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How social anxiety trapped me in a cupboard

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I'm going to tell you something embarrassing. It will make a point though.

I love socializing now. But it wasn't always that way.

I was quite a shy child and from the ages of 12 to 16 I went to a boy's only school. Women were a great mystery to me and, like many mysteries, scary.

At the age of 16 I went to a college where there were, you've guessed it...women!

I was terrified. It seems crazy to me now but I just didn't know how to talk to girls. What I was supposed to say? How was supposed to act around them? Then something terrible happened.

Teenage infatuation

One particular girl caught my eye and I was soon infatuated.

But my overwhelming desire to connect with her was beaten down by my fear of actually talking to her.

One fine day Fate got involved and decaided to give a shy young student a break.

She, nymphetic light of my young life, and I, did an art class together.

On that fate filled day I was getting some paint from inside a small room, almost a closet, and who should walk in but that girl! The girl. Fate had played his ace card and was settling back to see what happened.

What happened

We were now in close physical proximity in an intimate space. I'd spoken to her a million times with wit, charm and urbanity...in my dreams.

Now reality challenged me make good my fantasies and fate had a ringside seat.

I gawped at her and she smiled. Then something horrific happened. This exemplar of infinite feminine beauty, this comely enchantress... spoke to me.

Acting like I'm being mugged

As far as my body knew I was now being held at knifepoint by a homicidal mugger in the wrong part of town at midnight. She was asking me questions, talking about art, being nice. I gawped at her like she was threatening to shoot me in the head with an AK47!

Through her eyes watching me must have seemed like evolution going in reverse. I made some ape like movements, stammered, blushed and became so focussed on my internal emotional mutiny that, weird as it sounds, almost forgot she was there.

I was shaking, avoiding eye contact, and totally uncommunicative. Finally I became a helpless amoeba. She left the paint closet like someone who'd just tried making small talk with a tree.

Fate left in disgust vowing only to help me in future if I helped myself.

A few weeks later....much to my teenage heartbreak.... she started going out with some other guy and I, no doubt, started writing bad teenage poetry about life's unfairness.

Why have I shared this humiliating self revelation with you?

A widespread problem

At the time I of course felt 'only I am like this'. But when I outgrew my social anxiety and started working with hundreds of people in my own practice, and then tens of thousands of social phobics online I know what a widespread problem social fear is for millions. It results in missed opportunities (in paint closets and other settings) and results in isolation and loneliness.

At the heart, both a cause and a consequence of this kind of anxiety is self consciousness. But let's think about what that really means.

Where do you focus your attention?

When I think back now though the mists of time two things strike me about that experience and what it can tell us about self consciousness and social anxiety in general.

Socially anxiety, any anxiety really, makes us so self absorbed in the moment that we effectively become removed from the situation.

When I was in that dreaded closet, she, the adored teenage venus girl, didn't exist. The paint closet itself didn't exist for me either. I was so inside my own head only I existed. Anxiety had me totally focussed on me, entirely self absorbed in those moments. Sure I was thinking about her but only in relation to what I imagined she 'must' be thinking about me.

So why does massive self absorption happen when socializing make you anxious?

Being self aware VS self absorption

Because of pain.

Normally when we talk of someone being 'self absorbed' we're being critical. We use the phrase to describe the kind of person who only talks about themselves and never listens to you. That's not true of people with social anxiety at all - in my experience they usually aren't remotely vain or narcissistic.

But when I say we become self absorbed during periods of social anxiety I'm using the phrase in a purely descriptive sense.

In that closet I became totally self absorbed in obsessing on: How I was talking (or making baboon like squawking noises), how I was looking, how I might be giving away the fact that I was having an internal panic volcano and so on. It was all about me. I wasn't thinking about her at all.

The fact is self absorption is both a result of social anxiety and a cause of it.

Pain makes for self absorption

We focus on ourselves when we're in pain. If I stub my toe and experience short lived but intense pain in those moments I forget entirely about you (no offence) or the room or third world poverty and become totally self absorbed on the screaming agony in my toe.

Once the pain subsides I can go back to being the attentive, socially concerned paragon of selfless virtue I (like to think I) am.

Studies find that when people are anxious and self conscious they actually remember less about other people and the place they were in afterwards than those were more relaxed and confident. We've only got so much attention to focus and when we focus inward we focus less on what's actually happening outside.

Self Absorbed

The self absorption of social anxiety is like going to a party where there are other people to meet but carrying a looking glass right in front of your own face. All you see is you and you become blind to what actually going on.

The way forward

Nowadays when I socialize I forget myself to a large extent (although of course some self awareness is vital for sound social functioning!) I even forget myself and focus outwardly when public speaking to hundreds of people.

Going from inward focussed self absorption to external focus is key to confidence.

There is is a simple exercise you can do straight away that will automatically lower stress levels.

Make yourself notice

There are many ways to decondition excess social anxiety. One way to start is to intentionally focus on external aspects of reality. One guy called me on the phone. I didn't have time to see him there and then but that very night he was going to a party and he was terrified. I gave him some simple calming exercises on the phone then asked him to intentionally observe and remember 5 elements to the environment at the party and tell me about it at a time we were able to meet. He noticed the colour of the walls. What three people did for a living, the color of the carpet, what certain people were wearing and what drink was available. He later reported being more outwardly focussed (surprise, surprise!) and, crucially more relaxed. We still had to do more work but it was a great start.

So as you become more socially relaxed you become more present in the situation but it works the other way too. When you learn to focus outwardly in those times you become less anxious. When I help you overcome social anxieties I don't just want there to be an absense of fear but a presence of real self confidence.

Your budding social confidence

When your focus of attention is focused onto the outside all self consciousness can disappear in a moment. I teach people to reach the point where they can't help but feel calm socially and I also encourage them to focus outwardly when around others.

Once client told me how she had been feeling really self conscious and nervous at a dinner party when one of the guests started choking. She was trained for such emergencies and immediately and unthinkingly sprang into action and worked to save him. When everything calmed down she realised that everyone's attention was really on her now but she didn't care because she had been so focussed on the outside on the emergency. All self consciousness, self absorption had disappeared in a flash.

Now when you can reach the point of being almost as outwardly focussed as she was in that situation during any social time (without having to save someone's life!) then you have become supremely socially confident.

I wish I had known what I know now back when I was 16 with the girl in the closet... mind you, Fate has been pretty kind to me since.

Get Mark's social anxiety 10 Steps program here.

Published by mark.tyrrell October 9th, 2013