Myth 3: How I Feel Is How I Look
Yesterday we talked about the myth "I must always monitor myself and my anxiety." Did you have your two conversations yesterday? In the first, you focused on you; in the second, you focused on them? If so, nice work. If not, try it when you’re ready.
Today, we’ll look at the third myth of social anxiety:
How I feel is how I look.
We think we wear our fatal flaw on our sleeve. No matter our fear—we’ll look stupid, seem incompetent, lack personality, or anything else—we assume that it’s written all over our face. We think we must look like what we fear.
This is called the felt sense. We FEEL stupid, so we must BE stupid. We FEEL like a loser, so we must BE a total loser. We FEEL red and hot, so the color of our face must fall somewhere between “pomegranate” and “habanero.”
Between focusing on ourselves and assuming how we feel is the truth, we end up in a closed circuit of anxiety.
So what’s the antidote to this myth?
See yourself objectively.
How to take action? Look no further than your smartphone.
(A note: you might not be able to do this all today, but at least think about how you might orchestrate it and schedule it in your calendar.)
There are three steps.
Step 1: Make a video of yourself in a situation where social anxiety strikes.
Here are some ideas of how to pull that off:
If you’re anxious about public speaking, ask a friend or the event organizer to take a video of you giving your presentation or teaching your class. If you’re too embarrassed to tell them you’re working on your social anxiety, tell them you’re trying to improve your presentation skills.
Did someone take a video at a party where you felt anxious? Did you end up in a video from your kid’s playdate? Or your friend's backyard barbecue? Ask them to send you the video.
You can also enlist the help of someone you trust, whether that’s your best friend, your partner, or a parent. Have them make a video of you where social anxiety tends to strike. It doesn’t have to be long--twenty or thirty seconds can suffice.
Finally, if you happen to be in therapy, your therapist can help you with this. I love doing this with clients. I’ve staged a pretend exercise class for a personal trainer with social anxiety, set up getting-to-know-you conversations between colleagues at work and clients, or had clients mingle at fake parties where every available colleague shows up to munch chips and drink soda in our biggest conference room for ten minutes. No matter the situation, I take a video of the client and we watch it afterward.
At the very least, audiorecord yourself in a socially anxious moment. This is easy--just set your phone to record and stash it in your purse or pocket. Once you’ve got your video, it's time for...
Step 2: Ask yourself what you expect to see. What does your fatal flaw look like? What are you trying to conceal? Be as specific as possible.
Therefore, if you predict “I’ll look like an idiot,” make that more specific. What does an idiot look like? Specify what exactly an idiot would do. In this way, “I’ll look like an idiot,” becomes “I’ll create awkward pauses in conversation for ten seconds at a time, trip over my own feet, and will not finish at least five sentences.”
Likewise, “I’ll be boring,” becomes “My conversation partner’s eyes will glaze over, I’ll speak in a monotone, and my expression won’t change for the duration of the video.”
Or, “I’ll blush,” will become “More than 50% of my face will be pinker than a pencil eraser.”
Step 3: Watch your video as if you were watching a stranger.
When you first hit "play," you'll be quick to search for any sign of your fatal flaw. But don't use your video to look for your perceived shortcomings. Instead, watch as if you were watching a stranger. Why? This allows you to stay objective. As you watch, ask yourself if any of your specific predictions came true.
- Did this person create an awkward pause of ten seconds?
- Did this person trip over her feet?
- Did this person speak in a monotone?
- Did this person turn as pink as a pencil eraser? (Go ahead and hold an eraser next to your screen to check--we're staying objective, right?)
It’s crucial to watch yourself objectively because it’s easy to remember how you felt while the video was being made, and you might conflate your memory of the felt sense with your experience watching the video. So be honest with yourself. If you can't watch objectively just yet, put the video away for a few days. Mark your calendar to watch it again in three or four days. Then repeat steps 2 and 3.
Why go through all this trouble? It's well worth it because it replaces the felt sense with actual reality. Feelings aren't facts. What your anxiety says is happening may not be visible, obvious, or even true at all.
But what if you find you are doing something weird or annoying? What if it turns out you do have a nervous habit or odd behavior?
Good news: that can be changed, too.
In a nutshell, you’re doing that thing because your brain thinks it keeps you safe. Tomorrow you’ll learn how to drop it.
Until then, be kind to others and yourself!