"I hope I don't embarrass myself tonight," thought Jessica as she took one last look in the mirror to make sure everything was perfect.
As soon as that thought crossed Jessica's mind, she had a flashback to the last time she went out with Annie, her best friend. She was so anxious about being late, she arrived 20 minutes early. Then, as she stood their waiting on her friend, her internal dialog began...
What kind of nerd shows up early? I should have arrived later like everyone else. Annie will think I'm a weirdo for showing up early. I don't want her to think I'm a weirdo. This is so embarrassing...
As she stood there, she began to feel hot. Her heart started beating faster, her palms got sweaty, and her stomach began to hurt.
She hesitated for a moment, then came up with a plan to head back to her car and wait for Annie to arrive.
But, walking back to her car, Jessica spotted Annie and a few other people walking towards her. She thought to herself...
OH NO! What do I do now... What do I say? I look like an idiot walking back to my car.
Her mind raced faster the closer she got to her friend. She couldn't think of what to do, or what to say. Then Annie asked, "Hey, where you going? Is something wrong?"
Not wanting to tell the truth, Jessica blurted out, "No, nothing's wrong. I umm... left my cell phone in my car, I was just running to get it."
Jessica lied, thinking it was better than the embarrassing alternative. But, it only made her more anxious, frustrated, and wanting to cut and run.
It All Begins with a Thought
That seemingly innocent thought, "I hope I don't embarrass myself tonight," can cause our minds to spiral out of control with social anxiety. It's the catalyst that leads into feelings, physical responses, and ultimately some kind of action that will temporarily make us feel better, but ultimately makes things worse.
For example, we'll think to ourselves, I hope I don't look stupid or I better not mess this up.
But instead of giving us confidence and courage, these types of thoughts remind us of past failures. They remind us of the last time we thought we looked stupid or messed up.
Not only do these kinds of thoughts cause us to replay negative moments in our minds, but thinking this way causes us to become defensive and to put our guard up against making any mistakes. The problem with focusing on not making mistakes is that you're more prone to make them.
It's just like in sports. When a team has a large lead, they tend to play one of two ways. They either play to win, continuing to do the things that made them successful. Or, they play not to lose, forgetting about what made them successful and instead focusing on the things that could cost them the game.
It's hard to win when you're so focus is on not losing. It's hard to feel confident going into a new situation when your thoughts are telling you, you better not mess this up...like you did before.
Thoughts Cause Feelings
Did you notice how after just one thought Jessica began to feel a certain kind of way?
As she was waiting on her friend, she said, "What kind of nerd shows up early?" That thought resulted in Jessica feeling like a weirdo and embarrassed for not being like the others.
Many of us think and respond in the exact same way. We think to ourselves, "I'm not good enough to do this," and begin to feel inadequate. We think to ourselves, "this outfit looks silly" or "I shouldn't have said that," and we begin to feel embarrassed or judged.
The problem with these feelings is, they're rarely based in facts.
Many times, we have a thought and allow our emotions to run rampant without taking the time to determine if our thoughts are actually true.
For example, the other day I dropped my phone down a flight of stairs. It hit every single step on the way down, and then slid across the landing floor. This was my internal dialog...
I just broke my phone! How could I be so careless. I should have just left my phone in my pocket. Ugh...my screen is shattered and now I have to find somewhere to go and get it fixed. That's probably going to cost a fortune. I should have bought the stupid insurance for the phone. This is definitely shaping up to be one of those days...
I made up in my mind that my phone was broken, it would cost a lot to fix, and that I was stupid for not buying the insurance. I caused myself to worry, fear, and feel stupid for my poor judgment all in a matter of seconds.
But, there was one thing I hadn't done yet.
I hadn't checked to see if my phone was actually broken.
I had a myriad of thoughts that changed my emotional state without making sure if I was basing my thoughts on facts.
As Anxiety-Fighters, we often struggle with this. We tend to analyze every situation and then make decisions on our assumptions, instead of seeking out the truth and responding accordingly. This causes us to experience feelings and emotions based on incomplete or more often false information.
Showing our Feelings
Emotions and feelings often manifest in some kind of physical response, especially anxiety. In Jessica's case from the story above, she began to feel hot with a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and a stomach ache.
Other symptoms may include shaking, blushing, muscle tension, even diarrhea.
We've all heard stories about these kinds of physical responses to anxiety and fear. The keynote speaker who has to run to the bathroom before giving his speech or the coworker who turns red with embarrassment when his slide show isn't working.
Even the great Bill Russell had his struggles with this.
Bill Russell is heralded as one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time. He won 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics as a player from 1956 to 1969. For two of those championships, he was both a player and the head coach of the team.
What you may not know is that Bill Russell would get very nervous before a game. So much so that he would vomit before every game throughout his career.
Despite his pre-game nerves, Bill Russell by all accounts was extremely successful.
I love this story because it puts into perspective that your emotions and feelings don't have to control your outcomes, especially if you learn how to manage them. It teaches that despite your initial thought or feeling, you can still successfully accomplish what you set out to do.
When we find ourselves stuck in a social anxiety attack and our thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions have worsened the situation, we look for the quickest and safest way to get out of our bind.
In fact, we often put more effort into getting out of the environments that are causing us anxiety than we do in trying to deal with and manage the fear.
We take the stairs instead of stepping onto an occupied elevator. We give are family, friends, and coworkers noncommittal responses to social invites, using words like... maybe, we'll see, and I'll try my best but can't guarantee anything.
For Jessica, the best thing she could do, was head back to her car and sit there until someone else showed up. For many of us, our biggest "saving grace" is the device we carry in your pockets - our smart phone.
If we happen to step onto a crowded elevator, after pushing the button that will take us to our floor, we almost instinctively take out our phones to check text messages, emails, or to continue playing the our mobile games. Some of us may even pull out our phones with no purpose other than to appear busy so that someone else doesn't attempt to engage us.
It's how we escape our social anxiety.
But it's a false salvation.
Shying away from the crowded elevator, leaving the party early, skipping the family function, or staring into our phones doesn't help us overcome our fears. It cultivates them and helps them to grow bigger.
The Downward Spiral
Once we escape our scary situations, what's the first thing we do?
We think about how we could have handled the situation differently. Especially those of us who want to overcome our fears. We beat ourselves up over not being more courageous and brave.
As we're climbing the stairs, we get mad at ourselves for not stepping onto that crowded elevator. We get discouraged when we look at Facebook and Instagram and see how much fun everyone else had at the party. When we decide to keep quiet instead of listening and engaging in the conversation, we get frustrated.
All of those negative thoughts lead us to feel ashamed, which shows up as another physical response where we're moping around. Finally, we try to escape those feelings and actions, creating a continuous downward spiral of negative thoughts around our fears.
A Better Path
There are so many days where we travel through this social anxiety cycle and never find a way out of it. We often feel like things can never get better and instead seek out remedies to cope with our fears.
Some socially anxious people turn to alcohol to be more "comfortable" in social situations. Others use prescription drugs or worse. The majority of us just do our best to avoid those situations and take care not to place ourselves in vulnerable circumstances.
But, the truth is, we don't have to retreat for the rest of our lives. There are strategies we can learn to help us stop the downward spiral of negative thoughts and find a better path to confidence and courage.
One of the best strategies for overcoming social anxiety is learning how to manage our thoughts. Today's action step will walk you through an exercise to teach you how to do just that. By learning the techniques to regulate our thoughts and perceptions, we're building a strong foundation of skills that we'll be able to call upon when we need them most.
So, what do you say we get to work?
Next Action Steps
The Countering Anxiety Exercise
When we encounter social situations that may cause us anxiety, the first thoughts that pop into our heads are usually negative. The problem with those thoughts is that we never take the time to think about them rationally or prove them wrong. Instead, we're too busy trying to figure out how to escape our social anxiety. Today's exercise will help you learn how to better respond to your thoughts by challenging their validity.
The Countering Anxiety Exercise allows you to rationally review your initial negative thoughts, and essentially fact-check them without the stress or burden of being in a social situation. While this exercise calls for you to write or type out your answer, the practice of reviewing your thoughts objectively will eventually help you to do the same in real time. This will help you avoid the downward spiral of negative thoughts and increase your confidence.
I've created both an electronic and printable worksheet for you to conduct this exercise. Click the links below to grab your copy.
Click here for a free PDF version of the Countering Anxiety Exercise Worksheet. You can print this out and handwrite your answers.
Click here for a free electronic version of the Countering Anxiety Exercise Worksheet. You'll be able to type in your answers using Google Sheets.
Here's my personal example: