The perils of beating ourselves up
“I can’t believe I said that! I’m such an idiot!”
“I made the conversation so awkward and boring!”
“I came across as so anxious and weird! How can I ever face these people again?!”
“I made such a terrible impression! I’m humiliated!”
These are just a few examples of the kinds of harshly self-critical thoughts with which socially anxious persons often beat themselves up after some perceived imperfection during an interaction. Have you every gotten stuck in cycles of self-critical rumination? How long might you beat yourself up over some perceived imperfection? … hours? … days? … off and on for years? How does this brooding make you feel? … embarrassed? … frustrated? … ashamed? … depressed?
Post-event rumination is a very important part of the vicious cycle of social anxiety disorder, as discussed in an earlier NSAC blog post. Self-critical brooding is not just a bad habit; it is also one of our self-defeating safety-seeking behaviors (crutches) aimed at trying to improve how we come across during interactions. However, like our other common safety-seeking behaviors (most notably: avoidance, self-monitoring our symptoms and performance, and scripting what to say next), ruminating backfires badly. It causes depressed mood, lowered self-esteem and self-confidence, and increased social anxiety and avoidance for our next interactions. Ruminating strengthens our unhealthy core beliefs that generate our social anxiety problems: that we are deficient in fundamental ways, and that others will see these deficiencies and judge/dislike us.
The bad news is that self-critical rumination fuels the vicious cycle of social anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. The good news is that, through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), we can learn to turn our rumination around into constructive self-messaging which helps to break the vicious cycle, decrease our social anxiety, and improves our self-esteem and our mood.
Learning to pat ourselves on the back
Consider this analogy: a child comes home from elementary school one day and eagerly shows her parent a school writing project she just completed. The parent looks at it and says: “Well, this is OK, but I know you can do so much better! I bet your friends Josh and Julie put more effort into their projects and did a better job than you did. I’m disappointed in you, and I’m sure your teacher is, too! I just want you to do better the next time!” Even if the parent is genuinely motivated by a desire to help the child improve, we can probably all see how such treatment is likely to backfire. Maybe the child will work harder and harder to please for a while, but if this is how she is frequently treated, she will likely come to believe that she is fundamentally deficient, and that others will see the deficiencies and judge/dislike her. Her self-esteem and mood are likely to be damaged, and she will probably become very anxious about others’ judgments.
Contrast this with a different parent who tells the child: “I’m so very proud of you! You did such a beautiful job! You clearly worked hard on this, and it shows how much you have learned. You’re becoming a better and better writer each time! And you know what? I can think of a way you can do even better the next time. Maybe next time you could give an example or two, and that might help you get your point across even better than you already did.” That child is likely to develop core beliefs that she is worthwhile and that she does not have to be perfect to be accepted.
When we ruminate in self-criticism, we treat ourselves like the bad parent in the first analogy, and suffer similar consequences. We can, however, retrain ourselves to be affirming and constructive in the way we speak to ourselves.
Steps to being a good parent to yourself
Every time you do anything that you found at least a little challenging, or every time you start to be self-critical about something you did, follow the following simple steps as soon as possible:
1. Write down all the positive things you did, no matter how small or imperfect. Begin each entry with the words “I’m proud that”. Be specific and detailed, as that will help you believe them.
For example: “I’m proud that I attended. I’m proud that I stayed two hours, which is much longer than I usually do. I’m proud that I smiled at and greeted several people. I’m proud that I initiated a few conversations. I’m proud that I extended one of these conversations for more than ten minutes. I’m proud that I asserted a different opinion. I’m proud that I tried to focus mindfully on the conversation and treat my thoughts like my background noise some of the time.”
2. If there was anything you think you did not do so well, do not criticize yourself for it. Instead, turn it into a constructive learning experience by writing down the specific behavioral steps you want to take next time. Begin each entry with “I want” rather than something self-critical, like “I should.”
For example: “Next time I want to try to practice more often refocusing mindfully on the conversation and treating my thoughts like background noise. I want to speak more about myself, and talk a little longer each time I speak up. I also want to share contact information with someone I’ve enjoyed talking to.”
3. Then, as soon as possible, choose a valued activity to engage in, and focus mindfully on that activity while treating your thoughts and feelings like background noise (thought defusion).
4. Whenever you are bothered again by self-criticism about the same situation, reread (and possibly add to) the written list of pride points and behavioral goals (#1 and 2, above). Then refocus mindfully on a valued activity while treating your troubling thoughts like background noise.
Do not wait until you start being self-critical before following these steps. Instead, try to create a new habit of proactively following these steps after each challenging experience you have (for example, a therapy homework experiment/exposure, or any other life activity that triggered your social anxiety). And do not disqualify the positive things you did (eg. “it wasn’t good enough”, “anyone can do that” or “it’s no big deal”). Each positive step deserves a pat on the back, and doing so will help you feel better and do better next time!
Daily pride and gratitude log
This is another cognitive strategy aimed at retraining your brain to counteract your old habit of focusing onto the negative elements of what you experience and exaggerating their importance, while ignoring, disqualifying or not even noticing the positive elements. The results of using this strategy regularly for at least a month are typically improved mood and self-confidence, and lessened social anxiety. To achieve these results, however, it is necessary to use this strategy daily and not just occasionally. Fortunately, it takes just a few minutes, and it usually feels good.
Here are the directions and some suggestions:
1. Make it a daily practice to think back over the past 24 hours and write down anything positive that you experienced in an ongoing log (paper or electronic). Be specific. Do not disqualify the positive, no matter how small, imperfect or repeated the positive experience is. Do not write any qualifiers or anything negative here. (If you are feeling distressed about something, then separately complete a Cognitive Restructuring Worksheet on that upset.) It does not matter whether or not you actually feel pride or gratitude at this point. If it is at least partly positive, then write it down! With further practice in regularly using this log, you will likely begin to actually feel proud and grateful.
2. Reenter positive things that occur on more than one day, but make it a goal to write at least one new thing each day. If you stop including positive things because you have included them in previous days’ entries, you are implicitly giving yourself the distorted message that they do not count and you may take them for granted. But do try to include at least one new item each day, even if that means choosing to do something positive just so you can later log it!
3. For each item you write for which you were at least partially responsible, also write down the personal strengths or qualities of yours of which this is evidence. This helps you see that one small positive thing you have done is reflective of a strength or quality of yours that is actually very important and enduring.
For example: you may have had a good conversation with a friend, which is evidence that you can be an engaging conversationalist, a good friend and a likable person. Or perhaps you spoke up more often or longer at a work meeting, which is evidence that you have worthwhile things to contribute, and have courage to act despite your fears.
4. It is important to enter items in this pride and gratitude log every day in order to retrain your brain to look for and value these previously neglected positive things about yourself and your life. Some people find it helpful to schedule a regular time every day to complete the log paired with some activity they are already in the habit of doing daily, eg: during your first cup of coffee, just before going to bed, etc. Perhaps set an electronic alert to remind you. Some people prefer to make entries in their log multiple times during the day right after experiencing something positive. Some find it is easier to remember these experiences this way, and that it reinforces the positive feelings you get from them more effectively.
5. Periodically reread your Pride & Gratitude Log, or sections of it. Remember, do not disqualify the positive while doing so!
Proud and humble, not boastful and arrogant
In my 30 years of working in the field of social anxiety, one of the things I have come to like most about socially anxious persons is their almost universal humility. Frequently, however, a rigid, all-or-nothing view of humility poses problems in overcoming social anxiety. Some of my clients have expressed discomfort and ambivalence about pursuing these cognitive strategies aimed at increasing self-pride. Many socially anxious persons have a core belief that it is wrong to boastful or arrogant, and feel that these cognitive strategies violate this value. Socially anxious people sometimes avoid using these cognitive strategies (or disqualify and self-censor many potential points of pride as not good enough) due to the temporary discomfort caused by believing they are being boastful or arrogant.
Some of our unhealthy old core beliefs are so distorted and oppressive (eg. “I’m fundamentally deficient, and others will judge/dislike me for that”) that we need to work in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to discard them completely and replace them with more constructive alternatives (eg. “I have my strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. Most people will accept me as I am.”) Other core beliefs are healthy and reasonable in their essence, but are too rigid and all-or-nothing in their expression. Such core beliefs simply need to be softened a bit and made a little more flexible. For example, the core belief that “it is wrong to be boastful and arrogant” can be amended with “and it is healthy and beneficial to humbly take pride in one’s strengths and achievements.”
“Boastfulness” is the tendency to brag to others about one’s strengths and achievements. “Arrogance” is the tendency to view oneself as superior to others. Learning to develop self-pride is neither boastful nor arrogant. It is learning to acknowledge and feel positively about our strengths and achievements, and to accept our weaknesses as normal. Developing self-pride is aimed at growing to accept and feel good about ourselves, not acting or feeling superior or special. And developing self-pride–while retaining your humility–will help you overcome your social anxiety and related depression problems.
Cognitive restructuring and mindfulness
The strategies described in this post are specific applications of cognitive restructuring (learning to modify our distorted thinking based on examining all the relevant evidence) and mindfulness (learning to focus without judgment on the present moment while defusing from our troubling thoughts and feelings, treating them like unimportant background noise.) If you would like to learn about other ways of using cognitive restructuring and mindfulness to help you overcome your social anxiety problems, please read my earlier blog posts in the Lost in Thought series:
Larry Cohen, LICSW
Chair and cofounder, National Social Anxiety Center;
Director, NSAC District of Columbia
How to Get Help for Social Anxiety
The National Social Anxiety Center is a national association of regional clinics with certified cognitive therapists specializing in social anxiety and anxiety-related problems. We have compassionate therapists who can help you to reduce social anxiety. Currently, we have regional clinics in San Francisco, District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago, Newport Beach / Orange County, Houston / Sugar Land, St. Louis, Phoenix, South Florida, Silicon Valley, Dallas, Des Moines, San Diego, and Baltimore. Contact our national headquarters at (202) 656-8566 or visit our Regional Clinics contact page to find help in your local area.