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How Learn to Live Delivers CBT: Part 9

One of the best ways to find out if what we believe is really true is to check it out, right? Is the pizza place they bragged about really that great? Is that online recipe as tasty as they claim? You might want to find out for yourself.

In our program for people with social anxiety, we help people who think this way: Everyone is looking at me. They don’t think I should be here. They are all talking about me. Or they all think I’m dumb or boring. The program helps people see if those anxious thoughts are true. (Hint: They usually are not!)

Here’s how we encourage them to use the Find Out for Myself process. They choose to look at others in the room they are entering. That means they don’t avoid eye contact like they did in the past. They walk in the restaurant they are passing through and then simply observe. Because some of the scary things we imagine can be directly checked-out.

None of us can really know if others think badly about us. But we often guess they do. People who worry a lot think things are risky unless they see clear proof it’s safe. If you always expect the worst, ask yourself if you really see strong proof that there is danger ahead. Do people who look at you really think bad things and not like you? If they’re not giving mean looks or rolling their eyes, we don’t really have good proof they’re judging us, right?

Just like a scientist

The idea of looking around and gathering facts as we look is based on a simple idea. All of us work like scientists. We start with certain beliefs then gather facts, and check if our beliefs are right as we review those facts. Lastly, we update what we believe based on what we learned as we go through life. But those of us who worry a lot about people find our wrong beliefs never seem to get fixed by new facts. The reason might be that our attention was focused on three things when we were around others:

  1. The physical red flags that might have shown others that we were nervous, like blushing or shaking.
  2. Thinking about all the bad things that might happen. Like picturing the other person judging me right now. We imagine it so clearly, it almost seems like we are watching a movie of it all happening in front of us.
  3. We focus on ways to feel safe from their judgement no matter what. Like “hmmm, how exactly can I say this next thing, so they won’t think I am weird.” Or “How can I pretend I feel okay about myself?” We try to feel safe.

Think about it. If our focus has been only on physical red flags, our minds’ movie screen pictures of people judging us, scenes, and all the ways to feel safe from judgment at all costs, who has our attention NOT been on? It hasn’t been on the real people around us! So we have often failed to notice when others were warm and accepting, or distracted, or when they even seemed to like us. All because our attention was consumed by those three things.

There is great news. Many people struggling with worry about others have been relieved when they start looking around on purpose. They find that they don’t see hard facts that large groups of people are clearly rejecting them. Sure, there is the occasional unkind person out there, but who cares what they think anyway? And they often see smiles, which is nice, or others focused on their own lives, which is good too.

What about you? Are there some beliefs about the world or yourself that hold you back? Is it possible they are not really true? Maybe it’s time to go and find out for yourself.