A lot of coachees I talk to have this problem in common: Social anxiety.
The description is along the lines of “Whenever I enter a social situation, I feel very anxious about what people are thinking about me. Scared of they judging me. I feel as if the entire room is staring at me. This saps my confidence, and I cannot do simple things like open a conversation, share my thoughts or even respond to questions. I end up losing a lot of opportunities in life due to this problem”
Examining the underlying beliefs
The description of the problem holds many assumptions/beliefs:
“My anxious thoughts have stopped me from being successful and achieving things which I could have, if I didn’t have this problem.”
Or at a deeper level, the belief is:
“Unless I overcome these thoughts, I cannot move ahead. Both cannot exist at the same time. I can either have these fearful thoughts, or I can move ahead without them”
Imagine you are sitting at home waiting for a few good old friends. You are meeting after many years. Your faithful, new dog Bruce is also waiting along with you.
But every time a friend rings the door bell, Bruce goes crazy. He barks and brings the house down.
Do you like his barking? No. Do you wish he hadn’t barked so much? Yes.
But just because Bruce barks, do you cancel meeting your friend? :
“Oh my God, Bruce is barking. This must mean danger. How will I meet my friend? How will I let him in?”
Do you assign special meanings? Do you say:
“Bruce usually doesn’t bark THIS much. Today he is. What might be wrong? I have to take him to a therapist. Until then I cannot meet any friends.”
Do you try to ‘fix’ Bruce?
“Why is Bruce barking at my friends? Unless I fix his psychological issues, I cannot go ahead with meeting my friends”
Why don’t you try to fix Bruce? Why don’t you wait to meet your friends until he stops barking?
Because you know Bruce is designed that way! He is just doing his job!
In fact we would be worried if Bruce stops barking at strangers!
Even though his barking might be too loud, scary or irritating some times, you know that you still get to decide whether to meet your friends or not.
You do not have to wait for Bruce to stop barking to meet your friends.
Your mind is like Bruce.
It is designed to protect you from anything new – anything that is uncertain. Anything where the ‘protection of your identity’ is not guaranteed.
So it starts making a huge noise, and throwing off alarms whenever you do something that you are not used to. That’s its job!
In fact, we would be worried if our mind does not feel any fear at all!
Even though the thoughts that your mind produces might be irritating, unpleasant or downright scary – you still get to decide whether you want to go ahead with your action or not.
You can proceed despite the fear – you need not wait until it goes away
Dealing with Anxiety
No amount of shouting, therapy or analysis will help Bruce overcome his ‘barking sickness’. But once you spend a few minutes with your friend, and nothing breaks – that is when Bruce begins to settle down. That is the only way he can settle down. Sometimes he takes 5 minutes, sometimes 15. But he will certainly settle down, if you go ahead with doing what you were doing.
But you need to give him that chance. Instead of “believing his barking”.
If you ‘believe’ his barking, and refuse the open the door, you just made his fear real for him. If he ever smells that friend again, his barking is going to be much louder.
Yes, your mind makes a lot of scary noises when you put it in certain situations. Does not mean that what those noises are saying is real. Any more than Bruce’s barks are. The noises are unpleasant, but normal.
Don’t wait for them to go away. Don’t hold your life on pause. The pause is what is making them more real, and hence making them stay.
Just take a deep breath. See those mental noises emerging. They seem really scary.
Then take a step ahead anyway. Not because you are brave. But because you know they are not real.
While this article provided a deeper understanding about the nature of anxiety, read 7 simple suggestions to deal with anxiety for a more prescriptive approach