Many people feel powerless to change their familiar and often anxiety-inducing ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. “I get super anxious every time I make presentations or participate in meetings at work,” says Jason, sitting in my psychotherapy office. Then he adds: “It feels like my karma. I can’t do anything about it.” “Then you and I should roll up our sleeves and get to work,” I answer.
Jason is always worried about what other people think and feel about him–he worries about his appearance, what he says, and what he does. He is especially mortified when he imagines appearing stupid and incompetent. To avoid making mistakes, Jason creates endless mental lists and schedules. Whenever things do not go according to some optimal schedule in his head, Jason’s anxiety skyrockets.
Our Mental Habits Stem From Our Familial Experiences
Like many other socially anxious people, Jason grew up with anxious, critical parents. Jason describes his father as short-tempered and unpredictable, and his mother as demanding and perfectionistic. As a child, Jason experienced his parents’ constant scolding as hurtful and frustrating. In order to remain in his parents’ good graces, Jason learned to gauge their changing moods, to accommodate their many whims. It is not surprising that Jason is so preoccupied with what other people might think of him.
Jason experiences most social situations as precarious; he expects to be shamed or ridiculed for even a minor mistake. Since future situations are laced with uncertainty, Jason tries to comfort himself by imagining that his daily activities will unfold according to the plans of his own making. When his boss does not praise his performance or a friend does not return his phone call, Jason freaks out and blames himself.
Our Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts Often Go Unnoticed
Our emotional experiences with our parents provide a blueprint for our views of ourselves and for our attitudes towards others. Yet the family roots of our mental habits are usually obscured. In fact, not only are we unaware of the origins of our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, but we fail to notice what they are, or even that we have them at all. We just take them for granted and see them as part of our nature, or, as Jason put it, as our “karma.”
Like Jason, many people think, feel, and act as if they were on some sort of mental autopilot. Indeed, the effectiveness of many of our mental functions depends on their ability to stay under the radar of our conscious awareness. For example, if during a regular conversation with a friend we were to focus our attention on how we vocalize each sound, we would probably lose our train of thought. The same is true with regard to our familiar patterns of managing anxiety and low self-esteem. Jason’s efforts to avoid feeling anxious by always planning and scheduling go unnoticed and unexamined.
We are so used to our habitual ways of feeling and thinking that even the most introspective individuals have trouble looking at their mental habits from an outside perspective. Thus, as Freud astutely pointed out, self-analysis is not enough. Many of our implicit thoughts and covert emotions are only revealed when we are having a conversation with another person. Having to articulate our experiences to somebody else makes us acknowledge them to ourselves and allows us to reflect on them.
There is a common misconception that therapists invoke patients’ painful childhood experiences in order to blame their parents. The truth is that therapists and patients delve into the past in order to debunk patients’ self-fulfilling beliefs that their anxiety is inevitable. When we discover that our minds play an active role in the way we perceive, interpret, and respond to various social situations, we realize we have some authority over the construction of our present and future–we have options.
For example, Jason and I have come to view his social anxiety and low self-esteem in the context of his life-long efforts to please his parents. When Jason started to explore and question his family’s tacit ways of undermining each other through both explicit and covert criticism, he began to wonder whether he could develop a less anxiety-ridden approach to social situations.
If You Want to Change, Insight is Not Enough
In order to confront his fears and learn new ways of managing anxiety, Jason needs to push himself beyond his comfort zone by seeking new responsibilities and by actively participating in work meetings. Jason is learning that in most social and work related interactions his fear of being criticized and shamed does not materialize. As he accumulates these new positive experiences, he is becoming more self-accepting and self-confident. And he is managing his social anxiety much better than he did before.
So Here Is Your Course of Action:
- Pay attention to and register your emotional reactions to your interactions with others
- Remind yourself that many of your anxiety-provoking expectations do not materialize
- Instead of avoiding social situations that make you anxious, work on calming yourself down
- Whenever you have a positive social experience, make sure to add it to your running script about who you are as a person
- Perhaps, hire a therapist who can help you explore how your relationships have shaped your ways of thinking and feeling, which in turn inform your approach to new social situations