5- Past, Present, and Future
All fear comes from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. You don’t experience fear when you are in the present.
You have probably experienced a time when you dwelled on someone’s opinion. Perhaps when you said something stupid and day, weeks, or even months later thought of that time when you said something stupid and were embarrassed.
With the future, you may have a meeting, speech, or date that you are anxious about. You have probably worried about what people would think of you at one of these events prior to it happening and didn’t want to look stupid during it.
In the present you are not worried. When you are actively listening to what people are saying you aren’t in your own head thinking about others opinions. You are in the moment.
When I first started going to Toastmasters as part of my exposure therapy I was terrified. I would sit in the crowd leading up to my speech and realize after: I didn’t remember a single word from the people giving speeches before me. I would think in my own head what I was going to say once it was my turn and make sure it was memorized to death. This resulted in getting more and more anxious, with greater and greater amounts of adrenaline flowing through my veins leading up to my speech as I was sitting there the entire time worrying about the future.
What I found was, if you know your topic you will remember it when you get on stage, anything you work on 10 minutes before in your head is useless. Instead, I focused deeply on what other speakers before were saying. I listened, and stayed in the present moment. Then when it was my turn to get up, sure I would start experiencing adrenaline as I walked up to the stage; however, I had not worked myself up into a frazzle by thinking too much about the future beforehand.
Additionally, another way I’ve found useful at staying in the present is sports. I’ve never been anxious playing basketball, because I’m focused on the present. I’m not thinking about what the other teams center is thinking of me. I see a loose ball, and I dive for it. I have the balls in my hand and focus on finding a scoring opportunity or setting up a team-mate for a basket. It’s an easy way to expose yourself to being around 9 other people on the court and feeling comfortable socially. You may find yourself chatting about the game at breaks with groups of team-mates without even thinking anxious thoughts because your head is in the (present) game.
6- Expose Yourself
It is one thing to understand what anxiety is (fear), and what you are fearful of (others negative opinions). But, then you have to retrain your instincts. You need to change the fact that you interpret certain stimuli as something to be afraid of.
What I found useful for this is exposure therapy with consciously analyzing the situation before, during and after.
Maybe some of you guys have seen the movie Inception. In the movie the characters have what they refer to as a ‘totem’. It was an object that would help them realize what was real and what was not.
I came up with a straightforward message that I would repeat to myself (sort of like a totem) when I needed to analyze a situation. It helped realize what was real (worth worrying about) and what wasn’t real (not worth worrying about).
- 1) Do I know this negative/positive opinion is 100% real?
- 2) If I do not know their opinion is 100% real then stop thinking about it, and move back to the present.
- 3) If I do know their opinion is 100% real, can I change their opinion?
- 4) If I can change their opinion, try to.
- 5) If I can’t change their opinion, move on back to the present.
Basically, it is loosely based off of the serenity prayer, which is as follows.
grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Let me give you an example.
I’m walking into the bank and see someone I know. I wave and say “hi”, and the other person just keeps walk while a bunch of onlookers see this take place.
In the past I may have gone to a place where I think “Is he mad at me? Do the onlookers think I’m stupid for not garnering a wave back?” I may have dwelled on this for some period.
Instead now I would go through my process. Am I 100% sure the other person is mad at me? No, maybe the didn’t see me. Ok, then I need to move on and not worry about some possible negative opinion that I don’t even know is real.
The first time this situation (where someone didn’t wave back) cropped up I immediately felt a little panic and jump in heart rate. However, because I analyzed the situation after, the next time the same situation came up where someone didn’t wave back, I experienced no jump in heart-rate or anxiety at all.
I created a laundry list of uncomfortable exposure therapy situations where I could practice this type of thinking. Some examples below.
- • Wearing stupid clothes in public
- • Make a youtube video on a confrontational topic with a clear opinion
- • Have a confrontation with a person (or group) that you are fearful of
- • Give a Speech
- • Etc…
Before, during and after analyze the situations and determine if these are things that require worrying about or not.
At the beginning I analyzed every situation where someone could have a positive or negative opinion of me. Then over time I stopped needing to do it as often. There was a noticeable difference as quick as a week. Then even more improvement after a month. From there I simply stopped thinking about it as often, where now I haven’t thought about social anxiety in months.
One thing that has been very beneficial is my current job. I’m surrounded by intellectual, supportive, positive people and it has helped my confidence to express opinions without having to be fearful that there is criticism coming once I express my opinion.
In the past I’ve had jobs where bosses never praise your good efforts, and only focus on criticizing when you do something wrong. These types of environments cause more harm than is worth and if you can, I would suggest removing yourself from destructive environments like this.
The steps are simple.
To reiterate the steps I completed to achieve the goal of not being afraid of others opinions is as follows
- 1) Realize that fear is causing you to release adrenaline causing anxiety.
- 2) Figure out what you’re afraid of (negative opinions).
- 3) Find ways to stop being afraid of negative opinions and implement strategies to engrain this into yourself
Stop caring so much about people's praise and good opinions. Once you do that, you no longer fear the bad opinions and criticism.
Climb a mountain and tell no one. It can be incredibly empowering to have a piece of information that would garner you praise if you told people, but then simply keep it to yourself. You can have 1, 2, 3, or 10 of these. The important thing is for it to be something you think would garner praise, and then keep it to yourself.
Stay in the present. When you catch yourself worrying about the future or dwelling on the past simply catch yourself and come back to the present. Consciously analyzing situations where people could have an opinion of you before, during, or after the event is a good way of nipping this in the bud and figuring out if it's something worth worrying about in the first place.
Exposure therapy. This isn't about just throwing yourself into your worst fears, because that would simply suck. Expose yourself to situations that are outside of your comfort zone and would give you some anxiety then use the above points. Analyze these situations before, during, and after. Focus on not thinking about other peoples negative/positive opinions during it. Don't tell people about these difficult tasks you are completing. And, try and stay in the present moment while doing these tasks (not worrying about the future or past).
Actually implementing the steps are not so simple. They are hard, but I promise you that having no anxiety in social situations Is worth fighting for. You will probably face road bumps where something doesn’t work and then need to critically think through the situation. Some of the acts, like public speaking, are very difficult for someone with Social Anxiety and may even cause you to backslide if you don’t think the outcome through properly.
I genuinely believe that plenty of people with Social Anxiety can make significant improvements in their happiness by reading, learning, and implementing knowledge out there, regardless if you are on medication currently or not. Whatever you need to do to become happier about social interaction makes me happy, and I would strongly suggest learning as much as you can on the topic and actively implementing that learned knowledge into your life.