The Best Skill for Fixing Performance Anxiety and Social Phobia
Social Anxieties and Phobias
The nature of social anxieties requires that you focus primary attention on your evaluations — of yourself, your behaviors, how you perceive that others judge you, and your imagined consequences of those judgments. The first steps toward change include recognizing and confronting the destructive patterns of self-talk that I label the Negative Observer. You will then need to develop a new way of rationally and respectfully addressing your intentions through the voice I call the Supportive Observer. As I will discuss later, you cannot improve by only facing your feared events. (I am sure you already know this from experience.) You must also focus your resources on mentally vocalizing support for your desire to fit comfortably into your community. This will require that you first challenge your current way of negative thinking.
Listening for the negative thoughts
Worried, self-critical and hopeless comments for the Negative Observer flourish within the mind of the socially anxious person. Some statements are a combination of worried and hopeless comments. Instead of the typical “what if…?” question of the the person who fears panic attacks, your comments sound more like a statement of hopelessness. “What if I won’t be able to answer their questions?” becomes “I’m sure I won’t be able to answer their questions.” “What if everyone notices that I’m sweaty and nervous?” becomes “I’m sure everyone will notice that I’m sweaty and nervous.” Instead of being uncertain about the outcome, you declare that the negative outcome will, in fact, occur. This becomes a much stronger negative voice. You are certain it is reflective of the truth, and you then worry about the inevitable consequences. If you forge ahead into the feared situation, you are likely to be more frightened than others. This is because you are already predicting the dreaded failure and even calculating the dire costs you will pay in humiliation and rejection. Because you combine your worried thoughts with your hopeless comments, you are also more likely to avoid these situations instead of face them.
Here are more examples of the worried/hopeless combination of Negative Observer thoughts:
- I’ve got to quit this position, because I’ll certainly keep failing.
- This will never work. Everyone will notice.
- I’ll look like a fool.
- I won’t be able to think of anything to say.
- I’ll humiliate myself.
- I can’t do it! I’m too nervous.
- I won’t be able to get my point across.
- It’ll be awful.
- I’ll never find another job.
- I’ll go blank. We’ll just stand there and stare at each other.
- I’ll be so nervous I won’t be able to express myself.
- I’ll never get better.
- I’m so anxious. I know I must be coming across wrong.
Many of your Critical Observer comments are typical, such as:
- I was so stupid.
- I stumbled over that word; I looked like a complete fool up there.
- I always get anxious!
- What’s wrong with me? I’m just worthless.
Your Negative Observer comments can be quite self-critical. They have two basic distinctions. First, you criticize yourself indirectly by fantasizing that other people are critical of you. If you are like many socially anxious people, this is a ruthless attack on your self-esteem because it goes to the core of your fears: that others will demean you or reject you. Here are some examples:
- He’s yawning. The entire audience is bored.
- He saw my hands shake when I was drinking. He knows how incompetent I am.
- He didn’t like me because I didn’t know what to talk about.
- He thinks I’m boring, stupid, obviously incapable.
In a second distinction, your Negative Observer operates through a set of rules and expectations that are either impossible to meet or entirely unnecessary to adequate social performance. These often come in the form of “should” and “shouldn’t” statements, and they place an inordinate amount of pressure on you to perform:
- I should have done that perfectly.
- I should be able to figure out what to say.
- Remember, never let them see you sweat!
- There are rules for how I should behave. I shouldn’t be inappropriate.
- I shouldn’t blink.
- I should always look people in the eye when I’m talking.
- I should be able to make a statement without mispronouncing my words.
To improve your comfort level in social situations you must first change your thoughts. There is little point of you entering fearful encounters and simply tolerating them. There is no learning in such an approach. So start with your thinking process — before, during and after any anxiety-producing social events. To take control of your thoughts, you need to identify your Negative Observer comments and to challenge them. The central focus of your attention will be on your distorted evaluation of your performance.
Listen for your self-talk in these four major areas.
1. That you are likely to perform poorly:
- I’ll never think of anything to say. My mind always goes blank.
- I’m sure my hands will shake, and they’ll notice.
- I’m so nervous. I just know I’m going to mess up.
- I’m going to talk too much.
2. That others will disapprove of your performance and their disapproval will be harsh.
- If I raise my hand and she calls on me, then everyone will know how nervous I am and they will reject me.
- I can’t just start talking. He’ll think I’m superficial.
- He’ll never like me after he sees how I act.
- They will think I’m obviously incapable.
3. That the consequences of their disapproval will be severe.
- He won’t want to go out with me again.
- I’ll never get this job.
- I’ll never meet anyone, go on a date, get married.
- He’ll fire me if I do that again.
- I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.
4. That your performance reflects your basic inadequacy and worthlessness.
- This proves that I’m a social incompetent.
- I’m so stupid!
- Who’d want to be with someone like me, anyway?
- I’m a born loser, a jerk, so boring.
- No one would ever want to go out with me.
Handling negative thoughts
We do not yet know to what degree social anxieties are biologically based problems. But let’s assume that your social inhibitions are genetic — that you are preprogrammed to automatically think in this negative fashion. If this is true, it’s not bad news. Please understand that most people suffering from any anxiety disorder — who get the proper cognitive-behavioral treatment — are able to improve. Thousands have recovered fully. So even though you may be biologically vulnerable to anxiety, you can change your future using psychological techniques. You don’t have to live your life in pain and with the fear of humiliation.
If it is the nature of your disorder that your mind automatically generates fearful thoughts — without the benefits of logic or conscious reasoning — should you believe those thoughts? Certainly not! But when your initial, spontaneous thought is negative, your body tends to react to it instinctually, by generating symptoms of anxiety. As your anxious symptoms arise, you use them as a sign of how poorly you are going to perform. In essence, you say, “This proves that I’m going to fail.”
It is very hard to perform while simultaneously listening to that critic or that hopeless worrier: that you are going to fail, that others will be harshly disapproving, that the consequences of their disapproval will be severe, and that all this shows how worthless you are. Your challenge is to stop taking those thoughts at face value. Recognize them as your automatic and impulsive Negative Observer comments. Even think of them as genetically preprogrammed if you want. Just stop viewing them as reflective of reality!
The most powerful question
You must listen for your negative thoughts, and you must disrupt them. However the last thing you want to do is to start arguing with yourself mentally, because your fearful thoughts will tend to win out, since they involve the strongest emotions. The most straightforward way to disrupt these thoughts is to say to yourself, “This is just my Negative Observer talking; I’m not going to listen.” Then let those thoughts go and return to your Task. In Step 8 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program I described this skill, called “Stopping the Negative Observer”:
1. Listen for your worried, self-critical, or hopeless thoughts.
2. Decide that you want to stop them. (“Are these thoughts helping me?”)
3. Reinforce your decision through supportive comments (“I can let go of these thoughts.”)
4. Mentally yell “stop!” (Snap rubber band on wrist.)
5. Begin the Calming Counts.
Of all these steps, the most important for you will be: “Are these thoughts helping me?” Keep in mind the goals of your practice: to learn to perform while you are anxious, to actively engage in your coping skills, to disrupt negative thoughts, and to participate in activities that you have been avoiding. When you question your thoughts, ask if they are helping you reach these specific goals.
Let’s see how this works through an example. Let’s say your goal is to support yourself as you give one of your first presentations to your office staff.
You say to yourself: “This will never work. Everyone will notice.” Is this thought helpful?
You say to yourself: “I won’t be able to get my point across.” Is this thought helpful?
You say to yourself: “What’s wrong with me? I’m just worthless.” Is this thought helpful?
You say to yourself: “He’s yawning. The entire audience is bored.” Is this thought helpful?
You say to yourself: “I should be able to make a statement without mispronouncing words.” Is this thought helpful?
Here is the central strategy that makes this intervention so powerful: you are not disputing the accuracy of your thought. You are declaring that, regardless of its accuracy, it isn’t helping you. It’s hurting you. Some of these thoughts may be partly true. Perhaps a few people will see your hands shake or hear your voice crack. Maybe some audience members won’t understand your point. A few others might have little interest in your topic and will feel bored. But if your goal is to support yourself before, during and after your presentation, none of these negative comments further your goal. Don’t analyze them, don’t embellish them, don’t argue with them. Notice them and let them go!
Once you let them go, offer yourself a supportive comment to keep you on track with your Task. The chart below offers a few suggestions.
Examples of Supportive Statements
- I’ll survive this.
- Remember to breathe.
- Most people will accept it if I make mistakes.
- I can handle disapproval.
- My self-esteem is not based on other people.
- It’s OK to be nervous.
- I can handle these symptoms.
- There’s no proof I’ll fail.
- This is good practice.
- I’ve done this before.
- I know this topic.
- These people want me to succeed.
- There are many reasons for their behavior.
Sometimes your negative thoughts seem so powerful that you feel as though you can’t disrupt them with a simple dismissal such as, “This thought isn’t helpful.” Don’t be surprised if you have such trouble for awhile. I encourage you to persist in your efforts to master this skill even when you feel resistant to it. Don’t give up on it! You are working to overcome a long-standing pattern, so repetition and a certain degree of tenacity will be important. This particular intervention will be your most powerful ally.
The second level of challenge
There may be times when you need a different challenge to your negative thoughts. As I suggested earlier, your Negative Observer leads you to feel certain about your inadequacies, and about how bad things are or will become. This second level of challenge is just as simple as the first. Its purpose is to confront your certainty. If you are like most socially anxious people, you have a great deal of conviction about negative assessments. Your mind quickly chooses some negative evaluation without considering any other options. That is what to question: your mind’s automatic and rapid decision regarding a negative evaluation. The goal, minimally, is to open your mind to the possibility that you are not absolutely, incontestably, 100 percent, beyond doubt, sure of your conclusion.
It is not necessary that you take on a positive, optimistic view of yourself or your interaction. It is only important that you let yourself consider that there are other points of view. It’s possible that something else could occur. It is conceivable that they are thinking something else about you. (Or not thinking about you at all!) Here are some examples of this challenge:
“No one would ever want to go out with me.” –> “What evidence do I have?”
“If I raise my hand and she calls on me, then everyone will know how nervous I am, and they will reject me.” –>
“Do I know for certain that will happen?”
“He saw my hands shake when I was eating. He knows how incompetent I am.” –> “Do I know that for certain?”
“I was so stupid.” –> “Does labeling myself improve my performance?”
“I stumbled over that word; I looked like a complete fool up there.” –>“Could there be a less harsh way
to describe my behavior? Would I treat a friend this way?”
“I’ll never find another job.” –> “Am I 100 percent sure?”
“It’ll be awful.” –> “What is the worst that could happen? How bad is that?”
“He’s yawning. The entire audience is bored.” –> “Could there be any other explanation?”
Challenging Negative Thoughts
Here are some questions to confront your negative comments:
- Am I positive that this is true? What evidence do I have?
- Do I know for certain that will happen? Am I 100 percent sure?
- Does labeling myself improve my performance?
- Could there be a less harsh way of describing my behavior? Would I treat a friend this way?
- What is the worst that could happen? How bad is that?
- Could there be any other explanations?
- Is this my only opportunity?
By challenging your automatic negative thoughts, by loosening up your grip of certainty, you open the door to tell yourself, “This thought isn’t helpful.” You can then remind yourself of your positive goals: to learn to perform while you are anxious, to actively engage in your coping skills, to disrupt negative thoughts, and to engage in activities that you have been avoiding.