On leaving the meeting last week I believed I would not have any apprehension in going to this week’s meeting. However, to my surprise [I guess I was being too optimistic], I found it more difficult.
On further reflection I can only say it could be due to one of the underlying reasons I go to the social anxiety meetings, I have an overwhelming need want to make a good impression or I do not want to feel foolish. In the last blog I suggested that when people move from being total strangers to co-workers we, possibly, put more demands, on ourselves, on how much we need to “make a good impression”. Moreover, it has made me realise that the “before”, “during” and “after” analysis of a social event, which I at some level am constantly engaging in, is still alive and kicking. My Social anxiety is not just context related but also content related; in other words it is not just about the event in itself but also my relationship with others at the social encounter; the more you get to know people the more difficult it can be to engage trivially or in small talk with them.
Once I got to the meeting were again broken into pairs and asked to discuss the process of last week’s homework [document positives from one or two social encounters]. Many of the group found themselves focusing on events that were “out or the ordinary” or “pushed us out of our comfort zone”. In addition, some seemed to overtly focus on look for “positives” as opposed to negatives [which would be my normal approach to such situations]. The idea of not looking for negatives is strange for me, as it seemed to be a “very American [United States]” philosophy – “look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself how brilliant you are”. Ironically, as we were informed by Odhran, studies indicate that they are among the most socially anxious nation. Clearly, my preconceived idea of “the overly optimistic awesome American” is misguided; focusing overtly on positives does not always work.
Odhran then asked us to consider why focusing on the “overtly positives” was not the objective of the exercise: We essentially had swung from one end of the arc of a pendulum to the other end of the arc. We should be trying to reach the equilibrium position. In other words, we are attempting to overcome our social anxiety not become obnoxious. Instead we were to paraphrase “revel in the mundane” and to remember “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
We should have looked at our normal everyday social interactions and noted anything that was “not negative”. A prime example – greeting someone and them greeting you back. By eliciting out these positively mundane elements of social interaction we can begin to realise that others are not trying to shun us or judge us or any of the myriad thoughts that run through my head. It made me realise that the “normal” person takes these as positives cues to help them build up confidence and so reduce their social anxiety.
After the break we considered people’s normal defensive mechanism and its connection to the adrenaline response. While it was interesting there were two points of importance which I recall: The body can fool the mind and prevent the anxiety effect starting and the defense response can be activated solely by our imagination. These stood out because they show two ways the response can be “inappropriately” activated or possibly of interest to us socially anxious persons “inappropriately” not being activated; in other words if we can feel anxious but yet fool the response in believing there is not treat (because in reality there isn’t one!) then we should not have any of the symptoms associated with “our” normal defense mechanism: e.g., chest pains,
We then considered how we feel before an event (the before phase);
1. what ways we try to avoid socially anxious events
2. if we did not go because we made up excuses how did it made us feel
3. Did avoiding the event benefit us in anyway?
The common answers to part 1 were to feign some “excuse”, more often than not these were made quite close to the occurrence of the event. In fact, we were informed that some people would go as far as the event and then turn back and not even give an excuse. In many cases there seemed to be various forms of avoidance, often combined with projecting out, skewed imagination of what it would be like if we went. Normally, the majority of these irrational thoughts, and we all know they are irrational, have a negative connotation; e.g. they inhibit us from attending social events and we can become more isolated and lonely.
We then considered what we would do if we decide to go to the social event. Normally we consider the entrance strategy: some like to go early while others prefer to go to the event late. The discussion suggested that the strategy chosen is often depended on the event. It is normal also to consider what to wear. While many people choose what to wear in order to attract attention it seems that socially anxious people wear clothes to avoid attracting attention.
So we look for ways to avoid getting into socially uncomfortable situations; we avoid eye contact, avoid standing in the middle of the people at the party by standing against a wall or near a window. In fact, it is normal for humans to engage in conversation only when there is some mutational eye contact so avoiding eye contact is a very effective method of avoidance; e.g. engaging in social chit-chat.
After an in depth dialogue regarding avoidance techniques, Odhran set our homework: we were to continue last week’s work but this time focus on the mundane and not the extraordinary; we were to reflect on our daily social interactions and document any safety behaviours we employed. We were to further consider if these behaviours were advantageous or disadvantageous for us.
After the group meeting we again went to the pub to continue the successful “experiment” of last week. I found it enjoyable. We did not really discuss the events of the meeting and instead engaged in “small talk”. People, to me at least, seemed comfortably with each other’s company and like last week no one was left out of the conversations.
In conclusion I would say that I am becoming more aware of the different ways we employ to avoid the manifestation of our social anxiety. Unfortunately, I have not yet internalised the ideas very well; I probably, at least initially, found myself more anxious than previous events. As I writing this I am looking forward to next week’s meeting and I hope in my next blog I will able to report I will feel much less anxious that previous meetings. Wish me luck!!!