Tell me if this sounds familiar?
You get social anxiety when you’re around certain people. That anxiety cripples you and you start wondering why you’re so anxious. Now you’re becoming anxious about being anxious. Oh no! Doubly anxious! Now you’re anxious about your social anxiety, which is causing more anxiety. Quick, where’s the whiskey?
Or you’re so worried about doing the right thing all the time that you become worried about how much you’re worrying. Or you feel so guilty for every mistake you make that you begin to feel guilty about how guilty you’re feeling. Or you get sad and alone so often that it makes you feel even more sad and alone just thinking about it – Adapted from Mark Manson
I call this the “thought loop of despair”
I get trapped in the thought loop of despair often.
So I am at this party with the confident crowd. I look around and all I see are smiling faces chatting to each other.
Why does everyone look like they’re having so much fun?
I’m just not feeling it. It’s been a long day at work and my mind is fried. There’s a pit in my stomach. I’m looking around trying to find my confidence. But the more I look the deeper the pit gets.
I force myself to sound confident. I go up and say hello to a few people. My voice starts out strong, but then it starts to waver. Everything I say sounds like a question. Hi? How are you? I’m good? Great party?…
I see this cute girl, and decide stuff it, I’ll go talk to her
Before I finish my sentence Cute Girl turns away to talk to Hot Friend. Hot girl conversation is a special language that is incomprehensible to computer geeks such as myself.
I hear something about Japan.
Me: Oh I just got back from Japan, it was epic.
“Oh awesome” Cute Girl replies, before immediately turning back to Hot Friend.”So anyway blah blah blah xoxoxo blah blah blah.”
I nod along stupidly for a few minutes and then leave. I don’t say goodbye to anyone. I don’t want to be seen. I am a ghost. I shall go home and hang my head in shame.
Beating myself up
After the party I go home and this is when I feel the worst. I start beating myself up. Cue thought loop of despair.
Nobody abuses us more than we abuse ourselves. We pay for our mistakes thousands of times. We make a mistake, we punish ourselves. And you’d think that would be enough, but every time we remember, we punish ourselves again, and again. – Adapted from Don Miguel Ruiz
The anxiety I feel at the party isn’t even that bad. What is 10 times worse is me beating myself up after.
So why am I beating myself up? How do I stop?
My unrealistic self image.
I’ve created this self image that I need to be a confident, charismatic guy all the time, and that if I don’t act confident, no one will like me. No one likes weak people.
The slight problem with this is that no one is confident all the time. And when I inevitably fail to live up to my own expectations, it causes me to question the foundations of my identity. Am I really a cool guy? or am I some loser who doesn’t know how to socialize? I hate weak people, and I hate myself when I am weak. I am only worthy of love when I meet my own standards.
So why did I feel like I need to act confident all the time?
This was ingrained in me from when I was a kid.
My family immigrated to Australia when I was five. I couldn’t speak a word of English. The other kids in school teased me. I learned from an early age that I needed to be confident and defend myself.
Also my parents were very critical.
Father would tell me:
You are selfish.
You are lazy.
Why are you so stupid?
And that I needed to study harder, speak confidently and above all: respect your father.
Father didn’t believe in praise. “If you’re already doing something well, there’s no need to point it out. I am here to point out all the things you are doing wrong, so you can improve”.
I grew up in a Chinese household with strong Confucian values. Confucius says you should criticize yourself in order to keep yourself in line – focusing on meeting the needs of others, instead of your own.
Because of all this criticism I learned from a young age that I am so bad and flawed that I have no right to be accepted for who I am. Only by being smart, considerate, and confident will I be loved.
But things are too complicated for us to be able to fully control either our external circumstances or our internal responses to them. Given that perfection is impossible, I come to expect that rejection is inevitable. – adapted from Kristen Neff
I slowly realize:
What if I don’t need to do anything in order to be loved?
We are perfect just the way we are
Zen master Seng-tsan taught that “true freedom is being without anxiety about imperfection.”
I gradually begin to accept that: sometimes I act awkward, other times I’m confident. There’s parts of my personality that I like, parts that I don’t like. But, at the end of the day I’m human, a unique individual. And I am learning to love and accept all parts of myself.
At this present moment: I feel a little anxious, a little depressed.
But hey I am still alive. Isn’t that wondrous?
How is it that I can see, hear and feel?
How is it that I’m conscious?
What magic runs this universe?
It may be luck? fate? god’s will?
Somehow the universe has aligned to gift me this experience of life.
What a miracle that is.
All the shit that goes on in my life is petty compared to the fact that:
I am alive
There is a life force that runs through all living things. Some people call it god. It is the creator, the enabler of life. It runs through all of us. God runs through us. We are life. We are god. We don’t need to do anything or achieve anything. We are already perfect. We are already worthy of love. Because love is the very essence of the life that runs through us. We are love.
Philosopher Alan Watts talks about how:
You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself
How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god?
Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out who you really are. In our culture they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house. However, if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relatives, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.’
Alan Watts describes how: we are God, we are already perfect. There’s no need to “achieve something beyond ourselves.”
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
We over analyze things and judge ourselves too harshly. This does not help us.
We really should stop judging ourselves since:
Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.
Psychologist Dr Kristen Neff talks about how:
There isn’t anything wrong with the imperfection of life as long as we don’t expect it to be other than it is.
Our successes and failures come and go – they neither define us, nor do they determine our worthiness.
Happiness is not dependent on circumstances being exactly as we want them to be, or on ourselves being exactly as we’d like to be. Rather, happiness stems from loving ourselves and our lives exactly as they are, knowing that joy and pain, strength and weakness, glory and failure are all essential to the full human experience.”
Carl Jung once wrote: “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. -Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person
Back to the party
A few months later, I got invited to another party by the same crowd. Part of me didn’t feel like going. But part of me doesn’t want to shy away from things that scare me. I like facing challenges, so I go.
As I’m driving over, the same feelings of nervousness and anxiety begin to fill my body. My lips are dry and my throat is stuck.
But unlike last time, I don’t feel like I need to act confident. I just let myself feel nervous. I’m not trying to impress anyone.
I get to the party. Everyone’s already chatting and no one notices me.
This time though, I don’t push myself to talk to people. I’m content being a ghost, moving through the crowd.
There’s that familiar sinking feeling in my stomach.
Staying present to the physical sensations of our emotions
I focus my attention on how my feelings feel and where they are in my body. I allow myself to experience my nervousness fully.
I notice how the heaviness in my belly rises and lifts with my breath. I notice the tightness in my throat extending to my eyes, surrounding them with tension like a clenched fist. I stay with the feeling around my eyes. They feel a little tired, heavy.
And then I realize that:
“Anxiety” doesn’t exist
It is just a word that humans make up. All that exists are physical sensations. Humans make up all the meaning in the world.
If we stop labeling emotions as positive or negative and just feel the physical sensations, we’d realize that they are not so bad after all. I don’t know about you, but “there’s some tightness in my throat” sounds a lot better than “I’m having a panic attack!”
Tara Brach talks about how:
Suffering = Pain*Resistance
The pain I’m feeling isn’t that bad, it’s just some tightness, and a sinking feeling. What’s causing me to suffer is the resistance that my mind puts up.
It’s not just the physicality of pain, it’s what our mind does with it. -Tara Brach.
Pain is like a gaseous substance. If you allow it to just be there, freely, it will eventually dissipate on its own. If you fight and resist the pain, however, walling it into a confined space, the pressure will grow and grow until there is an explosion. -Kristin Neff.
One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt. -Alan Watts.
So I am standing in the corner of the party awkwardly smiling. I try to get comfortable with my social anxiety. I stop resisting.
“It’s ok to be nervous,” I tell myself.
Self compassion mantra
I repeat to myself a mantra that Kristen Neff uses:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
Dr Neff explains:
Self-kindness involves more than stopping the constant self-judgement. It involves actively comforting ourselves.
It means we stop to say:
“This is really difficult right now. How can I care for and comfort myself in this moment?”
No matter how difficult things get, we can always wrap our torn and tattered selves in our own soft embrace. We can soothe our own pain.
We don’t need others to give us the care we crave. Because at the end of the day, who is the only person in your life who knows exactly how you feel? Knows your fears? Knows what you need most? And is available 24/7 to provide you with kindness? You.
I wrap my arms around my chest and embrace myself.
It’s ok to be nervous
Everyone gets nervous at times
No one is judging, and if they are, their opinion doesn’t matter
We are not in control of our emotions
I realize 4 that I can’t stop myself from feeling nervous. If I was in control of my emotions, then I would have already gotten rid of the neurotic, anxious and dark aspects of my personality and become a happy, cool jesus.
Clearly I am not in control, so there’s no need to judge myself so harshly.
Dr Jonathan Haidt describes us as a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider is our rational self; the elephant our emotional self.
Sitting on top of the Elephant, it seems like the Rider is the leader. But the Rider is in control only when the Elephant doesn’t have desires of its own.
The Elephant is way bigger than the Rider. So anytime the Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.
Here’s another analogy that explains how we’re not in full control of our minds:
Our subconscious mind is like a raging river with powerful currents. Our conscious mind is merely a little kayak on this river.
We can paddle hard against the current, but eventually we will end up getting swept to wherever the emotional currents take us.
I can try really hard to act confident. Fake it until I make it. But no matter how hard I try, underneath it all I’m still nervous, and people can sense that I am faking it. Eventually I will burn out and act all nervous again.
Accept our emotions
We can’t fight the current, so why try? just relax and go with it.
When we stop fighting the current and accept our emotions, we can learn to steer and ride the waves.
Alan Watts describes how we need to trust our subconscious mind, and accept our emotions. If we don’t trust ourselves we’ll be paralyzed:
To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.
If you cannot trust yourself, you cannot even trust your mistrust of yourself – so that without this underlying trust in the whole system of nature you are simply paralyzed.
So I’ve been standing in the corner of the party fidgeting with a paper cup for 30 minutes now. I come to accept my social anxiety and I realize something:
I can take action despite feeling nervous. I don’t need to feel confident in order to socialize. Confidence is overrated.
I go up to the closest guy:
My voice cracks and sounds squeaky. But I stop giving a damn.
Anxiety accepted. Nobody cares.
George responds warmly and we chat for a while.
Be genuinely interested in other people
I try to really listen to George as he speaks. I focus on being interested in him, instead of what he thinks of me. What’s George like? What’s his life story?
Hey I didn’t feel so nervous. I was too busy being interested in George.
I think people can sense it when we’re genuinely interested in them. It comes through in our vibe.
And being interested people is attractive. It is a lot more attractive than trying to act confident in order to impress people. Because it’s real.
Taking it easy
I continue going around the party talking to people.
I am learning to be gentle with myself. I set very low expectations. No need to be confident or have amazing conversations.
When I say hi to people, it doesn’t matter if they respond or not. If I say hi, then it’s mission accomplished. I win.
I imagined that I’m a bubble.
I want to gently and lovingly nudge myself into socializing.
I don’t want to try too hard because otherwise I will pop.
As I’m talking to people a curious thing happens.
Initially, I only feel comfortable making brief comments.
But soon after I get into a super interesting conversation with this girl, Lily:
The further I get into this conversation, the more I relax. The veil of anxiety starts to lift. Tightness in my throat loosens. The sinking feeling in my stomach goes away. It’s replaced by a calm buzz. I feel like a sports car that’s about to start a race, engines humming and ready to go a million miles.
As my confidence grows, it becomes easier for me to socialize. When I first arrived at the party, I felt stifled and restricted. I was too anxious to speak at length and struggled to find conversation topics. But now I feel at ease to say and do whatever I want. I let out my quirky side:
The conversation gets really good! Turns out, we have so much in common. We’re hanging off each others’ words and finishing each other’s sentences. It feels like we’re communicating telepathically, like voices in each other’s heads.
Lily and I walk around the room and she introduces me to some of her friends.
Seeing the social matrix
As I speak to Lily’s friends, I feel present. Nothing’s going on in my head. My awareness is focused solely on the present moment. I’m hyper aware of all my senses.
I feel like Neo in The Matrix. I can see the social matrix and bend it.
I can see the rhythm in the social interaction and jam to it. I’m coming up with perfect comments at just the right time, cracking jokes, laughing.
Words are just flowing out of my mouth. I am not producing the words. I’m like a fountain, the words are just arising and coming out of me.
Later, I don’t even remember what I talked about, all I remember is laughter and good vibes.
Socializing is like music
The tone of an interaction matters more than the words being said. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The tone of voice, the body language. That’s why people with good energy can get away with saying almost anything. People love good vibes. It’s why Justin Bieber songs sound good even though his lyrics are terrible.
And singers don’t sound good straight away. They need to warm up. It’s just like how when we start socializing we feel anxious and stifled. But we warm up.
We start with some small talk. We feel more confident. We begin to relax, open up. And sooner or later we’re feeling the social rhythm. We’re harmonizing with everyone else, sharing the good vibes. We feel even more confident, become the life of the party, and take the melody to new heights.
I like to call this process of warming up:
The action loop of glory
The action loop only works when:
we accept our current emotions
we have no expectations.
If I started thinking How come I’m not confident yet? this will drive me to start worrying. Why am I not confident yet? I need to be confident and this starts the thought loop of despair.
If we accept how we feel and don’t have any expectations then we won’t have anything to worry about. The key is to keep acting and not get stuck in our heads.
And it doesn’t work all the time. Not everyone will respond well to us, and sometimes we won’t build up enough confidence to be completely free and expressive. But that’s okay. We don’t need to feel 100% confident all the time. Because:
Thank you, Creator of the Universe, for the gift of life you have given me. Thank you for giving me everything that I have ever truly needed. Thank you for the opportunity to experience this beautiful body and this wonderful mind. Thank you for living inside me with all your love, with your pure and boundless spirit, with your warm and radiant light. Thank you for using my words, for using my eyes, for using my heart to share your love wherever I go. I love you just the way you are, and because I am your creation, I love myself just the way I am. Help me to keep the love and the peace in my heart and to make that love a new way of life, that I may live in love the rest of my life. Amen. -Don Miguel Ruiz