If you have social anxiety, avoidant coping modes may help you avoid activation of your schemas and your inner critic. Schemas are broad, pervasive themes regarding oneself and others, developed during childhood and reinforced throughout one’s lifetime. They tend to be unhelpful to a significant degree. In social anxiety, schemas may consist of core beliefs related to fear of being judged, criticized by others, or embarrassing oneself. Coping modes such as avoidance often get activated to avoid the pain of the schema.
With social anxiety, many people use avoidant modes to avoid the feelings of inferiority and negative evaluation by others. Here are the main Avoidant Coping Modes.
In this mode, you avoid triggering the schema through behavioral avoidance. You may keep away from situations that trigger distressing emotions. It is characterized by interpersonal and situational avoidance. Some typical situations you may avoid are:
- Initiating small talk with acquaintances, classmates or co-workers, or strangers
- Asserting your needs with people in authority such as teachers or supervisors
- Forming friendships or developing romantic relationships
- Revealing personal information about yourself
- Joining a group conversation already in progress
- Going to a party or networking at a professional event
In this mode, you withdraw emotionally and psychologically to avoid schema pain. Feelings are suppressed, depersonalization can occur and you do not feel connected to others. The Detached Protector mode can take over when intense emotions are triggered that you do not want to feel. For example, you may drink alcohol at a party or social event to block out your negative feelings.
In extreme cases, the Detached Protector can appear as the Spaced Out Protector. Strong emotions are avoided by going numb, spacing out or daydreaming. At its extreme, dissociation may occur. This mode may result in the experience of being foggy, unreal, and states of depersonalization. This mode may be triggered unconsciously.
In this mode, you shut off your emotions by engaging in activities that soothe, stimulate, or distract from your feelings and keep you feeling disconnected from others. These behaviors are usually undertaken in an addictive or compulsive way, and can include workaholism, gambling, dangerous sports, promiscuous sex, or alcohol or drug abuse. In other cases, you may compulsively engage in solitary interests that are more self-soothing than self-stimulating, such as playing computer games, overeating, watching television, or fantasizing.
Here, you may shield what you are really feeling with a barrage of resentment and anger. A ‘wall of anger’ is used as a protection from others whom you perceive as threatening. Anger is used to keep others at a safe distance and to avoid being hurt. Your anger becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with others wanting to avoid you.
How can you use your Healthy Adult mode to cope with avoidance?
Your Healthy Adult takes responsibility for choices and actions, and makes and keeps commitments. In a balanced way, you pursue activities that are likely to be fulfilling in work, intimate and social relationships, sporting, cultural and service-related activities. Some ways you can use your Healthy Adult when you are avoiding include:
- Approach, do not avoid, situations or activities that bring on social anxiety. Create a ladder from simple to hard activities that you can slowly engage in. With each step up the ladder, you will feel yourself getting stronger and braver.
- Practice Mindfulness of Emotions to allow yourself to fully experience your distress and accept that emotions can be painful but they will pass. Negative emotions do not last forever but by avoiding them, you only make them feel more painful.
- Talk back to your Inner Critic. Talk to yourself in a compassionate way by taking a non-judgmental stance. You can create a coping card or a brief audio recording to remind you to be compassionate to yourself.
- Have a Growth Mindset. In the learning zone, you focus on activities designed for improvement and concentrate on what you have not yet mastered and you do not expect to be perfect. You see mistakes as necessary for growth. In contrast, when you are in a performance or fixed mindset, your goal is to do something perfectly and to minimize mistakes.
- Practice assertiveness skills. Being assertive means being able to stand up for your rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive or overly passively.
Laura Johnson, MA, MBA, LMFT, LPCC
Certified Cognitive Behavior Therapist
Advanced Certified Schema Therapist
National Social Anxiety Center of Silicon Valley / San Jose