren’t we led to believe that there is safety in numbers? That may be true now, but fight or flight evolved when we were probably living in deepest Africa in primitive tribes. In that ancient landscape, bumping into new groups of people, new tribes, often held the potential of danger. And in that sense, keeping to the background was frequently the best safety strategy for an individual to adopt. Stick your head above the parapet; draw attention to yourself; and you may become a target. And this I believe explains why social phobia is precisely the same as all other phobias. Its single motivation is to avoid danger.
But why do we blush when in a dangerous situation? What possible purpose could that serve? To understand that, we have again to look at things through the caveman’s eyes. Firstly, back in Africa we had little or no language. We could not explain our intent using language. We could not tell the other tribe that we do not pose a threat. The only way we could communicate was via the use of body language.
Body language covers a massive range of facial expressions, physical behaviours and reactions. For example, if we go into a social situation looking uncomfortable; if we’re shifting our balance from one leg to the other, that sends out a non-threatening signal. However, if we go into a social situation and are planting our feet firmly on the ground and clenching our fists, that sends a threatening message and warns others to keep their distance.
When we get closer to the unknown tribe the threat or danger increases. Body language then becomes automatic and out of our direct control. This is quite different from say clenching your fist which is a conscious and controllable action.
At close quarters, there are several automatic non-threatening signals which we can give out. Blushing is one of them. The others will not be mentioned here for obvious reasons. But when a caveman sees someone blushing, he will automatically relax and feel comfortable in close proximity with the other person.
I hope this makes some sense of the social discomfort we sometime experience when in the company of others. Blushing is simply a way to communicate that we do not pose a threat. But it is often misunderstood in modern times.
Once we know why we blush, we are in a better position deal with it. This will be continued in part 2.