Using Kindness to Heal Your Social Anxiety.
The Double-Bind Challenge.
Having completed the first three parts of this series, you are in an optimal mindset for change. In Part One, you used honesty as an alternative to deception—relinquishing the manipulative strategies of excuses, white lies, and avoidance. In Part Two, you learned not to trust your anxiety as a reliable measure —instead using skepticism and objectivity to assess certain social situations. In Part Three, you used grief to dissolve social phobia – allowing creative hopelessness to release some entrenched patterns of mental control.
Now that you have made these changes from a heartfelt place, we’re going to give anxiety a run for its money. How are we going to do this? We’re going to use kindness to “double-bind” social phobia – taking “I’m too nice” and putting it to work! You have a defining characteristic of kindness, and it can be harnessed to serve you instead of your social anxiety. Instead of the strategies that operate “behind the scenes,” let’s keep kindness front and center. This is your ally, your advantage, and we’re going to use it.
To have a better sense of this, consider the following exercise. Imagine that I pointed to someone and asked you to dislike that person. Or, even the opposite, that I wanted you to really like somebody that I liked. “Come on,” I might say. “It means a whole lot to me. Just try. I really want you to feel the way I do. Please. Can’t you change your mind for me?” My guess is that you would not only find it quite difficult to do, you might also think I was being intrusive. And you’re right – I would be way too controlling to even suggest such a thing. The whole idea might seem absurd to you as well: “What makes her think she can influence how I really feel?”
Being persuaded to “change our feelings” has probably happened to each and every one of us, and it can feel pretty slimy. When I was young, my uncle married a “gentile,” – to use my family’s language – meaning, “a non-Jew.” My siblings and I really loved my aunt; she was pretty, she was nice, she was interesting, and she made my uncle very happy. But we were told not to like her, because, apparently, she didn’t jump up right away to clear the dinner dishes and . . . well, she was Catholic. I remember looking at my parents and thinking, “Your request makes no sense. I like her. My feelings can’t be changed. I can’t feel differently just because you want me to.”
Consider in the same way how intrusive it would be for you to insist that others have a positive opinion of you. It’s invasive, it isn’t possible, and it isn’t fair. Yes, I understand that this is just your hope and that there is no outright attempt to control others. But the wishful thinking, the mental rehearsals, the mind-reading, the people-pleasing – these are all manipulations of sorts. Each person has their own unique tastes, their likes and dislikes, and they don’t need to defend or change any of it – not even to make us comfortable. Other people are entitled to have their feelings about us, and we need to allow this to happen. We shouldn’t interfere. While it’s natural to hope that others will like us, socially desired outcomes cannot – should not – be controlled from inside our heads.
As a kind person, you would never want to see yourself as intrusive or controlling, and if you suddenly realized it was happening, I think you would try to change. This is the purpose of the double-bind – to confront your thinking; to give you pause to reconsider. I’m sorry to take such an aggressive approach, and I don’t mean to shame you. But your social anxiety gets really stuck, and we have to release its grip on you. Recognizing this internal conflict can loosen your perspective around what is making you suffer, while intentionally throwing your social anxiety for a loop. This demand on your integrity relaxes the grip of social anxiety, allowing you to to think, to unshake its hand. All you have to do is align with your kindness, while committing to stay out of other people’s thoughts.
Stop Messing with Other People’s Thoughts.
Do you want to see yourself as respectful of others? Do you want to be nice? Then focus on your respect for the other person, so that you can practice staying out of their business. Do you see yourself as a giving person? Then go deep inside and find the most generous place in your heart. Allow the other to have their entire experience of you – whatever that is. See if you can go into a place of reverence and respect, recognizing that they have free will and get to decide whatever they want, whatever they think, whatever they feel — and you will not interfere.
When you start to become afraid of other people’s judgments, this approach will feel counter-intuitive. We are still working against your evolutionary hardwiring – the “trigger” that tells you that rejection is unsurvivable. For this reason, it is important to immediately consider how survivable the situation actually is. When the alarm bell goes off, make a decision to survive the possibility that someone might judge you. You don’t have to like this possibility, you just have to handle it.
Practice being brave in the face of other people’s opinions, like you are doing some training around it, and becoming stronger. Picture yourself tolerating the other person’s thoughts, wholly and completely, without defense. Imagine that you are still here, that you have worth, that you are still intact, and that other people’s perspectives will not change who you are. Just as you will not interfere with the feelings of others, others’ feelings will not change the essence of you. Surviving other people’s opinions doesn’t require you to suddenly have overwhelming confidence or high self-esteem. Instead, it requires that you develop a little more resilience while learning to tolerate ambiguity. To help you step into that mindset, you will want to try using these phrases:
- Maybe they like me, maybe they don’t – I’m not quite sure.
- Maybe they think ____________ about me, maybe not – I may never know.
- Whatever their opinion is, I’ll be ok.
Notice that we aren’t pumping you up with statements about how others probably like you, or how acceptable you are. These coping statements purposely don’t address the question of whether or not you are being judged. Positive statements are not always effective, nor are they totally believable. For that reason, we won’t try to solve the question of what others might think. The words I am suggesting pull for you to be strong, to embrace ambiguity, to use your kindness as an ally. If you can’t remember anything else, just remember this: “I can tolerate other people’s feelings. What other people think of me is none of my business.”
Special Note to the Reader.
Your beautiful trait of kindness should never be left out of treatment. I realized this in my own practice, when something unexpected occurred. It happened one day, when a client turned to me and said, “I hate my anxious self.” I was completely astounded, and the shock of these words became a turning point in my work. Part of my dismay had to do with the timing, since we were right at the very end of our sessions, and treatment had gone really well. And it has happened a few times since. Inserted discretely in their goodbye, walking towards the door, shaking my hand, and surveying the therapy office for the very last time, the client dropped the bombshell: “I hate my anxious self.”
“It’s so weak. I can’t stand when it shows up.”
“It just ruins my life. I want it to just leave me alone.”
“I wish it would just die. I wish I could just kill it.”
Now I am ready for these words, and I won’t let this happen any longer. But more importantly, I hope you won’t either. You may feel too gentle for this world, but isn’t gentleness what this world needs? When you turn away from kindness, it is deeply tragic. And when you hide, the world suffers from your absence. I see your true worth, and will continue to honor you, including your anxiety, until you can do the same. You are every bit worth knowing, and worth having. You are the kindest of souls, with a rich interior and gifted intelligence. The things you share make me certain that you are adding value to the world. And because you bring kindness with you, you make this a better place. You are the very best version of what it means to be human. Heal your social anxiety with kindness, because, as you do this, you also heal the world.
©2018 Heather Stone, Ph.D.
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