Believe it or not our thoughts are not always a true reflection of reality. They are filled with biases, a pattern of thinking that affects how we perceive things. We all use these types of thinking. But research shows that those people who feel shy or socially anxious tend to use these ways of thinking more of the time. In turn, the more you think in this way, the more anxious you feel, leaving you in a vicious cycle of anxiety. So for those of you who wish to feel more confident and less anxious in social settings, here is a list of some of the types of thoughts to look out for and some tips on how to keep them under control. As you go through the list try to think of times when you have thought in this way. Some you will be more prone to than others.
Black and White Thinking
Seeing things as all-or-nothing, as only perfection or failure. When you hate yourself for that 90% test score, or calling that dinner party a total disaster because you ruined the dessert. This is a dangerous one as it leads to frequent and vicious self-criticism which leaves you feeling like a total failure – which you are not!
Taking one negative event and seeing it as typical and likely to happen again and again. The last time you went to that restaurant you tripped on the step so you vowed never to go there in future because, of course, it will happen again. This type of over-generalisation means that one bad experience can have a negative impact on all other areas of your life.
Picking out a single negative detail in a room full of positives and dwelling on it, to the exclusion of all else so that it taints your entire experience. You may be unable to join the conversation and have a good time at a party because you are so focused on the fact that you spilled a drink half an hour ago and felt embarrassed. The mental filter has the potential to ruin your experiences and your memories of them in the way that a single drop of cordial darkens a whole glass of water.
You just know that when you do your presentation at work you are going to stumble on your words, sound stupid and everyone will laugh. You not only anticipate that things will turn out badly, but convince yourself it is an absolute fact. This sends your anxiety through the roof and greatly increases the likelihood that you will find a way to avoid it.
Jumping to Conclusions
You wave at a friend across the street and she doesn’t wave back. You immediately conclude that you must have done something wrong as she obviously hates you, when in fact there are a whole host of possible explanations. Your chosen theory leaves you feeling terrible.
Notice anything familiar? Great. Noticing is the first step. Keep looking for them everywhere as you’d be surprised how much they crop up in daily life and how much they then make you feel terrible. When you notice yourself using one of these thought patterns, note it down. Then write down how you felt when you had that thought. Sometimes this process of simply noticing that link can help us to detach ourselves from accepting that thought as a fact.
When you get familiar with this, look over your list of thoughts and see if you can gently challenge them. Is that thought really true? Look for evidence for and against, as if you were in a court of law. If you establish that the thought was not a fair reflection of reality, firstly cut yourself some slack. When you feel anxious you are more likely to think in that way. Then write down what thoughts might have been more useful to you in that situation, which sort of thought would have been more realistic and which would have been more helpful to you in your aim to feel confident. The more you do this over and over, the easier it becomes for your brain to access those types of thoughts in the future, so get practicing!
By noticing when you have thoughts like this as soon as they happen, you can step back and re-balance your thinking pattern by gently challenging how realistic they really are.
Most of us feel shy from time to time. That moment of awkwardness and uncertainty that makes you feel anxious around other people. Many people admit to feeling shy when they meet someone new, go on a first date, speak to people in authority or in a job interview. In these situations it is not uncommon to worry about being criticized or judged. Your voice starts to sound shaky, your mouth goes dry, you sense the heat across your face as you blush. Your mind goes blank and you don’t know what to say next, allowing those awkward moments to last even longer. It is only later, when you are back home, that you begin to think, ‘I should have said this or that’. It’s important to remember that these feelings are normal and very common. Research suggests over 98 per cent of people report having these shy and anxious experiences.
So when does shyness become a problem that you need to work on? For some people, shyness begins to take over. You begin to avoid doing certain things that are good for you and that you once enjoyed. You start spending less time with friends, turn down that party invite, avoid using the gym, or even decide not to apply for that job you wanted. Shyness becomes an invisible barrier holding you back from living the life that you want. The isolation that results increases the risk of developing low mood and mild depression. Listed below are some of the signs and symptoms of a social anxiety problem.
If these symptoms seem to describe your experience, then you could have a problem with social anxiety. But don’t panic. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to rebuild your confidence. In some cases, it may be appropriate for you to seek professional support to help you along with this, but below I have described a useful exercise taken from the ground-breaking Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to help you to start by helping yourself.
Those with social anxiety tend to be highly self-critical in the way they talk to themselves in their own heads. When they make a mistake they can be very self-attacking. The result is more anxiety, more self-loathing, shame and more avoidance of things they value. In fact, constant self-criticism has the same affect as it would to live with a bully 24 hours a day 7 seven days a week. Not a pleasant idea. But learning to replace that harsh self-talk with a more compassionate one, when you have made a mistake, helps you to calmly engage with the situation so that it can be repaired and you can move on with confidence. Here is one exercise that is sometimes used in therapy to help individuals tackle that very critical self-talk that keeps shyness alive.
Step 1. Think of a specific situation that causes you to be self-critical.
Step 2. Write a list of all the self-critical thoughts you have bout this situation.
Step 3. Next to each thought, write down a more compassionate perspective, one that is understanding of your feelings, kind to yourself, focusing on your strengths and positive experiences. Generate alternative thoughts about the situation that are more supportive.
This can be incredibly difficult to begin with. After all, it is likely that you have a lifetime of practice at being self-critical. To make it easier, consider what you would say to a good friend in the same situation. Remember to be honest, kind, understanding and encouraging. With plenty of practice at doing this it will eventually become a habit that helps.
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