SHYNESS AND SOCIAL ANXIETY
Are there areas of your life where things seem to proceed easily and naturally? Where you know your next move? Where you’re not bogged down in indecision and overthinking? Where you feel confident? Where things just seem to flow?
So often, social situations are not like this. When social anxiety grabs us, it’s as if the gears grind and you lose your rhythm. It’s almost as if you lose yourself. You are still in there somewhere, but there’s all this noise and pressure obscuring everything. Obscuring not just your words, but your very thoughts. In these situations, your fight or flight mechanism is in overdrive. You likely know your response is irrational, but you just can’t help it. Your primitive subconscious is in the driver’s seat.
Social anxiety is a hardwired emotional response that defies your best efforts to react differently. By “hardwired”, we mean that the response is a deep seated instinct that will override our rational brain. But just because something is hardwired does not mean that it is unchangeable. You can retrain the brain patterns that drive your emotional states. You can reprogram the computer.
There are many contributing factors to social anxiety. Coaching will help you figure out what you need to do to start moving things in the right direction. So often our thoughts become tangled when we try and think our way out of our problems. Coaching can help you make sense of it all. We will work together and come up with a game plan that addresses your particular circumstances. Read on below for more information on the approach we will take.
Is Coaching Right for You?
Coaching is not therapy and is not a substitute for therapy. Coaching helps psychologically healthy individuals look to the future, attain their goals, and strategize ways to move through the world more smoothly. Many healthy individuals experience shyness and social anxiety. It is very normal in our strange, modern environment. For some people however, this anxiety goes beyond the normal range and is considered a disorder. For these individuals, a therapist would be more appropriate than a coach. One indication that this would be the case is if social interaction causes you panic attacks. If you are unsure as to whether you should see a coach or a therapist, reach out and we will discuss.
The Approach to Social Anxiety
The Confident Robot approach as applied to social anxiety has three foundational components:
- Psychological Insight
- Tools to Manage Anxiety
- Comfort Zone Expanding Exercises
In this article, we will discuss how these work together to build confidence. We will begin with psychological insight, which you can think of as getting to know the amazing machine that is your brain. We start here so that we can better understand why our emotions behave the way they do and why our feelings can be particularly intense when we find ourselves in social situations. In future articles in this series, we will further develop the tools and exercises that accompany this method.
Understanding the Ancient Origin of Emotions
Why do we have emotions and feelings anyway?
To answer this question, we need to look at where feelings and emotions come from. As mentioned in other parts of this site, our conscious thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of our brain’s power exists beneath the surface of our awareness. Much of the calculating that goes into our day to day decisions occurs out of conscious view. Often, the end products of these subconscious calculations are emotions. In this way, our feelings and emotions serve as guides for our behavior, as directed by our subconscious brains.
To further understand these emotional directives, we need to look at how these subconscious processes were formed. For this answer, we turn to evolution via natural selection. Just as we can look at different aspects of our bodies and see how they slowly evolved to help us overcome various challenges, we can see the same in the structure of our brains. Think of your subconscious brain as loaded with algorithms, programs, instincts, and behavioral protocols that have been honed by evolution to help you survive and reproduce.
In general, our brains have evolved to produce negative feelings, such as pain, in response to things that are detrimental to our survival, and positive feelings, such as pleasure, in response to things that are beneficial to our survival. In this way, our subconscious brains make judgments about aspects of our environment and then express these judgements to us in the form of feelings. Hence, we can look at any given emotion as having a message contained within it.
What is Evolutionary Mismatch?
Natural selection designed our emotional guidance system to function within a particular environment, that is to say the types of environments that humans have traditionally lived in. The hallmark of this existence is living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle within a small band or tribe. Our lineage, human and pre-human, have existed this way for millions of years, and natural selection slowly molded our emotional guidance system for this type of lifestyle.
Today we run into problems because our environment and lifestyle is very different from this traditional setting. Our environment has changed dramatically over the past 10,000 years, starting with the advent of agriculture. Agriculture was the spark that allowed us to begin gathering in larger groups, which started a cascade of events that included the opportunity for specialization of labor, the development of governments and larger civilizations, many cultural advancements such as writing and the ability to widely share knowledge, the scientific revolution, industrialization, and now all that comes with the present day advance of technology. Think of how different our day to day lives are as compared to that of a small band of nomadic hunter-gatherers that spend their days forging for food.
Though this 10,000 year period may seem quite long in terms of a human lifetime, it is just the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. The mechanisms of natural selection work very slowly, and just as our bodies are near identical to that of our pre-agricultural ancestors, so is the physical structure of our brains and everything that comes hardwired with it. We still today have the emotional guidance system of our caveman ancestors. The fact that we today live in an environment that is different from the one that we were designed for is called evolutionary mismatch.
This mismatch causes many problems for us, a simple example being obesity. In our ancestral environment, calories were hard to come by and the sweetest foods available were seasonal fruits. Thus sweet and fatty foods were prized and came with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. In modern times, these drives cause us to overindulge in junk food, creating many health epidemics ranging from heart disease to diabetes.
What once was adaptive is now problematic. When we bite into a Snickers bar, the underlying message contained within the sensations we experience is something along the lines of “this item is good for us.” In this way, the message contained within an emotion or feeling can be false. We will refer to these instances as emotional misfires due to evolutionary mismatch, or simply misfires for short.
It might be tempting to think that your response to food is fundamentally different than some of your more “advanced” emotions. As we go on, you will come more and more to see that your basic emotions are at the core of everything, and these emotional processes are more mechanical and robot-like than it may intuitively seem.
Putting Social Anxiety in its Context
With this mindset of emotions as subconscious guidance honed to a hunter-gatherer environment, we can begin to understand why so many of us have problems with social anxiety. Most often today, social anxiety is triggered by interaction with people whom you do not know very well. In the environment in which we evolved, these interactions would actually be quite a rare occurrence.
During the Paleolithic period, humans lived in small nomadic groups, likely ranging from 20 to 150 individuals. In this setting you would know everyone intimately. Nomadic hunter-gatherers need quite a bit of space to sustain themselves, hence these groups would be distributed fairly widely and would not encounter each other all that often. Tribes would occasionally interact for various reasons, but for the vast majority of time the only people you would find yourself around were members of your own group.
When groups would come in contact, each would have an incentive to drive the other off as resources were precious. In a time before agriculture and civilization, there were no systems of law and order. The law of the jungle was the standard of the day and “might made right.” In this setting, on the rare occasions that you did find yourself in the presence of someone who you were not intimately familiar with, there would be the very real possibility for violence and you would have good reason to be cautious and ready for action.
Enter the fight or flight response that all of us with social anxiety are all too familiar with: the racing heart, quickened breath, tense muscles, and surge of adrenaline. This response served our ancestors well in those situations where they needed to be ready for physical action, to fight or flee. This same ancient response is exactly what is happening to you when you experience social anxiety. When you find yourself in certain situations around people who you are not intimately familiar with, your subconscious is preparing your body for action. Your emotional guidance system is sending you a message that says “these people may very well be dangerous, you will need to be prepared to fight or run at a moments notice.”
In the environment in which we evolved, there would of course be instances where the triggering of the fight or flight response was completely unnecessary, but hey, it’s a hostile world out there and it’s better to err on the side of caution. The stress of an occasional false positive is worth a potentially life-saving response.
In modern times, this instinctual response becomes problematic. Many of us will be in close proximity with more strangers and people we do not know well in one day than our ancestors would have encountered in a lifetime. In this setting, the constant stress of false positives takes a great toll on us. In a place with a well-established system of law and order, such as the environment that most of us live in today, the instinct to fight or flee will likely never be productive. In this way, the experience of social anxiety can almost always be seen as a misfire.
So, my brain was designed for Jurassic Park but I live in The Matrix. Now What?
This mismatch between the environment in which we evolved and the one we find ourselves in today causes our emotions to do some crazy things. As a person with social anxiety, you can likely relate. You may often realize that the anxiety you experience in social situations is irrational, yet you can’t seem to make yourself feel otherwise.
How do we go about changing our subconsciously driven fight or flight response? Simply telling ourselves that the response is a misfire and that the situation is in fact not dangerous does not get us very far. Though we cannot effectively reason with this deep instinctual process, we can condition it.
Think of this robotic part of your brain as animalistic, something that can be trained, but not with words or logic. Instead we will use actions. The way to affect change on this very deep level is to show, as opposed to tell, this part of our brain that the triggering situations are in fact not dangerous. This is why the old adage of pushing your comfort zone is such a common tactic for combating social anxiety. By repeatedly getting through situations that scare you, you begin to convince these deep subconscious systems that these types of situations are not dangerous, and over time the adrenaline laden fight or flight response gets turned down. Things get easier. What once was traumatic now is exciting and enjoyable.
I know most of you are ready to stop right here. For many of us with social anxiety, we have done our best to act on this bit of folk wisdom many times over, yet we remain trapped in our same old patterns. Know that “just push your comfort zone” is not the climax in this story. It is not the end-all-be-all advice of this approach. This in fact is just the beginning. The real meat and potatoes of this program are in crafting the right comfort zone expanding challenges and in the development of tools to help you move through them.
How we structure the challenges is key. We need to ensure that the path we design is enjoyable and actually flows with your interests and personality. Simply shocking yourself with things you hate yet endure is a way forward, but is not sustainable and will likely not get you where you want to go.
Another key to choosing productive comfort zone expanding activities is to start small and easy and then increment them in little steps. We want to come up with challenges that are in the productive range, ones that make you anxious, but not so much so that you cannot get through them. If the challenge is too great, you can be left feeling worse off; the right challenges however will leave you feeling stronger and will set you up to take the next step. Though things are moving forward through small, incremental gains, the little changes can add up quickly.
In order to ensure we are incrementing properly, we will emphasize creative ways to manufacture challenges. If you just go through life pushing yourself when the right opportunity presents itself, you will move forward, but it will be difficult to consolidate your gains. By deliberately designing opportunities you will supercharge your progress. We will talk a lot more about this as time goes on. Strategizing ways to find these activities and structure them will be a significant part of the coaching process.
Just as important as the challenges will be the development of tools that will help you manage your anxiety so that you can better move through these comfort zone expanding activities. The tools we will develop are based in various acceptance and mindfulness strategies and will help you interact with your own nervous thoughts and feelings in a more productive way. These tools will help you to act more freely and begin to forge new social patterns. These patterns will become the new normal and will set you up for taking the next step. Think of it as muscle memory for social interaction. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and what once was difficult and uncomfortable starts to flow naturally and will provide the foundation for further progress. It is a building process. This is not about taking a leap; it is about slowly and incrementally building a platform, upon which you will stand proudly.
Let us now examine confidence itself, the shimmering end that we so desire. Russ Harris, in his excellent book The Confidence Gap, points out that there are two different definitions of confidence:
1) A feeling of certainty or assurance.
2) An act of trust or reliance.
The first definition is more common, and is likely what comes to mind when you think of confidence. The second definition is older and is more related to the origin of the word. Confidence comes from the Latin words “com”, meaning “with”; and “fidere”, meaning “to trust or have faith”. The key distinction between the above two definitions is that one is a feeling and the other is an action. Most relevant to our journey is the second definition: An act of trust or reliance. Think of this as having faith in yourself while taking action.
Looking at confidence in this way means that you can proceed with confidence regardless of how you might be feeling at the moment. The key is to have faith in yourself that you will be able to get through the experience, despite feeling anxious while doing so. By doing this repeatedly, you come to develop the feelings of confidence. Confidence the action must proceed confidence the feeling.
This is important, because so many of us intuitively feel that we need to build our confidence before we are willing to engage in an activity. This is exactly backward and will keep us locked in our small comfort zone forever. The way forward is through confidence the action, through taking steps despite our anxiety. It is through this process that we come to earn the glowing feeling of confidence.
Stuck, Not Broken
As we proceed, we will continue to come back to the notion of evolutionary mismatch. A lot of the problems we face in life come about because we were designed for an environment that is fundamentally different than the one in which we live today. The take-home message here is that it’s hard being human. We are all very much fish out of water in the modern environment.
Those of us with social anxiety can be tempted to think that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow defective or broken. This is not the case. The high levels of nervousness and anxiety that you may experience are very normal and are a completely natural and understandable reaction to the circumstances that you find yourself in.
It can be tempting to look about and think that everyone around us functions much better than we do. This can cause us to be unnecessarily hard on ourselves and can promote the notion that we are somehow defective. Know that all of these people struggle with things as well, you just don’t see it. It is a universal human trait to go to great lengths to hide our weaknesses and insecurities. It may be true that there are many people around you who seem to be less nervous and insecure when socializing, but know that in many instances this is simply a façade, and they face more demons than they let on. And even for those extroverts who were born with extraordinary social confidence, know that these personality types have their own unique challenges as well.
Again, life in the modern world is difficult, we are all fish out of water, your struggles are normal and understandable. They are nothing to be ashamed of and are not the result of a character flaw. In this way, know that you are not broken. You are not fundamentally flawed. Instead, think of yourself as being hung up or stuck. Coaching will help get you unstuck. It will help you start to move smoothly in our bizarre modern world.
The notion of evolutionary mismatch suggests that we are emotionally hardwired in certain ways. What this expression “hardwired” means is that our emotional guidance system will often take precedence over our conscious mechanisms of control. What hardwired does not mean is that these things are permanent or unchangeable. With the right habits and actions, you can retrain your emotional guidance system and unlock the beautiful flowing person that is inside of you.
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I know this all sounds daunting. Having a coach in your corner who has walked this path before can make a big difference. Our next step is to get to know each other a little bit and determine if coaching is right for you. We achieve this by having a back and forth over email. In this exchange you will be able to tell me a bit about your particular circumstances and I will explain more about the process.
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