Social anxiety doesn’t occur out of blue like panic attacks often do. There was an event, a stressful situation in your past – – sometimes obvious, sometimes not – – that started the ball rolling on your path to becoming a socially anxious person. That social trauma led you to develop a negative image of yourself in similar circumstances. Then you began avoiding these situations or using unhelpful coping methods to deal with them.
The good news is you can change your negative beliefs and self-image. You can make a new internal image of yourself that overrides the old, default self-impression. The way this is accomplished is by conducting frequent, strategic experiments to gather new data about how others react to you NOW – – versus THEN – – so that slowly, but steadily – – your negative thoughts and images are corrected (Warnock-Parkes et. al, 2020). In other words, your thinking about yourself becomes a more objective and accurate reflection of your current self and your current environment as you gather new facts about how others truly see you.
How social anxiety develops and is maintained
According to world-renowned psychologist David M. Clark and many other experts in this field, the onset of Social Anxiety Disorder begins with a social trauma that occurred earlier in life, often in adolescence. For example, you may have “frozen” when you had to give a class presentation, and you saw that some of your classmates snickered at you.
So you began relating to others based on certain assumptions: “If others notice my anxiety, they will judge me as incompetent,” and beliefs about yourself: “I am inferior to my coworkers.” This theory explains how your social anxiety got started. However, the more important issue for you now is: what keeps it going?
Clark says there are two key factors that maintain your social anxiety. The first is your hyper self-focus, by which he means being in your head worrying about how you are perceived versus tuning into the conversation when you are interacting with others.
The second factor that perpetuates social anxiety is your reliance on “crutches” to cope with stressful situations. Some examples of safety behaviors: taking Propranolol or Xanax to suppress physical sensations, holding back in conversation, not making eye contact, wearing clothing to conceal perspiration, you name it. Such unhelpful safety behaviors only serve to convince yourself that you escaped some imagined social catastrophe by using these safety nets.
Two prerequisites to prepare for experiments
To carry out effective experiments you will need to be aware of your self-focus and safety behaviors – – and practice letting go of them.
One way to practice focusing externally is by listening with curiosity and interest to what other people are saying when they are speaking. In other words, tune in and focus mindfully on the conversation – – with as close to 100% of your attention as you can for brief increments of time. When it’s your turn to speak, focus on what you have to say versus worrying about how you’re coming across. [See here also for more help on focusing externally.]
At the same time as you are practicing focusing externally, try dropping one or two of your safety behaviors. For example, purposely make good eye contact with others while you are listening to what they are saying. Or instead of thinking about what you are going to say when it’s your turn to speak, focus on what is being said and respond with whatever pops into mind naturally.
What you will find is that the more you focus externally and let go of your safety behaviors, the less anxious and self-conscious you will feel. And the easier it will be for you to engage in the conversation.
How to design a strategic experiment
By strategic experiment I mean doing something to test your assumptions about how others react to you. Your goal in conducting an experiment is to obtain new facts, data, information about how others see you to begin constructing a new, more realistic image of yourself – – NOW – – to counteract the old, negative self-impression stored in your memory from THEN.
First — Start by identifying one or two negative beliefs about yourself that you want to test. For example: “I won’t be able to speak unless I plan what to say.” Or “People will think I’m boring.” Rate from 0-100% how much you believe your negative thoughts.
Second — Make some predictions about what you think will happen when you do the experiment and what percent you believe it. For example, “If I don’t plan what to say, I’ll freeze and won’t be able to talk.” (60% believable) Or “People will think I’m boring and end the conversation quickly.” (80% believable)
It is important that your predictions can be observed, verified in some way. If you cannot prove how others are reacting to you, then you are guessing, just making assumptions, which is what you have been doing for years.
A good way to determine that you have a verifiable experiment is to say to yourself: “People will think I’m boring as evidenced by them not asking me any questions, or, looking at their phone while I’m talking to them, or ending the conversation abruptly.”
Third – Plan what you will do and when you will do it. For example, “During my coffee break at work tomorrow I will chat for a few minutes with a coworker. I will ask them an open-ended question to which they can’t just answer “yes” or “no.” When they respond, I will look at them and practice good eye contact. And I will listen with interest to what they are saying (versus “scripting” in my head what to say next).
I will determine that they do not think I’m boring, (or at least totally boring), if they a) ask me a question back, or b) look at me versus someplace else, or c) if they chat with me for a couple of minutes versus ending the conversation quickly.
Here’s another example of a measurable experiment: “To test if I am babbling or talking weird, I will stop two passers-by at the mall and ask them where Target is. I will know that I am not babbling or talking weird if they answer me and do not roll their eyes at me. I will prove to myself that I don’t have to script everything I say by spontaneously thanking them for their help.”
Debrief your experiments to get the most out of them
As soon as possible after your experiment, write some notes (in your experiment notebook) about the outcome and what you learned. By outcome I mean what happened versus what you predicted.
For example: “I spoke to Joe for several minutes at lunch today. I was 60% sure I would freeze up, but I was able to get out a question and only hesitated 20%. I was 80% certain he would find me boring and walk away quickly, but he actually lingered a bit talk with me.”
Also write what you learned by doing the experiment: “I learned that during a brief conversation I can focus externally and listen when someone else is talking. And I discovered that they did not find me totally boring because they asked me a question too!”
Keep a written log of your experiments. For each experiment you do, note the following by completing 6 columns:
- Column 1: Date of your experiment.
- Column 2: Situation. Example: Talked to a clerk at a convenience store.
- Column 3: Predictions. Example: I will babble. (85% believable); Others will stare at me as evidenced by them watching me closely. (70% believable)
- Column 4: Experiment – What you did to test your predictions and what safety behaviors you dropped. Example: I picked up several items at the convenience store. I made a point of observing if others were looking at me while I got my items and waited in line to check out. When it was my turn to check out, I asked the clerk where the nearest pharmacy was to test if he understood me clearly.
- Column 5: Outcome – What happened. Example: When I looked to see if people were staring at me, nobody was; they were focused on getting what they needed. In the checkout line, they were looking at their cell phones. I was able to make good eye contact with the clerk and ask him where the pharmacy was. I must not have babbled, because he understood my question, although he wasn’t sure. He said he didn’t know the area too well.
- Column 6: Learning – I learned that people are going about their own business and aren’t staring at me. I discovered that when I make eye contact and speak clearly, I don’t babble and I can make myself understood. I can keep doing mini experiments like this to disprove my negative beliefs about myself by gathering lots of evidence to prove how others react to me NOW versus THEN.
The good news: you can overcome social anxiety
Your social anxiety did not appear overnight. It developed after you experienced one or more socially traumatic situations and then started avoiding similar scenarios, or getting through them as best you could using your safety behaviors. Either way – – by outright avoidance or unhelpful crutches – – your negative self-image became your default internal setting because you were never able to disprove it!
By designing and carrying out frequent – – (daily or multiple times a week) – – strategic experiments, you will discover that the person that was mocked by classmates back THEN is not seen the same way by others NOW.
Randy Weiss, LCSW
NSAC – Phoenix
Warnock-Parkes, E., Wild, J., Thew, G., Kerr, A., Grey, N., Stott, R., . . . Clark, D. (2020). Treating social anxiety disorder remotely with cognitive therapy. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 13, E30. doi:10.1017/S1754470X2000032X