small fears were not confronted, and now there’s a monster at the door
With most anxieties, this is true. With agoraphobia, which is basically perceiving the environment to be unsafe, we lock ourselves away, ignoring the world we fear. So much so, that after time, opening the front door becomes impossible. The house becomes a prison, because small fears were not confronted, and now there’s a monster at the door.
This is true of any fear we continually ignore. The more we turn away, the bigger the issue becomes, and the smaller we become in its shadow. It doesn’t go away. It can’t go away. We are shackled to it. This thing that we are so afraid of, now follows us everywhere, and we dare not turn around. So…bigger it grows.
Social Anxiety and the monster
It is usually just a gradual, unseen process, like ivy slowly choking a tree
With Social Anxiety this is especially true. Most people who come and see me have a very similar story. They were quiet children, often describing themselves as shy. It is usually in the teenage years, when we begin to move away from the constant protection of our parents, that Social Anxiety can take hold. There is very rarely one incident that people can pinpoint, one defining moment, where it started. It is usually just a gradual, unseen process, like ivy slowly choking a tree.
Every time we avoid a social situation, we confirm to ourselves that we cannot cope.
Every time we make an excuse and leave a group conversation, groups become a bigger fear.
Every time we pull out our phones when we walk through the corridor at work to avoid interaction, we miss the opportunity to see that interaction need not be scary.
How this works in practice
With Social Anxiety, all our decisions in social situations serve to either confront our fears, or fan the flames of our anxiety. If we practice avoidance, then that will likely become the default action, especially when our thoughts support it.
When we are in a group conversation, the group is already a monster. It is judging us. We avoid talking, which our mind fully endorses, “don’t say anything, everyone will think you’re a fool”. After 10 minutes not talking, it becomes harder and harder to speak, “talking now will only draw attention to the fact I’ve been sitting here like an idiot for the last 10 minutes”. The longer we go on in silence, the more the fear grows.
These decisions can wreak havoc in our working lives. Say we call in sick because we want to avoid a meeting where we will have to answer questions (the meeting is a monster). With the decision comes relief, as we have avoided our fear. However, as we come closer to the next day, the fear comes back, but bigger, “what will my boss think of me, I’m going to have to answer the questions anyway”. We may even take another day off sick, but now the thoughts of going back in are excruciating, “my colleagues will know I’m weak. I’m going to look like a fool. How can I face everyone now?”. If we addressed the monster when it was smaller, it may have been beatable…now it’s a six-headed beast.
Breaking the monster down into manageable pieces
Tackling any anxiety is about confronting our fears. It isn’t just deciding “right, I have to do everything I’m afraid of now”. It involves deciding what level of fear we can tolerate, and voluntarily, and continually tackling the smaller bits. As we begin to ignore our fears less, and confront reality more, we slowly gain control.
So, can you think of anything you currently do that enables you to sidestep your fears? How about making some small changes that opens you up to some of them, but isn’t too dramatic…for starters.
For example, don’t take your phone out when you are walking through your workplace. Or take your headphones off once you enter the building. Or, even, look up when you are walking around. You don’t even have to interact with people at first, but just get rid of the little things that you think are keeping you ‘safe’. Nothing wrong with starting small, and always looking for ways to challenge yourself.
Overcoming anxiety, where we never feel anxiety again, should not be the goal, as it is impossible. The goal should be to confront our fears, head on, as best we can, whenever they appear. That cannot come about without building to it, step by step.