If you have been following these posts, perhaps you will recall one entitled “The Experience of Anxiety and Panic.” In that essay, I briefly noted some of the thoughts people with anxiety disorders sometimes have about themselves. The self-attributions or labels that they attach to themselves relevant to today’s discussion include:
•a sense of personal failing
•being sure that one is flawed
•believing that you are inferior to others
•being harshly self-critical
•having low self-confidence
These are powerful, negative beliefs that some anxiety-ridden people have about themselves. They hold them to be as true as the sun rises in the East. These thoughts stem from the anxiety disorder. These anxiety-provoking thoughts are incessantly repeated, both verbally and sub-vocally, until they are soaked in apparent truth. Beliefs such as these can strongly influence a person’s behavior and interactions with others.
For instance, a person with social anxiety may repeat the phrase “I suck at meeting new people” over and over again. They practice this belief dozens of times a day. Socially anxious people may even imagine how horrible meeting someone new at school (or elsewhere) today will be. Practice, in this as in many other areas of life, makes perfect. Therefore, our socially anxious person believes that s/he “sucks at meeting new people.” S/he has visually imagined or practiced how poorly the next interaction will be.
This linking of an anxious presumption (I suck at meeting new people) with imagined interactions and outcomes leads someone to become successful at being unsuccessful in meeting new people.
Let me make an aside. When I was young, I played golf. I remember reading an article by the golfing hero of the day, Jack Nicholas. He described the technique he used to prepare for his next shot as he walked up to his ball. He visualized, from a first person point of view, making the back swing, exploding downward and striking the ball, following through and only then looking up to follow the ball on a perfect arch and direction to the exact point where he wanted the ball to land and then roll to.
At the time, I thought that was just something he came up with for the article. I tried doing it and had little success. Only later did I realize that I have a hard time visualizing such things. For me, verbal or auditory cues work much better. Years later, when I read books about NLP, I came to have a much better understanding of why Jack’s visualizations did not work for me, but talking myself through something did work.
Before getting too far afield, let me return to erroneous belief systems and self-soothing. Our socially anxious friend now has a rigid belief that they suck at meeting new people and have practiced poor outcomes in their imaginations. They have become as prepared for that bad interaction as Jack Nicholas was prepared for his birdie. In all probability, the socially anxious person will have a very upsetting encounter with the next new person.
This seems to prove the assumption that “I suck at meeting new people.” So, if anyone should ask why a person thinks she or he have difficulty meeting people, there is fresh, concrete proof. That is a fallacious line of argument.
The socially anxious person, in this case, would better be described as, due to the anxiety disorder, being successful at preparing and planning a disastrous first meeting with someone. It is not that they prepared and practiced to have a successful outcome. We do not know how the meeting would have turned out if the person had been at ease, comfortable in the setting, and had practiced a successful outcome to the meeting.
One way to try to combat negative, self-fulfilling beliefs involves my asking what seems to be a question dreaded by some of my patients.
Let me explain that a bit. Anxious and depressed persons often come to the first session well-versed and ready to discuss what is wrong with them. The descriptions of their purported flaws, shortcomings, self-criticisms flow easily.
At some point in the session, I ask them to “tell me three good things about you.”
There is usually a silence. Sometimes there are looks back at me that seem to say that I have asked a most impolite, hideous and foul question. It would seem easier to return to the lengthy list of negatives.
One of the reasons behind asking this question is to find traits that a person likes about him or herself for use in self-soothing and self-esteem. Another is to assess the constancy and quality of the person’s self-representation. The latter is relevant to this discussion but would take us into object relations theory and psychodynamic/analytic theory and is beyond the scope of this post.
With three good things about oneself in hand, many techniques become available. A simple one is to say to yourself something like the following:
“I’m a good person who is (fill in the blank with three self-positives). I am going through a difficult time (fill in the situation, e.g., meeting this new person). But I have gone through bad times before and made it through. And I’ll be able to make it through now because I’m a good person and (fill in the three self-positives). I’ll still have those good qualities even if this (meeting or whatever) goes poorly.”
In the above, I have suggested three initial strategies on building self-soothing strategies and positive self-esteem.
First, notice when you are practicing negative thoughts about yourself and preparing for self-fulfilling bad outcomes. Then attribute those thoughts and previous outcomes to the anxiety disorder. Stop those ruminations by getting up and doing a different activity, even if it is only getting up from the couch and going into the kitchen and washing dishes; if you are alone you can say “Stop those thoughts” out loud and switching your thoughts to any positive memory you might have; and similar techniques.
Second, try to picture a successful outcome to your next project, like Jack Nicholas. Alternatively, if visualization is not for you, talk yourself through the steps of the project. Imagine how one successful step will lead to the next.
Third, remind yourself of your good traits, at least as often as you rehearse the negative ones. In addition, in times of trouble, remind yourself that you will still have all your positive attributes with you through the difficult task and even afterwards.
I will return to these topics in later posts.