Using Skepticism to Heal Your Social Anxiety.
While the socially anxious can be their own worst critic, in the sense of being extremely hard on themselves – they can also be their own worst critic, in the sense of assessing interactions incorrectly. This distortion – of overestimating dangerousness while underestimating social competence – is at the very core of social phobia. Socially anxious persons incorrectly use their anxiety as a measuring stick that tells them how well they are functioning. Rather than considering objective criteria, they make the mistake of evaluating their performance based on how anxious they are – but this turns out to be an unreliable measure.
I once had a client attempt to persuade me that she performed poorly in public speaking situations. To offer evidence, she brought me two audio recordings containing separate interviews where she spoke in her area of expertise. In the first tape, she asserted, “It was a disaster. I sucked.” But in the second, she admitted, “this one wasn’t so bad; I guess I did okay.” I was intrigued.
As a researcher, I listened intently to the two recordings, searching for objective patterns in her speech – such as “um,” “like,” “you know“ – as well as any pauses, tangents, or stutters. But to my ears, both interviews were nearly flawless, and, for all intents and purposes, essentially the same. When I gave my client this feedback, each of us had our own revelations. As for my client, she was astounded to hear how these two interviews were actually so similar. Once she considered the more objective criteria, her face lit up with a sense of genuine discovery. Amazingly, she was able to admit that these two recordings were fairly identical, and that she gave strong performances in both situations.
As for my own insight, I was able to glean just how and why she had inferred such drastically different interpretations. It turned out that in the first setting, she had been sitting face-to-face with the interviewer in a recording studio – very stressful indeed! But in the second situation, she had given the interview over the phone. Relaxed and at her home, the interview was recorded while she sat in bed, in her pajamas, with her cat! What did these different contexts have to do to her self-assessment? They gave her the feeling that one was terrible and the other was ok. But this distinction was only in her head, not in reality. Her misappraisal was a fitting example of how people use their levels of anxiety to determine social performance, referencing their own internal states and using their distress as an unreliable barometer.
The Role of Congruence.
In order to appreciate how undependable this internal reference can be, it is important to understand the mind’s drive towards congruence. All humans have a very powerful motivation to achieve a state of “internal consistency,” a feeling of correctness where everything matches up and makes sense. Our thoughts seek to find interpretations that mirror our feelings, and will produce explanations, however faulty. Emotions take the lead, and the mind follows, filling in gaps of uncertainty with what feels like accurate knowledge. In the end, this “matching” process will take precedence over truth, governing our interpretations even when they are grossly incorrect.
Just as the person suffering from panic attacks believes “I must be dying,” so does the socially anxious person believe “this person hates me.” On the one hand, these are perfectly “good” explanations, because they seamlessly mirror their internal experiences. In a state of panic, where there is a huge, unexplained spike in the nervous system, “dying” does seem like a correct interpretation. And, in a state of profound insecurity, where the person feels overwhelmingly ill at ease, rejection seems completely plausible. Yes, these explanations are congruent, and yes, they are the most convincing. Indeed, they do match up with anxiety. Only . . . they’re wrong.
Separating Empathy from Mental Control.
Another blind spot has to do with “overvaluing” intuitive abilities. Many of my clients have the genuine ability to sense other people’s moods, and they will often report that they are extremely empathic. This becomes problematic when they “perceive” judgmental thoughts in others that often do not exist. Emotional attunement leads to a slippery slope when it gives way to hypervigilance and “mind-reading.” Sure, the person may have started with a deep sensitivity and ability to read others, but when social anxiety took over, it distorted this ability. If you are suffering from the grips of social phobia, please consider how happy you will be to discover that your thoughts might be wrong – especially if you think others are judging you. In order to convince you that your perceptions can’t be trusted, please let me present. . . “Doll Face.”
“Doll Face?” or “Dull Face?”
I have a friend who is a very adoring husband, although his wife repeatedly accuses him of judging her. One day, my friend was venting about endless conversations they have, where he is unable to reassure her of how wonderful he thinks she is. He mentioned an ongoing fight for over 25 years, where he was accused of insulting his wife on their very first date. According to my friend, he gazed at her from across the room, and melted. “Hi Doll Face,” he murmured, before going to embrace her. But what she heard was, “Dull Face!” To this day, she insists that he said, “Dull Face,” and there’s nothing he can do to change her mind. “Doll Face” or “Dull Face?” – you decide! I’m going with “Doll face” – not because I am friends with the husband, but because I am using objective criteria. “Doll Face” is a charming, old-school term of endearment that was commonly used in their day. To my knowledge, “Dull Face” has never been an expression!
The moral of this story is that we should not use anxiety as a gauge, or reference point. We should look to see if the other person is leaning forward, smiling, nodding, and continuing to engage. We should note whether we are asked for a personal opinion, a second date, a follow up interview, or a marriage proposal. While it might be tempting to look inwardly for interpretations, the task is to look outward – both to remain engaged and to find objective criteria. There is a more reliable yard stick, and it doesn’t include anxiety. The evidence you seek cannot necessarily be found within your subjective experience – so remember to use skepticism to heal your social anxiety.
©2018 Heather Stone, Ph.D.
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