Can you guess what concern these three individuals have in common?
- A 63 year-old man who is terrified about speaking at his daughter’s wedding.
- A 32-year-old woman who’s afraid of getting sick when she flies.
- A 26-year-old dental student who gets scared whenever his professors watch him doing procedures.
Each one of them is afraid of being observed, a common aspect of social anxiety. If you dread situations where you fear being in the spotlight, then you probably go out of your way to avoid scenarios where you think this might happen. Or — if you must participate — you worry for days, or weeks, in advance, and then endure the activity with a great deal of distress.
The fear of being observed can impact many aspects of your life. The problem is that once you start dodging everyday situations, your world begins to shrink. Office meetings, religious services, weddings, social gatherings, dining out, even grocery shopping, are all potential “hazards” to be avoided. Your life can become very limited.
Another downside to avoiding situations is that it erodes your self-confidence and chips away at your self-esteem.
But perhaps the most important reason to face your fear of being observed when you feel anxious is to discover how others actually react. Much of anxiety is anticipatory. But if you don’t go toward the situations you fear you can never disprove your beliefs.
What Exactly Do You Fear?
Like the three people described above, you worry that a trigger situation will cause you such anxiety that others will notice it and think less of you. But what, specifically, are you afraid they’ll see? (Hint: Although you may feel your heart rate increasing and your chest getting tight, people cannot see these symptoms.)
In the example of the man who must speak at his daughter’s wedding, he’s afraid he won’t be able to think clearly, will lose track of what he’s trying to say, causing the guests to lose respect for him. The fearful flyer worries that she’ll be sick on the plane and cause a big scene, embarrassing herself.
The dental student sweats under pressure and is convinced that if his professors see this they will think he’s not capable of being a dentist.
Identifying what symptom(s) of your anxiety you worry about people seeing and predicting how you think they’ll react will enable you to discover if your assumptions are accurate. Here are three proven strategies from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you get over your fears about being observed.
Three Strategies for Overcoming Your Fear of Being Observed
Strategy #1: Focus Your Attention Externally
Practice getting your attention off yourself. By that I mean notice, but disregard, your negative thoughts about how you are being seen. This habit of mindreading is unreliable and unhelpful. It’s unreliable because you can only determine how others are judging you by what they say and do — in other words, by how they act toward you.
In addition to ignoring your negative thoughts, taking your focus off your physical symptoms — blushing, sweating, shaking, etc. — helps decrease your anxiety. When you are self-focused, it exacerbates the fight-or-flight response, and your symptoms intensify. And, you are too self-absorbed to pay attention to how others are truly reacting.
Instead, cultivate an external focus by tuning into what is going on around you: listening with curiosity and interest when others are talking, observing if others are watching you, paying attention to the sermon, and so forth.
Strategy #2: Conduct Experiments to Test Your Assumptions
Conduct experiments to test your beliefs that others are judging you negatively when they can observe your anxiety. Here’s how to get the most value from these experiments:
First, identify what you’re afraid people will see. What symptom(s) of your anxiety do you think others will notice: blushing, sweating, stumbling over your words, clumsiness?
Next, predict how people will react. For example, you might hypothesize: “Others will see me sweating and think less of me, as evidenced by moving away from me or staring at me in disgust or whispering to each other.” It’s important to determine how you’ll know that others are judging you negatively. Remember, you can only measure this by what you can see and hear, not by trying to read minds.
Now, conduct an experiment to find out if your fears come true. For example, if you’re worried about sweating, you might walk into a convenience store after working out, (or after spraying water all over your face and underarms). Walk around the isles for a few minutes and stand in line to check out, all the while looking to see if others are staring at you. What happens? What did you learn?
Here’s another simple experiment you can do to de-catastrophize how people react when you do something foolish or clumsy. Walk around a store or mall and, as people approach you, intentionally drop things (a pen, a book, your purse). Do this in front of 8 or 10 people to get a good sample size. What happened? Did people laugh at you or roll their eyes or whisper to each other? Did anyone stop to help you? Or did they simply ignore you? If you have a trusted partner or friend, it’s very helpful to bring them along to stand back and watch — and even record — what happens.
For a more details on how to do strategic experiments, refer to this blog article: How to do Strategic Experiments to Overcome Social Anxiety
Strategy #3: Prepare a Short Response if Others Comment
If you are too afraid to conduct an experiment, it helps to have a short response prepared to save face if your worst fears come true. For example, in the case of you appearing sweaty, if someone asks if you’re okay, you might say, “I’m fine thanks. I just worked out.”
If someone stops to help you pick up what you dropped, you could smile and say, “Thanks, I can’t believe I just did that!”
How many experiments should you do? As many as it takes to convince yourself that even if you are being observed, people really don’t care about your anxiety. Honestly, they’re generally too wrapped up in themselves to be focusing on you.
If you could work up your courage to do some experiments and found this to be true, what value would that have for you the next time you have to do something you dread?
Hopefully you’ll realize that even if your anxiety does show, others aren’t nearly as judgmental as you think.
Written by Randy Weiss, LCSW, A-CBT