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Avoid avoiding

In which I realize I have social anxiety.

While writing “Am I an extrovert or an introvert?” I decided that I’m a shy extrovert. That came after decades of taking for granted that I’m an introvert.

The conclusion of that post was:

Shy extroverts dread social situations but also need them. That seems like a pretty important insight. So what do I do with that? I’m going to stop here for now and ponder that a bit more for a future post. It feels like I’m getting somewhere.

So I have pondered. I also read a Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook. And I’ve realized that it’s not shyness; I have mild to moderate social anxiety. That’s a good thing! Disorders can be treated! There’s books of research and therapy! I love books!

According to that workbook, social anxiety has 3 links in the chain of events:

  • Automatic thoughts (“If I talk to that person, it may be awkward.”)
  • Anxious feelings (“I hate awkwardness, it freaks me out”)
  • Avoidance behavior (“I’ll just avoid talking to them”)

Avoidance is the most common response to anxiety, because it prevents the scary thing from happening. Socially anxious people tend to chase avoidance, which becomes a vicious cycle. I’ve been doing this my entire life, and it never occurred to me because it was so subconscious and automatic. I’ve been feeding the best and I didn’t even realize the beast existed.

What should we chase instead of avoidance? Instead of letting avoidance lead the way, we should let our values guide our behavior. Brené Brown’s mantra of “courage over comfort” comes to mind.

Here’s a great quote from the book about this:

Your values can act as a compass in life. They can help you move in the direction that you know in your heart you want to move in. Imagine that you are on a boat in the sea of life. North is toward your values. South is toward perfectionism and avoidance. When you move south, you may feel safer, but you will not end up where you truly want to go.

This is a lesson we learn during our first baby steps. Babies fall. They fall and they cry a lot. But what babies don’t do is get embarrassed. Babies are not self-conscious about falling, even when everyone in the room is watching them. But let’s just imagine a socially anxious baby girl who thinks that if she falls people will laugh at her, her parents will call her clumsy, or she will hurt herself and maybe even die. These thoughts would make her avoid trying to stand up and take those unsteady steps. She’d have to crawl everywhere she wanted to go, and that would be embarrassing too, so she’d wind up just sitting in place, playing it safe.

So I need to avoid avoiding. I need to do the things I’m tempted to avoid if they contribute to my values. And I’m not allowed to take any shortcuts, either. The book talks about “safety behaviors”:

Safety behaviors are what we do to keep the things we are afraid will happen from happening. It’s like swimming with water wings on to keep yourself from drowning. Yes, you are in the water, but you’re not really swimming. Water wings don’t help you gain confidence in your own ability to stay afloat. You might always think the reason you did not drown was that you had your water wings on.

For example, last week I had a casual work chat scheduled with someone I hadn’t talked to in a while. I’d normally avoid setting that up because small talk is awkward (i.e., “avoidance behavior”), but I’m avoiding avoiding, remember? Instead, I felt the urge to make it “safer” by writing down some conversation starters or planning an out if we weren’t vibing (i.e., “safety behaviors”). But no! Gotta cut out the crutches or else I’ll think the crutches were the reason that things went fine.

The book has a template to follow before I do something that would normally make me anxious:

Exposure: What feared situation are you facing?

Anxious prediction: What are you afraid will happen?

Perfectionist goal: How do you think you should act and appear in this situation?

Safety behavior: What would you normally do to prevent your anxious prediction from happening?

Coping thought: What can you remind yourself of when you are feeling the most anxious?

Realistic goal: What can you accomplish even though you feel anxious?

Values: What motivates you to move in this direction?

The point is to recognize that even if I don’t hit my perfectionist goal, that’s fine as long as I hit my realistic goal. So for that work chat, my perfectionist goal was to appear smart and funny and cool at every moment. My realistic goal was to learn something new about an old acquaintance. See how much easier that is?

This is plain old cognitive behavioral therapy. I’m teaching myself to challenge distortions.

Then afterwards, I’m supposed to fill out this 2nd template:

Did I meet my realistic goal? How?

Did I use safety behaviors? What did I do instead?

How did I move toward my values?

What was the actual outcome?

What have I learned?

Boom, done. Distortion challenged! Realistic goal achieved! This in combination with my my recent revelation about warmth has made “unsafe” social interactions so much easier and more enjoyable. It feels like I’m on my way!


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