Physicist Richard Feynman once noted, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” This week, I want you to get to know more about your social situation. If you have social anxiety, you no doubt already understand that certain social situations can be complex and challenging. But it’s one thing to recognize the difficult situations and quite another to understand the difficulty itself.
Each day, our bodies and minds are collecting data automatically. We sense that the water is too hot to touch, smell rotten food and know it’s time to take the garbage out, or notice the car merging and move over before we collide. I’d like to challenge you to consciously collect data about your social situation, i.e. the people around you and your own actions. You may think, “Why do I need to collect data? What kind of information would I collect, anyway?”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) uses data collection in a unique way. You will be collecting information about what REALLY happens in a difficult social situation. For example, a trip to a restaurant may involve you thinking SO much about talking to the server, making dinner conversation, or wondering what others think of you, that you don’t actually notice the interactions. Was the server actually rude to you? Did people find you interesting? Were people staring at you, or were they involved with their own conversation, enjoying their food or texting on their smart phone? These are the interesting and useful data points for a social anxiety sufferer.
Collecting this data can actually be fun. Think of yourself as Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible: this is your mission should you choose to accept it:
- Take a notecard, or use our “Find Out for Myself” worksheet, and write down what you predict will happen.
- Observe everything: Where are other people looking? Are they staring at you? If so, ALL of them or just a few? Do they seem happy, sad or indifferent? What they are saying? Is someone clearly judging you? Is anything terrible happening? And how about you, are you able to speak, to make a bit of eye contact, to survive?
- Focus on THEM especially, without doing the things that block the experience and keep you from really observing how things would go if you let go of control of the situation–not concentrating on your thoughts, covering up your shaky hands, drinking alcohol, or trying to conceal your nervousness in other ways. Really engage. Observe where they are looking. Hear what they are saying. Try not to think about what you will say next.*
- Review your notes once you return home. Did your automatic thoughts come true, or did things turn out better than expected? Maybe you realized that few people looked at you for any length of time, and no one glared or that people actually smiled at you. People may have been so engaged in their activities that they didn’t have time to notice if you were blushing. And maybe your fear of being unable to function did not entirely come true, though you may have been imperfect, as we humans so often are.
Mission accomplished! The more you are able to take a step back and collect information about your surroundings, the more you may find that most of the time, your dire predictions do not come true. You are taking steps to improve your life, learning to live again.
* But here’s the thing—people who have no anxiety problem tend to assume that things in life are just fine unless there is compelling evidence that something will go wrong, or has already. The opposite is true for those of us with problem anxiety, who automatically predict that bad things will happen (or assume that have happened already) unless we see compelling evidence to the contrary. So, as we collect these data, we want to be aware of this unfair bias we make, and try to think more like less-anxious people. We want to be looking for COMPELLING evidence that we are being judged, gossiped about, stared are, or viewed as boring. Time to bring a high standard for evidence here—we have not found compelling evidence that someone is judging us if they simply don’t smile at us enough, or evidence that they are bored with us, simply because they go talk to another. Most of us think we can read others’ minds, but we can’t. So we need hard evidence here.