Overcoming your social phobia

Social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is an excessive fear of what other people might think of us. Our opinions of each other should matter — if they didn’t, we’d be living in a corner of hell, not a civilized society. But when someone is suffering from social phobia, he or she is feeling an exaggerated concern for public opinion — one that goes far beyond what we need in order to relate to other people for our mutual benefit.
In social phobia, we are aware of fear or gnawing anxiety — in the actual presence of other people, in anticipation of being in their presence, or when we imagine them being somewhere else but thinking of us. But though it might seem otherwise, it is not actually their physical presence or being in their thoughts that we dread, nor is it even being the direct focus of their attention. It is how they might judge us if we give them the chance — by being in their presence, by calling attention to ourselves, or doing something to remind them of us.
We imagine — or most often, unconsciously assume — that they will see us as ugly, stupid, weak, awkward, unwelcome, worthless, or cursed with some other undesirable quality. In time, we may even come to believe (at least in our less rational moments) that we really are as bad as all that.
Strictly speaking, it isn’t even people’s judgments that we fear, but our own emotional reactions to their judgments, whether the judgments are real or imaginary. At bottom, what we are afraid of is the private (often quite secret) experience of feeling embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, disgraced, rejected or humiliated.
These can be very painful, even crippling, emotions, and it might make sense to try to head them off when there is a real likelihood of their happening. But in social phobia, we have these reactions even when no one is judging us negatively, and we expect to have them in future situations where they are objectively unlikely. In addition — and in a sense this is the worst of it — we believe or assume that such feelings have to be unbearable, rather than being experiences we can cope with, take in stride and put behind us in a reasonable amount of time.
How is such craziness possible?
Two factors that in combination can result in social phobia:
• We pick up on signs of possible danger. In social phobia, false alarms somehow come to be triggered by the sight or sound of other people, or even by remembering or imagining ourselves in the presence or thoughts of other people.
• No doubt due to the strong evolutionary bias in favor of staying physically alive, human brains are so arranged that danger signals take priority over our capacity to carry on other activities, including high-level conscious thinking. In the world of our prehistoric ancestors, the smart but unwary were likely to end up impaled on an enemy’s spear — survival of the skittish.

For most of us in today’s world, however, there aren’t too many hostile tribes in the vicinity. Thus if we very often over-react to situations involving other people, social isolation and lost opportunities rather than an extended lifespan are likely to be the result.
So now what do I do?
Here are the things that you will need to do to become more comfortable with your fellow humans. They’re grouped under five headings:
• Cognitive — correcting some of your thoughts, beliefs and assumptions about how others see you, and about the stake you have in their opinions of you.
• Behavioral — entering and remaining in the presence of other people long enough for your fears to subside. (Which they will do all by themselves if you go about it in the right way.)
• Defusion and mindfulness — activities, that will make it easier to carry out your cognitive and behavioral tasks.
• Medication — another way for some people to help carry out their cognitive and behavioral tasks, but assumed unnecessary until shown otherwise.
• Personal values — clarifying what it is you care about, and what you would want to work toward if given a chance.
Now let’s look at what you’ll be doing in more detail.
Cognitive: Catching yourself in certain common errors and learning how to correct them
A number of errors in thinking and reasoning are made by literally everybody, though they seem to be more prominent among people whose bad luck has brought them social phobia or other emotional disorders.
Checklist of cognitive distortions
1. All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
2. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities “don’t count.”
5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading — you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no evidence for this. (b) Fortune-telling — you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.
6. Magnification or minimization: You blow things way up out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.
7. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel: “I feel like an idiot, so I must really be one.” Or “I don’t feel like doing this, so I’ll put it off.”
8. “Should” statements: You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts.” “Musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos” are similar offenders.
9. Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself “I’m a jerk,” or “a fool” or “a loser.”
10. Personalization and blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behavior might contribute to a problem.
Here are some of the things you will find about your cognitive processes:
• What you predict will happen. While this “outcome shrinkage” can also apply to positive predictions, the effect — especially if you have an anxious tendency — is more pronounced with negative predictions. Things will usually work out better than you imagine.
• Memory is selective and subject to many distortions. It is not a simple, unadorned record of past events. When you remember something, it’s not like playing a tape that faithfully recreates your original experience. Instead, what your brain does is construct a scenario or “screenplay” of the occurrence — using incomplete and sometimes incorrect information, filling in the gaps with assumptions about what “must have happened,” and other common biases. In short, it can easily be like a historical novel or movie — a mixture of fact and fiction.
• In social phobia specifically, you are vulnerable to what’s called the “spotlight effect” — a tendency to exaggerate the degree to which people’s attention is focused on you, together with a distorted idea of how they are judging you and your behavior, how much they will remember of what you did, and whether they care how well or badly you performed.
• A companion bias to the spotlight effect is an unflattering and often inaccurate appraisal of your own abilities and performance.
• As you can see, you need to be skeptical of your cognitions, especially at emotional moments. To do this, you need to overcome the mother of all biases: the tendency when emotionally aroused to take your thoughts and feelings at face value even more than you usually do.
Behavioral: Learning, day by day, to be courageous
until it doesn’t take much courage anymore
Here is the heart of the treatment. Your recovery from social phobia will depend crucially on how often and how consistently you are willing to enter and remain in the presence of other people long enough for your fears to subside spontaneously. This will mean gradually giving up your self-protective — but also self-defeating — tendency to under-participate in normal social encounters.
Draw up a list of situations that offer opportunities to interact with other people, in particular the ones that arise most often in your life or that you can most readily arrange on your own initiative. Examples:
1. Returning a greeting from a neighbor or co-worker.
2. Saying hello to a neighbor or co-worker without waiting to be greeted first.
3. Asking a retail clerk where to find something in the store.
4. Asking directions of a stranger.
5. Accepting an invitation to lunch with a small group where other people will do most of the talking.
6. Accepting a compliment with a word of thanks.
7. Giving someone a small compliment.
8. Responding to a simple question with a brief answer if you have one.
9. Responding to a question you honestly can’t answer with a simple admission that you’re sorry but you don’t know.
If these behaviors and others like them seem too easy or trivial to make a dent in your social anxiety, ask yourself if you already perform them consistently and comfortably. If in fact you do, then we’re ready to make lists of more challenging situations. If not, try to perform them at every possible opportunity until you are fairly comfortable doing them on a regular basis. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day — and neither will be your social self-confidence. The most important thing is getting the practice — the more frequently and consistently the better.
Your fears will subside all by themselves if you go about things in the right way. Here’s what it means:
There are two processes, called habituation and respondent extinction, that are built into the neural circuitry in your brain. They are both available to make you less fearful of social situations.
• Habituation is what occurs when you repeatedly encounter an inherently disturbing situation and it gradually becomes less disturbing all by itself.
• Respondent extinction is a similar process that occurs with learned reactions, such as becoming frightened at the sight or thought of other people, when at one time (whether you can still remember it or not) you recognized them as safe and even fun to be with.
Habituation and respondent extinction will usually occur automatically — if you don’t do too many things that interfere with them. Here are some things that usually do interfere with them; you have probably been doing some of them yourself:
• Under-participation: Avoiding social situations, rushing through them, cutting them short, or being physically present but thinking and acting in ways that insulate you emotionally from normal social interaction. Examples of the last form of under-participation: drinking to excess or using drugs, daydreaming, staring out the window or at your shoes, watching TV or studying your host’s stuffed rhinoceros collection while others are busy socializing, finding a quiet corner where you can be a wallflower…the list is virtually endless. (Oh, here’s one more: trying so hard to be gregarious that you’re not really being yourself.)
• Becoming absorbed in and carried away by emotion-steeped thoughts, memories and fantasies. Signs that this is happening: you rehash and elaborate on your memories, create might-have-been scenarios, vividly imagine what you would like to do in future situations, and the like. (The shorthand term for this is rumination; let’s leave it to the cows.)
• Doing what might seem to be the opposite of being absorbed in and carried away by thoughts, memories and fantasies, but actually has much the same effect: struggling with them, or (a variation) trying to force them out of your mind. Why are they so much the same? Because, either way, you’re emotionally engaged with them.
Now, what do all these activities have in common? First, they blur or blunt or draw your attention away from any social opportunities that may be right in front of you, right in that moment. Second, they involve making judgments about yourself, other people and their behavior, and your physical surroundings.
Natural and automatic as it is to do these things (often unconsciously or barely consciously), being inattentive and making judgments interfere with the equally natural processes of habituation and respondent extinction. By treating yourself, the situation, and your reactions to it as a big deal, you are unwittingly making them a big deal.
What can you do instead?
• First, spend a few minutes each day doing nothing more than quietly observing your inner experience — your thoughts, memories, fantasies, images, emotions, moods and bodily sensations. You will notice how often and easily you are distracted from the present moment, and how automatically you form one judgment after another. When you discover that your attention has wandered from the present moment, gently bring it back. As for judging, don’t try to make yourself stop — just notice that you’re doing it, and then go back to observing your experience in the moment. A good way to do this is to find a quiet place where you won’t be intruded upon, and dedicate a few minutes to experiencing how your mind works when you stop and take notice of it.
• As you become more aware of your distractibility and judgmental thinking, look for opportunities in your everyday life to focus attention in the present moment and cultivate an attitude of acceptance towards whatever your experience brings you. The more you can do these things, the more your social anxiety will give way to the normal processes of habituation and respondent extinction — leaving you better able to enjoy interacting with other people rather than dreading or avoiding it.
DEFUSION AND MINDFULNESS
They refer to processes that have only recently been recognized by psychologists as potent strategies for overcoming social phobia and other emotional difficulties. Here are brief definitions:
• Defusion — This is what happens when you discover the difference between your cognitions, emotions and bodily sensations and the reality they are supposed to represent faithfully but often don’t. You become progressively better able to recognize thoughts as “just thoughts,” feelings as “just feelings” and sensations as “just sensations.” The point is not that thoughts, feelings and sensations are wholly misleading; that is not necessarily or even usually the case. But because they are a good deal less reliable than they seem to be, it is vitally important that you learn not to take them literally or at face value just because they occur. We are talking here about cultivating a realistic detachment and skepticism about your cognitions, emotions and physical sensations.
• Mindfulness — One definition: bringing your complete attention to your present experience on a moment-to-moment basis. Another: paying attention in a particular way — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Both defusion and mindfulness are powerful ways of weaning you away from behavior that interferes with the natural habituation and extinction of your fears about other people, and of opening the way to pursuing your personal values in life more effectively.

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