Notes From the Underground is an 1864 novel written by the Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who has gone underground, or withdrawn from society to live in isolation. Broken up into two parts, the first, called “Underground,” includes the narrator’s rambling thoughts and philosophies about life, consciousness, and all the things he dislikes about society. In the second part, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” the narrator goes out into society and has several misguided interactions with people.
Does the Underground Man have social anxiety? Let’s examine the text.
- Read Notes From the Underground for free @ Project Gutenberg
Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full Spoilers Ahead!)
Part I: Underground
“I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”
Dostoyevsky’s opening line is one of the most famous in literature. It indicates the narrator has low self-esteem, which is a primary contributor to social anxiety.
“I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors.”
This is a sign of general anxiety, but it also shows the Catch-22 of social anxiety: desiring help to treat social anxiety, but unable to seek help because of social anxiety.
“I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness—a real thorough-going illness.”
Social anxiety comes from being overly conscious about social situations, unable to stop thinking about interactions from the past and anticipating interactions in the future.
“I did not believe it was the same with other people, and all my life I hid this fact about myself as a secret. I was ashamed (even now, perhaps, I am ashamed).”
We often feel ashamed of our social anxiety, not wanting to let others know how we feel, when in fact, many others feel the same way.
“I’m more intelligent than everyone around me.”
Some studies show a correlation between social anxiety and intelligence. I don’t think social anxiety necessarily makes one more intelligent or vice versa, but people with social anxiety tend to think more than others. However, it varies by individual whether the thoughts they are thinking are intelligent or not.
“I have all my life, as it were, turned my eyes away and never could look people straight in the face.”
An inability to make eye contact with others is a common symptom of social anxiety. If we see people looking at us, we think they are judging us.
“My jests, gentlemen, are of course in bad taste, jerky, involved, lacking self-confidence. But of course that is because I do not respect myself. Can a man of perception respect himself at all?”
He deduces that if you are conscious of all your flaws, it is impossible to have high self-esteem, and therefore impossible to overcome social anxiety. It sounds logical, but what we think of as “flaws” may not be flaws to others, therefore we shouldn’t let them get us down.
The Underground Man mentions several times his inability to take action and do anything.
“To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example, to set my mind at rest? Where are the primary causes on which I am to build? Where are my foundations? Where am I to get them from? I exercise myself in reflection, and consequently with me every primary cause at once draws after itself another still more primary, and so on to infinity. That is just the essence of every sort of consciousness and reflection.”
I used to feel similarly, that social anxiety was an inescapable feedback loop. But we can learn to ignore our self-critical thoughts, while remaining conscious, through practices such as meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.
There are actually two states of consciousness. The first is being conscious of ourselves, which the Underground Man is. But the second state of consciousness is being conscious of our thoughts about ourselves, which the Underground Man is not. Once we realize the thoughts we have about ourselves are not always true, (in fact, they are often false) we can then learn to ignore them and start to overcome social anxiety.
After going on about free will and determination for several chapters, the Underground Man comes to the following conclusion:
“The long and the short of it is, gentlemen, that it is better to do nothing! Better conscious inertia! And so hurrah for underground!”
He feels his actions and state of being (or his social anxiety) is a work of nature, out of his control. He sees no point in fighting his social anxiety in public, so he retreats to isolation in the underground.
Social anxiety can feel overwhelming at times and seem impossible to overcome, but that is not true. Going “underground” and avoiding all situations that cause us anxiety will only make our social anxiety worse.
“Though I have said that I envy the normal man to the last drop of my bile, yet I should not care to be in his place such as he is now (though I shall not cease envying him).”
He envies dumb people who don’t think because they are anxiety-free, but he is unwilling to give up his intelligence to be anxiety-free like them. Though as I said before, anxiety and intelligence are not inextricably linked. We can think and retain our intelligence while learning to better manage and control our negative thoughts.
“You doubtlessly mean to say something, but hide your last word through fear, because you have not the resolution to utter it, and only have a cowardly impudence.”
Sometimes social anxiety makes us unable to think of something to say, but it can also prevent us from saying something we want to say.
“For some reason I believe that if I write it down I should get rid of it.”
Writing down thoughts related to social anxiety can help get rid of them. When observed from a distance, it becomes more apparent how absurd the thoughts are. I recommend daily journalling.
Part II: Apropos of Wet Snow
“My life was even then gloomy, ill-regulated, and as solitary as that of a savage. I made friends with no one and positively avoided talking, and buried myself more and more in my hole. At work in the office I never looked at anyone, and was perfectly well aware that my companions looked upon me, not only as a queer fellow, but even looked upon me—I always fancied this—with a sort of loathing.”
Being solitary, avoiding talking to anyone, not making eye contact, and assuming others loathe you are all signs of social anxiety. He is even envious of his co-worker who looks ugly and smells bad because he feels no shame or self-consciousness about it.
“Of course, I hated my fellow clerks one and all, and I despised them all, yet at the same time I was, as it were, afraid of them.”
He has social anxiety, but he is also antisocial in that he hates and despises his co-workers. Social anxiety and sociopathy are not one in the same. Most people with social anxiety do not hate others, they are just afraid to speak to them.
“I dropped my eyes almost every time I met anyone. I even made experiments whether I could face so and so’s looking at me, and I was always the first to drop my eyes. This worried me to distraction.”
Again, maintaining eye contact is difficult with social anxiety because we feel like we are being judged by the other person.
“There was no one like me and I was unlike anyone else. ‘I am alone and they are EVERYONE,’ I thought—and pondered.”
Social anxiety can make us feel alone and separate, as if there is no one like us, and that no one will like us. But that is not true. Over 12% of American adults experience social anxiety disorder.
“At one time I was unwilling to speak to anyone, while at other times I would not only talk, but go to the length of contemplating making friends with them. All my fastidiousness would suddenly, for no rhyme or reason, vanish. Who knows, perhaps I never had really had it, and it had simply been affected, and got out of books.”
Generally, social anxiety doesn’t vanish for no reason. It usually takes gradual exposure for it to diminish before going away.
“I was fearfully afraid of being seen, of being met, of being recognized.”
With social anxiety, we are more afraid of acquaintances and people we know than complete strangers because we care more about what people we know think of us.
The Underground Man decides to go into a bar and is insulted when an officer bumps into him and continues on as if he wasn’t there.
“I could have forgiven blows, but I could not forgive his having moved me without noticing me.”
He wants to confront him but is too afraid to.
“I had only to protest and I certainly would have been thrown out of the window. But I changed my mind and preferred to beat a resentful retreat.”
“I never have been a coward at heart, though I have always been a coward in action.”
We often have rich thoughts in our hearts, but social anxiety makes us afraid to voice them or act.
“I was afraid not of his six-foot-tallness, not of getting a sound thrashing and being thrown out of the window… I was afraid that everyone present, from the insolent marker down to the lowest little stinking, pimply clerk in a greasy collar, would jeer at me… I was fully convinced that they would all simply split their sides with laughter.”
He is more afraid of being laughed at and mocked by the other people in the bar, than of being beaten by the officer. Social anxiety can make us fear emotional pain more than physical pain.
The Underground Man ruminates on the incident in the bar for two years, wishing he had confronted the officer and said something. Then one day he happens to pass the officer in the street, but the officer doesn’t even recognize him. The Underground Man was so tormented by the incident in the bar, reading into it, thinking the officer bumped into him on purpose as a personal insult, yet the officer thought nothing of it. This shows the problem with social anxiety. We overanalyze interactions and assume thoughts and intentions of others that simply aren’t there.
Still, the meeting in the street wasn’t enough. The Underground Man continues to follow the officer and purposely passes him in the street, recreating the incident in the bar, and hoping that this time, the officer will give way without bumping into him. But the Underground Man can’t help but swerve out of the way first. All the while, the officer still doesn’t recognize him. Eventually, the Underground Man goes so far as to buy new gloves and an expensive coat to help him feel more equal to the officer.
“I did not budge an inch and passed him on a perfectly equal footing! He did not even look round and pretended not to notice it; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day!”
This incident shows how deceptive our thoughts can be. The Underground Man was convinced that the officer deliberately insulted him, and he created this entire story in his mind, but to the officer, it was nothing. Most people with social anxiety won’t go to such extremes as the Underground Man, but we similarly overthink and overanalyze others’ thoughts and intentions. To do so is futile, however. We don’t and can’t know what others are thinking. We assume they are thinking about us, but usually they are not. Case in point, the officer literally didn’t even know who the Underground Man was.
Feeling lonely, the Underground Man feels the urge to go out into society. With no place else to visit, he goes to dinner at the house of his boss, Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin.
“He was the only permanent acquaintance I have had in my life.”
Social anxiety is paradoxical in the way that when we are alone, we want to be with others, and when we are with others, we want to be alone.
“I was awfully shy of his daughters because they were always whispering and giggling together.”
He assumes the girls are whispering and giggling about him, which is not necessarily true. He’s once again reading into others expressions and gestures, which people with social anxiety tend to do.
“I had the patience to sit like a fool beside these people for four hours at a stretch, listening to them without knowing what to say to them or venturing to say a word. I became stupefied, several times I felt myself perspiring, I was overcome by a sort of paralysis; but this was pleasant and good for me. On returning home I deferred for a time my desire to embrace all mankind.”
Not knowing what to say, sweating, and feeling paralyzed in the moment are all symptoms of social anxiety. The problem is when we have (what we perceive to be) a poor social interaction, we regret having gone and vow to never do that again. But only through repeated practice can we overcome our discomfort and fear.
“I had a number of schoolfellows…but I did not associate with them and had even given up nodding to them in the street. I had transferred into the department I was in simply to avoid their company and to cut off all connection with my hateful childhood… In short, I parted from my schoolfellows as soon as I got out into the world.”
Social anxiety makes us avoid friends and acquaintances for fear that they will judge us.
After sufficient time passes following the dinner with Anton, the Underground Man is once again, “unable to endure my solitude,” so he decides to visit an old schoolmate, Simonov. On the way, his social anxiety makes him start to second-guess going.
“I was thinking that the man disliked me and that it was a mistake to go and see him. But as it always happened that such reflections impelled me, as though purposely, to put myself into a false position, I went in.”
He fears that Simonov dislikes him even though he has no proof. With social anxiety, we often have low self-esteem and assume others think as lowly of us as we do ourselves.
The Underground Man arrives at Simonov’s…
“They seemed to be discussing an important matter. All of them took scarcely any notice of my entrance, which was strange, for I had not met them for years. Evidently they looked upon me as something on the level of a common fly. I had not been treated like that even at school, though they all hated me. I knew, of course, that they must despise me now for my lack of success in the service, and for my having let myself sink so low, going about badly dressed and so on–which seemed to them a sign of my incapacity and insignificance. But I had not expected such contempt.”
He once again misreads the situation, thinking his friends despise him, but perhaps they were just engaged in their conversation, and it had nothing to do with him. So much of social anxiety comes from misreading others’ thoughts and actions toward us as negative. In reality, others’ thoughts and actions may have nothing to do with us at all. They are likely thinking about themselves (just as we are).
“My schoolfellows met me with spiteful and merciless jibes because I was not like any of them. But I could not endure their taunts; I could not give in to them with the ignoble readiness with which they gave in to one another. I hated them from the first, and shut myself away from everyone in timid, wounded and disproportionate pride. Their coarseness revolted me. They laughed cynically at my face, at my clumsy figure; and yet what stupid faces they had themselves… They understood nothing, they had no idea of real life, and I swear that that was what made me most indignant with them.”
He shows more of his antisocial attitudes, which develop from his bitterness over his disenfranchisement. It’s clear he has social anxiety, but not all people with social anxiety develop bitter antisocial attitudes like the Underground Man.
“With years a craving for society, for friends, developed in me. I attempted to get on friendly terms with some of my schoolfellows; but somehow or other my intimacy with them was always strained and soon ended of itself.”
It’s difficult to form close friendships with social anxiety because we are afraid to reveal our true selves for fear of being judged or rejected.
“The great thing, I thought, is not to be the first to arrive, or they will think I am overjoyed at coming. But there were thousands of such great points to consider, and they all agitated and overwhelmed me.”
He is feeling anxiety from thinking about all the possible things that could go wrong in the meeting with his friends. Because of social anxiety, I don’t like arriving at events early or late, because both draw attention and make me stand out. I prefer to arrive exactly on time.
The Underground Man starts predicting how his friends will despise him and mock his clothes, and he even admits, “I knew, too, perfectly well even then, that I was monstrously exaggerating the facts. But how could I help it? I could not control myself and was already shaking with fever.” Which goes to show that even if we are conscious of our thoughts and aware they are false, we may still feel social anxiety.
“Of course, the best thing would be not to go at all. But that was most impossible of all: if I feel impelled to do anything, I seem to be pitchforked into it.”
It seems that not going to the party would be the easy solution to ease his social anxiety, but his social anxiety also compels him to go, because of fear of the ramifications and judgments that he’d endure from canceling. Plus, he knows that he will endlessly regret it himself.
He then tells us his desire to outwit his friends at the party and make them feel shame. This is further proof of his sociopathic attitude, which is a separate condition from social anxiety.
When the Underground Man arrives at the party, he is greeted by Zverkov.
“I had been preparing for them ever since the previous day, but I had not expected such condescension, such high-official courtesy. So, then, he felt himself ineffably superior to me in every respect!”
He once again overanalyzes the exchange, ascribing all kinds of evil motives to Zverkov based on a simple handshake. People with social anxiety won’t necessarily feel slighted and insulted by everyone they meet, but will often overanalyze others’ tones and gestures.
Zverkov even proves the Underground Man’s suspicions wrong, saying, “‘You fight shy of us. You shouldn’t. We are not such terrible people as you think. Well, anyway, I am glad to renew our acquaintance.'”
As the men converse, the Underground Man shows some physical symptoms of social anxiety, such as difficulty speaking and blushing.
“I drawled more than he, hardly able to control myself… I turned horribly red.”
He then feels ashamed and rejected after telling them how much money he makes.
“No one paid any attention to me, and I sat crushed and humiliated… What a fool I have made of myself before them!”
One friend even tries standing up for the Underground Man and tells his other friend to stop embarrassing him by talking about their jobs and money, but the Underground Man won’t hear it because of his inferiority complex. Which is another example of thinking our own flaws are worse than others perceive them to be.
The Underground Man then has a drunken outburst at the table, and the others are insulted. He regrets it afterward but is too afraid to apologize.
“But I did not sing. I simply tried not to look at any of them. I assumed most unconcerned attitudes and waited with impatience for them to speak FIRST. But alas, they did not address me! And oh, how I wished, how I wished at that moment to be reconciled to them!”
The angry outburst isn’t in line with social anxiety, but his feelings afterward are. Social anxiety makes us afraid to initiate conversation with others. Even if we have something we want to say, we hope others will speak to us first.
“During those three hours I was three times soaked with sweat and dry again.”
Social anxiety makes us sweat in certain social situations because we feel like we are under a spotlight.
“At times, with an intense, acute pang I was stabbed to the heart by the thought that ten years, twenty years, forty years would pass, and that even in forty years I would remember with loathing and humiliation those filthiest, most ludicrous, and most awful moments of my life.”
He feels extreme humiliation over this social encounter, overvaluing its significance to himself and his friends, thinking that in forty years it will still feel as painful. Social anxiety comes from giving such extreme significance to every social interaction, but no social interaction is that significant.
“‘Oh, if you only knew what thoughts and feelings I am capable of, how cultured I am!’ I thought at moments, mentally addressing the sofa on which my enemies were sitting. But my enemies behaved as though I were not in the room.”
Social anxiety brings a frustration of being unable to express to others the thoughts we are feeling.
After the party, the Underground Man follows his friends to a brothel where he hopes to confront Zerchov. Instead, he meets a prostitute named Liza.
“I have no friends. Nonsense!”
“And all at once I felt horribly ashamed.”
“My harassed face struck me as revolting in the extreme, pale, angry, abject, with disheveled hair.”
No friends, shame, and hating his physical appearance are more evidence of low self-esteem which fuels social anxiety.
“My head was full of fumes. Something seemed to be hovering over me, rousing me, exciting me, and making me restless. Misery and spite seemed surging up in me again and seeking an outlet.”
This is a vivid description of what anxiety feels like.
“During those two hours I had not said a single word to this creature, and had, in fact, considered it utterly superfluous; in fact, the silence had for some reason gratified me.”
He enjoys the silence he shares with Liza. However, to people with social anxiety, awkward silence can feel just as uncomfortable as actually speaking.
“Man is fond of reckoning up his troubles, but does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.”
He lectures Liza on insights that he didn’t seem to embody himself earlier in the book. It’s easier to preach than to practice. He takes pride in feeling superior to her after feeling inferior to the officer and his friends.
“I thought to myself, though I did speak with real feeling, and all at once I flushed crimson. ‘What if she were suddenly to burst out laughing, what should I do then?’ That idea drove me to fury. Towards the end of my speech I really was excited, and now my vanity was somehow wounded. The silence continued.”
He excitedly talks about his joyous dreams to start a family, then when he considers how Liza might negatively react, it causes him to blush and clam up. This is what often happens to people with social anxiety. When we want to say something, we think of all the possible ways others will respond to what we’ll say, which inevitably frightens us from ever saying it.
After feeling mocked by Liza’s response to his dreams, he insults her to make himself feel better. Upon being rejected, most people with social anxiety would retreat and feel less inclined to speak, but the Underground Man’s sociopathic tendencies overpower his social anxiety, forcing him to attack.
“What did I thrust my address upon her for? What if she comes?… The thought that Liza was coming worried me continually… ‘What if she comes,’ I thought incessantly.”
He regrets giving Liza his address because of the anxiety of what might happen should he see her again.
“It’s horrid that she should see, for instance, how I live.”
Social anxiety makes us afraid to reveal personal information. The Underground Man fears that Liza will judge him based on his modest apartment.
“I, of course, shall be panic-stricken as usual.”
Social anxiety can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that if we believe we will be nervous, we will be nervous. Positive thinking isn’t a cure-all, but it doesn’t hurt.
“‘I exaggerate everything, that is where I go wrong,’ I repeated to myself every hour.”
Social anxiety makes us exaggerate our flaws and awkwardness in social situations. The Underground Man is even aware of his exaggerations in this moment, yet he is unable to stop.
“I was so uneasy that I sometimes flew into a fury.”
Another description of the anxiety he felt while dreading Liza’s arrival.
While waiting for Liza, the Underground Man gets in an argument with his servant, Apollon.
“In his behavior to me he was a perfect tyrant, he spoke very little to me, and if he chanced to glance at me he gave me a firm, majestically self-confident and invariably ironical look that drove me sometimes to fury.”
He once again wildly overanalyzes a simple glance.
“There could be no doubt that he looked upon me as the greatest fool on earth, and that ‘he did not get rid of me’ was simply that he could get wages from me every month.”
He reads into Apollon’s actions, giving him motives and opinions that probably aren’t there.
Liza shows up at his apartment, and…
“I stood before her crushed, crestfallen, revoltingly confused…. Apollon went away, but that did not make me more at ease. What made it worse was that she, too, was overwhelmed with confusion, more so, in fact, than I should have expected. At the sight of me, of course.”
He even blames himself for the anxiety that Liza evidently felt. If we have social anxiety, then we feel anxiety that we are causing the other person to feel anxious as well, which only compounds our anxiety.
“I began, stammering and knowing that this was the wrong way to begin.”
Social anxiety can make us second-guess and regret our words as we’re saying them, which causes us to stammer and make mistakes.
“My temples were moist with sweat. I was pale, I felt it. But, thank God, he must have been moved to pity, looking at me.”
Because of low self-esteem, he feels relief from not being looked at by Apollon.
“Our silence lasted for five minutes…. I had got to the point of purposely refraining from beginning in order to embarrass her further; it was awkward for her to begin alone. Several times she glanced at me with mournful perplexity. I was obstinately silent. I was, of course, myself the chief sufferer, because I was fully conscious of the disgusting meanness of my spiteful stupidity, and yet at the same time I could not restrain myself.”
He divulges the contradicting perplexities of his feelings, of taking delight in shaming Liza, yet feeling horrible for doing so. That particular feeling of him wanting to embarrass her stems from his sociopathy rather than his social anxiety. With social anxiety, we can want to speak, and feel bad that we’re subjecting someone to awkward silence, yet we still can’t bring ourselves to speak.
“I am a wretched creature, I was frightened… I know that I am a blackguard, a scoundrel, an egoist, a sluggard…. I am the nastiest, stupidest, absurdest and most envious of all the worms on earth.”
He gives Liza a speech, espousing all the negative beliefs he has about himself. Sometimes people with social anxiety have similar thoughts about themselves without even realizing it.
“I began by degrees to be aware of a far-away, involuntary but irresistible feeling that it would be awkward now for me to raise my head and look Liza straight in the face. Why was I ashamed? I don’t know, but I was ashamed.”
He feels more shame, which makes him unable to make eye contact, for fear Liza will see his shame.
“I did not hate her so much, however, when I was running about the room and peeping through the crack in the screen. I was only insufferably oppressed by her being here. I wanted her to disappear. I wanted ‘peace,’ to be left alone in my underground world. Real life oppressed me with its novelty so much that I could hardly breathe.”
The Underground Man likes Liza from afar, but when he is with her, he is so overwhelmed with anxiety that he wants to be alone. Thus renewing the cycle of social anxiety.
In Part I, Dostoyevsky takes us deep inside the narrator’s mind, where we see the way he thinks. His mindset and thought patterns are largely consistent with those of social anxiety. Then, in Part II, we see the narrator’s social anxiety firsthand through his behavior in social situations with the officer, his friends, and a prostitute. While the Underground Man undoubtedly has social anxiety, he clearly suffers from deeper psychological disorders as well, such as sociopathy, inferiority, narcissism, and shame. It’s not clear if he developed social anxiety because of those other conditions or if those conditions caused his social anxiety—or if they’re connected at all. Not all people with social anxiety share the Underground Man’s other psychological issues (I don’t), but I can certainly relate to certain aspects of his character.
“But enough; I don’t want to write more from ‘Underground.'”
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I read this book recently as part of my uni course and I felt so connected to it – it instantly became one of my favourite novels because of this. However, I’d never thought of it in this way, and perhaps this is why I resonated with it so much. Thanks for the insight 🙂
Thank you for the kind comment. I’m happy to know this was helpful.
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