I sat by myself. Not because I thought I was superior to others, or that I disliked those around me, but because I simply felt that I could not socialize with others. I looked around me. Students bumbling about with paper plates topped with potluck food, sharing fantastic plans for the upcoming break and talking as if they knew each other forever. I peered at my own contribution – I brought a package of crackers, and thought back to the previous year when I actually had the time to cook something. I shook off the self-criticism this time, but my present situation was still uncomfortable. I wanted to talk to my peers. I just…couldn’t. The what-ifs swarmed my head like an incessant army of bees.
What if I try to make conversation and they ignore me?
What if I weird them out because I never talk and now suddenly I try to?
What if I can’t carry a conversation?
What if I would just be bothering them since they have other friends they can talk to?
And just like that, I was frozen in my own headspace, sporadically nibbling on my food but otherwise in another world. At that time, I had no idea that having these thoughts every time I was in a socially interactive space was a sign of social anxiety disorder. So I suppose I just marked it down as shyness – and did not seek to change it.
The problem with this, at least personally, is that I wanted to be more sociable. I wanted to talk with my peers. They are all brilliant people both in their intelligence and their hearts, so obviously I would love to be closer to them. I was just constantly holding myself back because of a fear of rejection. I had no faith in my ability to carry a conversation, especially one that was primarily smalltalk. I was afraid that if my social interactions were imperfect, that would mean I would be judged for it.
Now, I only know the whys of my anxiety after I acknowledged my disorder and explored the reasoning behind my social inaction. But whether it’s social anxiety, generalized anxiety, relationship anxiety, or another type of anxiety, the first step in overcoming these incessant fears is to do exactly that. Explore in your own mind what the reasoning is behind your anxiety. What is it that is making you anxious about the anxiety-provoking situation? Sometimes that is the hardest question to answer.
Thus, I have prepared a sample of a strategy that I learned through counselling that is used in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
You can use my worksheet to do this exercise! You can grab it for free when you subscribe below:
1. The Downward Arrow Technique
This technique’s goal is to arrive at a conclusion about the primary reasons behind your anxious feelings toward a certain situation. These primary reasons are your core beliefs – beliefs that are mostly based on emotions rather than facts, and that cause a person to perceive life situations in a way that enforces it. The Downward Arrow Technique involves looking at an anxiety-provoking situation and asking yourself the same question over and over again. “What does this mean about you/your life/the world?”
The idea is to keep asking yourself this question until you arrive at a statement that makes a generalization of yourself/your life/the world.
Here is an example that I worked through.
Situation: A peer of mine brought me to her work office. They seemed to have a high level of respect from and for their coworkers, and the environment looked enriching. Meanwhile, that day I was struggling with the fact that finding a summer job seemed impossible for me because of my social anxiety.
What does this mean about you?
That I am just using my social anxiety as an excuse. That really, I’m just too lazy to go through the process of finding a job.
What does this mean about you?
That I’m incompetent and won’t be able to find a job this summer.
What does this mean about you?
That I’m a failure.
That last statement, “I’m a failure”, was the core belief that I discovered through analyzing many different situations. This core belief, “I’m a failure”, is like a lens that I use to view my world. It is not only the root of my anxiety, but also my depression.
This core belief causes me to believe that when I receive a compliment about my diligence, the other party is only being polite, or wants something from me. It then skews my cognitions toward the anxious thought, “Now they’re going to expect this level of work every time. If I fail to deliver, then they will think I am trash”. A total deflection of the original intent behind the compliment, which was simply to give kudos for a job well done.
Conversely, this core belief causes me to believe that when I do make a mistake, like the couple of times in first year when I received an incredibly low grades in a quiz given in a unique rapid critical thinking style, that it is ‘further evidence’ for my core belief. When I got those grades back, it was very easy for my cognitions to turn toward, “Yeah, what was I expecting? I’m a failure”. It was a reinforcement of my core belief even though there were plenty of times that I was successful in terms of my academics.
As you can see, identification of your own core beliefs is crucial because these are the bases for your skewed view of yourself, your life, and the world. So take some time and repeat this exercise with some of your recent situations that you can remember caused you any strong feelings of anxiety (or strong feelings in general). Go ahead, I’ll be here all day. 🙂
2. Replacing Your Core Belief
Done? Great! I hope you found some of your core beliefs. I want you to focus on just one for now. Try to pick the one that you feel is the most prevailing core belief in your own life. Now, think about the polar opposite of your core belief. If your core belief is mine, “I’m a failure”, it would be “I’m a success”. If it is “My life sucks”, it would be “My life is AWESOME”. You may have more complicated beliefs than these, but try your best to think of what the opposite of your core beliefs may be. Don’t worry when you do not believe the positive statement yet – of course it would be impossible to suddenly shift gears like that when you have been believing the opposite for a long, long time!
Because now you are going to gather evidence supporting the polar opposite of your core belief. See, changing a core belief is not really the right idea because you want more than just to get out of the mindset, for example, that “you are a failure”. You want to live your life with abandon and with confidence in yourself. So this is why we go further and try to create a new, positive core belief to replace your original core belief.
How do you gather evidence? You can think deeply about experiences you’ve had in the past that support your new core belief to start you off. But the real challenge will come with the next component:
3. Exposure Therapy
Now, if you have a fear of heights, I’m not saying that you should go do the Walk on the C.N. Tower. That could have adverse effects that we don’t even need to risk. Instead, you create what is known as a Fear Ladder. This is a series of exposures that will gradually make you more comfortable with a greater goal. For example, in my case, getting a summer job would be the grander goal, but I will need to work my way up to be comfortable with the job process. Start with something just barely outside your comfort zone, and go from there. As you add more and more ‘rungs’ to your ladder, you can try actionable steps that are a small step up from their previous steps. Along the way, it is important to check in with yourself and write reflections on your thoughts about the action before it takes place, and after it takes place.
This is mine so far (you may choose to visualize it with an actual diagram of a ladder, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just write it as a list):
- Talk about the potential of getting a summer job with my counsellor
- Book an appointment with a career counsellor
- Draft a resume
- Research online about different possible areas of summer work
- Make an effort to take a walk everyday for at least 15 minutes and aim for one small social interaction with a stranger (e.g., “Hello” as you pass them)
- Go to my nearby mall once or twice a week to walk around and continue aiming for at least one small social interaction with a stranger (e.g., asking for help to find something)
- Submit job applications ONLINE
- Go to the nearby mall with resumes and try to walk into a store and introduce yourself
Now, granted, I am only on step 4 right now and the leap to 5 is a massive challenge, which says to me that maybe I need to lengthen my ladder. But this process is loads better than my initial instinct which was basically to jump into a full out job search straight after I decided to cancel my semester. Unfortunately, even now, almost 4 months after my hospitalization, I am still finding it difficult to overcome my social anxiety even to a level where I can take walks with a mission to speak with one stranger. I digress. My point is that you can change and shift as you go along, so don’t be afraid to draft your own ladder.
Ideally, each ‘rung’ of your ladder will provide evidence toward your new, positive core belief. However, don’t forget to log any other evidence you find throughout your regular day-to-day activities (activity tracking may help). Chances are, there is plenty of evidence for your new core belief, but you just hadn’t been detecting it because you hadn’t been looking for it. Make an effort to log these in written/typed form, instead of just acknowledging them in your head. Just like you would learn by reviewing notes, you can learn to acknowledge your evidence by continuing to review them over time.
This process will be challenging. Action is more difficult than reflection, and there will be many times where you catch yourself deflecting a positive interpretation of a situation or internalizing a negative interpretation of a situation. This is okay. In fact, it is to be expected, especially in the initial stages.
One of my counsellors shared with me an interesting analogy. She called this the Brain Forest.
Suppose you are in a rampantly forested area. Perhaps a jungle. You would like to pave a path through this jungle to your desired destination. However, there is already one path leading in another direction but seems like a straightforward way through the jungle. Which would you be more likely to do – make a path or use the other one already well-trodden?
If you are like most people, you would have elected to take the well-trodden path. This is like your automatic thoughts – your brain will automatically take the easiest and most well-used cognitions to understand the world around you. My core belief is “I’m a failure”. Well, my brain is so used to turning all my experiences into reasons to enforce this belief, that rewiring my brain toward a better path (i.e., turning my experiences into evidence that “I’m a success”) is not an attractive prospect for my brain. However, the trick is to keep working on mindfully redirecting your thoughts toward that new path. Because as you might imagine, a well-trodden path is made by paving a path and continuing to take that path.
It can be extremely difficult to practice thought redirection as you work through your ladder(s). Self-validation is important throughout your process. If one ‘rung’ or experience is more difficult than the last, then consider making the step a bit easier. You are still taking a step up if you change your next goal from “say ‘hello’ to 1 stranger” from 5 strangers to 2 strangers. I encourage you all to embrace your imperfectionism. This will not happen overnight, but it will become more natural for you as you practice.
Always remember to love (ARTL),