Is engaging a therapist the only way to manage social anxiety? Really?
Maybe, but understanding something gives you a chance to control it. You can’t control what you don’t understand so it pays to have a little insight into the instincts of mankind.
We evolved from ancestors who lived in small groups and tribes in which you became good at social rules or you died. That was about it really, the only two alternatives. We inherited some basic instincts that helped our ancestors survive, so you derived from men and women who were good at playing the social survival game. Don’t think for a moment that you don’t already have the equipment to play the game well, very well in fact. Your grandparents a hundred times removed, gave you good genes for this event.
One of the thousands of survival tricks your ancestors learned was how to deal with dominance. This was critical as the strong leader was never going to allow another to take what he or she had taken from others. Within the tribe those that survived to breed are the ones who learned strategies for keeping the boss on side and not letting him or her think they were a challenge.
In today’s society, only a couple of hundred generations later, these instincts are still as strong as ever. There simply has not being sufficient time for them to have dissolved away, now that they are no longer an essential for survival.
Over a period of time, you become part of the background and unless you did something unusual, you are not assessed very often. This is a major contributor to our instinct to conform, to be part of the tribe and be so easily influenced by peer pressure. We need to belong or live in fear.
Another far more dangerous act was walking alone into another tribe. The wrong move here was a guarantee of death and this is still the case in some places. In the New Guinea highlands for example, it is still the case that when two men of different tribes meet in one of the towns, they immediately go into a ritual of finding someone they both know to give them an honorable reason not to kill each other. Generally they will work at it until they find some tenuous link.
You might think about this the next time you walk into a room full of people. Your subconscious knows you are being assessed and not just by one potential threat to your life. Of course in today’s society, this is not reality but your subconscious is not taking any chances. How do you think your ancestors survived to breed you?
All is not lost however. It works in reverse too. Every one of those people in the room has the same fear. They don’t know for absolute sure if the person that just walked into the room is a not a lethal danger, so that super-sensitive survival instinct holds them back slightly in case you are bad news on legs. They are mainly worried about what you think of them.
Just think about that for a moment, their main priority at that critical moment you entered the room was to be fearful of what you may think of them.
It may not seem that way because in the crowd they know they are safe, but there is an underlying fear that even there, you may spot their weaknesses and single them out. If they were to be brought to look small, shameful, weak or any one of a dozen little fears they have locked up inside them in front of the others, they know they would just ‘die of embarrassment’.
Every one of these people has a survival instinct that tells them to be careful until you let them know they are equal to or more powerful than you. Until you do that, they will be wary and respectful, just in case.
The first key
You notice I said they are all holding back a little in case you spot their weakness? This is the first key piece of knowledge you need to manage any social situation and this is how you implement that knowledge.
Imagine for a moment someone is trying to guess if you are unsure of yourself, you are fearful, timid, blush easily, stammer in front of an audience or any other fear that lurks inside your mind.
Can you visualize the scene? What happens in that critical first few seconds?
If you suggest they take a good hard look at you, assessing you, looking at your dress sense, judging your appearance, you are right. That is exactly what they are doing, but quickly. It has evolved into being a very fast act for two reasons.
If one party took too long, the other might assume they have been evaluated a threat to be dealt with and decides to strike first and two, there was often the need to assess more than one potential threat. You may be in company so they will do the assessment in a microsecond.
The very survival of your ancestors depended in passing this scrutiny countless times and each time it caused fear because of the potentially fatal consequences. You still have that reaction embedded deep in you coding and nothing you can ever do will remove it.
So the first key to defeating social anxiety is having that clear understanding of the mechanism, why it exists and the knowledge that everyone else is, at first sight, mainly worried about what you think of them.
The second key
Does being assessed all the time sound like bad news? I understand if you say, “yes of course it is, how can I stop this from happening?”
Well there is some good news. While you can’t strip this piece of code from your dna running in your brain, the mind, like any other computer, has a hierarchy of coding and some pieces of code cannot be run simultaneously. They are, in a sense, incompatible.
This is the second critical diamond of understanding you need to own to solve the problem forever. The ability to assess others and the acceptance of being assessed cannot be processed at the same time.
Your computer cannot process conflicting commands. The fear of being assessed can only be felt if your computer is in ‘being assessed’ mode. It cannot produce this fear if your brain is already using the code for assessing someone else.
This might seem like a tie, a draw and that would not be so bad either but you can do better than that, you can win this tussle.
How you do know someone is assessing you? Well, we now know that they stop for a microsecond and look at you, concentrating their full attention on to you, totally oblivious to all else. It may be quick but is it very powerful because your instincts kick in immediately and fear is the response you feel.
They feel the same for that same microsecond because they know you are assessing them. For the moment, it ends in a draw and if you imagine they’ve made a bad assessment of you, the fear lingers. No wonder you want to go home. Read about how your brain actually works.
Now stop for a moment and think what it must feel like for the other person if you don’t stop and by that I mean, you deliberately extend the assessment.
As you meet their gaze and hold it for two, three even four microseconds, then draw it, like a fingernail on a blackboard, down to their neck or shoulders then scanning back up to meet their gaze. This entire one-two second event sets off alarm bells in their brain, raises their ‘fight or flight’ mechanism and generally puts their subconscious on red alert.
This mismatch of assessment time has not only put them in a position of uncertainty, but you have denied your brain access to the ‘being assessed’ piece of code.
Until you convince them you are just a scared weakling, chattering like a nervous monkey, their subconscious is urging them to be very cautious in case you are dangerous. It’s not fear of a lethal attack they experience, it’s the fear of exposing the secret that you may have just discovered during the scan. After all, it was an unusually long scan, longer than what they normally have to endure. They just don’t know for 100% sure that you did not find it. For all they know, you may have a brain bigger than planet and can see all their fears. They just don’t know until you tell them.
This is a good time to keep your mouth shut because you will never have this degree of dominance over them again. The more you talk, the more information you give them, the more they have to use in assessing you. Nevertheless, that first scary impression of you is one that will be filed away in their subconscious for a very long time ‘just in case’.
If you are wobbly at the knees because you need to give a speech, keeping your mouth shut is not an option, but there are other strategies to deal with this. The basics are the same but public speaking has a few additional actions you need to take and this is dealt with at another article to be published shortly.
For now, one thing is certain. You have the weapons to dominate and you have controlled and deflected the attack from the social situation. Wearing this armor, you can confidently sail into any social situation, looking forward to watching the effect you have on others. In fact, you will start to enjoy it.
Your social anxiety is now officially dead or at least severely weakened, however if knowing these tricks of the trade is not going to work for you, it’s probably a good idea to seek some assistance from organizations like Beyond Blue best known for dealing with depression.