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 to help the client gain more awareness and choice in their current situation. At the same time it’s important to reality test current perceptions.
Image source: Monstrous Discrepancies
Which 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, in 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 to prepare 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 to judge her harshly. She walked on stage and delivered the two words “Is It?”
Image source: Monstrous Discrepancies
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 they stumbled as they were walking along a path, would they pause for a moment think “Oops”, maybe suffer a moment of embarrassment, and forget about it a minute later, or would they berate themselves for the rest of the day, calling themselves “cluts, stupid” etc., replaying it on and off, wondering who might have seen them?
The self critic is very destructive, imagine having someone constantly putting you down through your every movment, imagine how that would effect your mood, your behaviour, your relationships. Most are unaware of their self critic, it is only when we become aware that we can then begin to stand outside ourselves and gradually introduce the ‘fair judge’ as a counter voice to the critic. Not patting you on the back for your every move but considering the situation fairly.
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 it then this really needs to be looked at, with the fair judge in mind.
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. If you speak up at all or even just show an interest in what’s happening in the social situation you are contributing. Really listen to what others say, it is often not that interesting or accurate and that’s OK, its the contribution that counts.
- Take your self focus and instead focus on 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 into play 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 Im 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’. Or the critic might say ‘if someone asks me a question I wont have the answer and they will think I am stupid’, whereas the fair, balanced voice would say ‘I could say that -”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, being to accept yourself. Check out this website for information and guided meditations for self-compassion http://self-compassion.org/
-Lighten up! Don’t take yourself too seriously. The best fun in social situations happens when we allow ourselves to be silly.