Many people who present for therapy cite wanting to ‘feel comfortable in their own skin’ as their main objective. Feeling ‘not good enough’ is another related, and very common, theme.
I’m interested in the history of where these beliefs came from in order to help people gain more awareness and choice in their current situation. It’s also important to reality test current perceptions.
These perceptions are often based on the belief that others are confident and are scrutinising us, noticing in particular any mistakes, and keeping them ‘on file’. The reality is most people feel similarly, to varying degrees. While many are too busy focusing on themselves and not YOU, at worst they are aware of many others and not you alone. A client once illustrated this
by telling me a story of budding amateur actor who was asked to go on stage and deliver two words: “It is!”. She became very self conscious about the thought of the audience looking at her but persisted in preparing her line, repeating the words “It is! It is! It is! It is!”. When the first showing of the play took place, she couldn’t shake the idea of being scrutinised by an audience, who she fully expected would judge her harshly. She walked on stage and delivered the two words: “Is It?”
Self talk is relevant here. We all have ‘voices in our head’. For people with issues around self worth this often takes the form of the self critic. In order to get a sense of the kind of self talk a client engages in, I often ask; if you stumbled as you were walking along a path, would you pause for a moment and think “Oops”, maybe suffer a moment of embarrassment, and forget about it a minute later, or would you berate yourself for the rest of the day, calling yourself “clumsy, foolish” etc., replaying it on and off, wondering who might have seen you?
The self critic is very destructive. Imagine having someone constantly putting you down, how that would effect your mood, your behaviour, your relationships. Most of us are unaware of their self critic. It is only when we become aware that we can then begin to observe the automatic self-critic and gradually introduce the ‘fair judge’ as an alternative. This is not about seeing yourself through rose tinted glasses, but rather, considering the situation fairly and with some self-compassion.
We need to question our premise that “it’s ok for others to be flawed or mess up but I must be perfect” or “I’m unacceptable”, “it’s ok for others to talk socially about things that are not particularly interesting but if I’m to speak it must be worth hearing and well delivered”. Why make the rules be so different and punitive for yourself? Why not be kinder to yourself? Certainly you can choose to improve aspects of yourself and, at the same, time remember you are human, you are not supposed to be flawless. If you feel you don’t deserve this then this really needs to be looked at, with the fair observer in mind.
The following are some practical pointers to help you overcome social anxiety:
-Beware of using drink or drugs as a crutch. This dependence can lead to addiction.
-Let go of the high expectations of yourself. You don’t have to be interestING, just be interestED. Don’t feel you have to be entertaining, knowledgeable or accurate. You are contributing if you speak up at all, or even if you just show an interest in what’s happening in the social situation. Really listen to what others say, it is often not that interesting or accurate and that’s OK, it’s the contribution that counts.
– Redirect you focus from self to others, and the conversation and interactions. Focusing on yourself only reinforces your anxiety. It really is enough to be quiet and interested. People will notice the difference between someone who is quietly interested rather than quietly self absorbed, and un-engaged in the conversation.
-Understand that your physical symptoms of anxiety are a result of a misinterpretation that the situation is (emotionally) threatening. It is just caused by the flight/fight response and is harmless. If someone notices you blushing or your voice shaking, they will forget it in an instant or, at worst, have a moment of concern for your shyness. They will not be lying awake that night thinking about it!
-Practice mindfulness and relaxation daily.
–Visualise yourself as comfortable and relaxed in social situations.
–It’s not all about you! Stop interpreting every sigh as evidence that others think you are boring, or every comment as meaning something negative about you. People are wrapped up in themselves and don’t have the energy to judge you the way you judge yourself.
-Notice when your ‘self critic’ comes in and bring in a fair and balanced voice instead. It can help to think of what you would say to a friend, e.g. if I notice myself thinking ‘they will all think I’m odd’, the balanced, fair voice might say, ‘they are not focusing or thinking about me, at worst they will notice that I am shy or quite and that won’t bother them’. The self-critic might say: ’if someone asks me a question I won’t have the answer, and they will think I am stupid’, whereas the fair, balanced voice would say: ‘I could say – “I can’t answer that question off the top of my head”- and that’s an acceptable response so no-one will think anything of it’
-Be kind to yourself, begin to accept yourself.
–Lighten up! Don’t take yourself too seriously. The best fun in social situations happens when we allow ourselves to be silly.
Image source: Monstrous Discrepancies (http://www.viruscomix.com/page528.html)
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