Myth 2: I Must Always Monitor Myself

Aaaand we’re back! Hello again!

Yesterday we talked about how social anxiety is basically a big misunderstanding. Your anxiety convinces you that your "fatal flaw" will become obvious to everyone, and bad stuff will go down when that moment inevitably comes.

But that’s not really the case. Either there’s no fatal flaw at all, or it’s something barely perceptible that no one really cares about.

But it still feels like everyone will see and judge you. We feel the need to hide, to cover. Sometimes we do that by staying away altogether--what psychologists call avoidance--but sometimes hiding under the conference table isn't an option. So instead, we hide in plain sight. To do this, one of the tactics we use is to monitor ourselves at all times to ensure our fatal flaw isn't hanging out, like a skirt inadvertently tucked in the waistband of our pantyhose.

We watch ourselves to make sure we're okay. As Mad Eye Moody in Harry Potter always said, "Constant vigilance!"

But this is the second myth of social anxiety:

I must always monitor myself and my anxiety.


If we believe this myth, we turn what we plan to say next over and over in our mind to see if it sounds stupid or not. We might rehearse our stories before Friday night’s party.  We might pay attention to our voice to make sure it isn’t squeaky or cracking. Or we might make sure we're extra agreeable so no one can ever get mad at us.

Alternatively, we might focus on our bodies: we might monitor ourselves to ensure sure we’re not shaking, sweating, or turning red. We might try really hard to stand in a way that looks confident, grip our glass so our hand doesn't shake, or ensure there are no bats in the cave of our nose.

Whatever we're doing, it keeps us stuck in our own heads.

But all this focus on trying to act a certain way, all this impression management, all this attempted coverage of our "fatal flaw" takes a tremendous amount of attention and energy. There’s no bandwidth left for basics--even things like walking and talking. This is why we spill our drink, go blank when it’s our turn to talk, and trip, and not in an adorable Jennifer Lawrence kind of way.

Appropriately, the phenomenon of monitoring ourselves and our anxiety is called self-focused attention and because we're busy focusing on ourselves and our anxiety, we come away from social encounters with very little information about how things actually went. To make matters worse, in order to fill in the gaps, we ask our anxiety, which is about as credible as asking a used-car salesman which car on the lot we should buy.

So how to break out? Actually, that’s the operative word: OUT.

How to bust today's myth?

Turn your attention inside out.


Here’s what I mean: You choose where your attention goes. So shift your attention outward to what’s happening around you. In the moment, this means consciously placing your attention on the group around you, the person you’re talking to, or simply your immediate surroundings. Look outside yourself. Turn your attention from inside to out.

This takes some practice.

At first, try turning your attention inside out when you’re not in the grips of social anxiety. Start by focusing outside yourself on something quiet and enjoyable, like petting your dog, eating your lunch, or drinking your coffee.

This sounds easy, but attention is a slippery thing. It’s easy to slip back into paying attention to yourself. Does my hair look weird? Is the girl behind me in line judging me? I bet this barista thinks I can’t even order coffee correctly. That happens. Anxiety is a demanding attention hog. So gently turn your attention inside out again. And again. As many times as you need to. No biggie.

Also, your attention doesn’t need to be 100% outside-focused. It’s okay not to drill like a laser beam into what’s happening around you. Instead, a simple majority of your attention should be outside. Even 51% works.

Then, when you can focus your inside-out attention on a quiet task, move on to audio: focus your attention on a TV show, the radio, a podcast.

Next comes people. If you’re in a group, look at each person in the group. If you’re out on the street, look at each person you pass. Look at the people on the bus, at the mall, in the checkout line. You’re not challenging them to a staring contest; you’re simply looking at who and what is around you.

But don’t limit turning your attention inside out to looking. Listen as well. When someone is speaking, focus on what they’re saying. Really listen. Don’t evaluate, just keep yourself focused on their words.

Same thing when you’re speaking. When you talk, immerse yourself in telling your story rather than scanning for mistakes. 

This is all a process of discovery and may take a while.  To speed things along, here is something you can do today.

today’s exercise:

At your first opportunity, have two separate conversations--with store clerks, guys at the gas station, co-workers, whoever.

In the first conversation, focus on you, you, you. Monitor what you’re saying. Work hard to conceal your fatal flaw. Focus on how you feel, especially if you’re anxious.

No fun, right? Inward attention just makes things worse.

But then, in the second conversation, focus on them, them, them. Turn your attention outward. Look at their face. Listen to what they say. The conversation doesn’t have to be a long philosophical discussion. It can be the how-are-you-fine-thanks-nice-weather-we’re-having variety. Just notice the difference between focusing inward and focusing outward.

Now, which conversation was more enjoyable? In which do you feel less anxious? Which goes more smoothly? I'll bet you a kangaroo is was the second. 

I love this technique. I use it all the time. When I feel overwhelmed or feel the buzz of anxiety starting to get louder, I deliberately look and listen at who and what is around me. It’s grounding and soothing.

A word about the daily exercises. It's one thing to read about them, but your brain (and your social anxiety) won’t believe you until you do them and discover their lessons for yourself.  Reading about them versus doing them is like reading about riding a bike versus riding the bike. 

It can also be hard, especially if you’re used to keeping your attention inward, where it feels safer and more familiar. But keep at it.

Tomorrow, we’ll bust another myth and I’ll give you another tool to conquer social anxiety!

Until then, be kind to others and yourself!