"No time, Cham."
"But we'll be on an airplane forever. What are you talking about? You'll have plenty of time, Mom."
I've got nothing but time. She's marked the article, The Cure for Self-Consciousness. If Cham says Read it, of course I'm going to read it. She represents the younger smarter people out there. (Like you, right?)
Martha Beck starts us out at a cocktail party. (Already you like it, I know) She tells us to picture ourselves in a bad dress or something we think looks or fits badly.
So I'm supposed to think I look like a whale and I'm positive that everyone is staring and laughing at me at this party. And I'm embarrassed and ashamed. Not hard to do this visual exercise, is it?
But because we're logical thinkers and entertain a cognitive therapy, we know that the feeling of exposure is irrational and rooted in some kind of early childhood narcissistic injury.
Like maybe your mom said, You're not going to wear THAT are you?
And you say to yourself, It's not all about me. It's unlikely that most people are really looking at me or noticing me or even caring I exist.
But O is talking to readers who obsess anyway, who might know that but can't stop worrying about how they look and sound, or if they're dead silent in social situations, what people must think of that. And they have nightmares, like those we've discussed earlier in the fear of exposure post, dreams about being the only naked person in the room.
I'd say, by the way, that if you might be sensitive to a full page photo of a naked woman desperately trying to cover up, definitely don't buy the July issue of O. (Why is this necessary, someone tell me. Is it art?)
The problem here, according to Ms. Beck, who makes no claim to a relationship with the famous cognitive theraps, is that we're so worried about appearances and what other people think that we don't do the good things we want to do. We box ourselves into very boring lives.
I remember my mom at that Gater Park in Florida just last winter. She didn't want to do the Everglade speed boats (there's a special name for them, I can't remember it) and her "better" judgment years ago would have held her back. But with only a little encouragement (she's with me, FD and my father, after all) she got on that boat. And her hair blew in the wind like crazy and none of us have ever, ever seen her laugh so much in our lives. It was wonderful.
Beck calls that fear of being judged negatively performance anxiety. I also see it associated with not so simple social phobias and anticipatory anxiety, worrying about worrying. Call it what you will, Ms. Beck brings up a study about the "spotlight effect."
I didn't see the study but I think that we can talk about the results anyway. Keep in mind that all we're doing here is passing on a few cognitive tools and the language we therapy docs tend to use at breakfast. (My kids tried to be polite about it unless I talked about sex and then it was, Shut up, Mom). Anyway, we haven't critically examined research on this blog and I don't intend to do that here. It's a blog.
So three psychologists, Glilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky coined the phrase Spotlight Effect and suggest that we must develop a "mental dimmer switch."
I love the metaphor, even if I doubt the outcome of their work. The study and supposedly other similar studies finds that the spotlight effect makes most of us think that we're getting twice the attention we actually get. We overestimate how much people are staring at us. If we realized nobody cared we'd worry less, but instead we magnify how much people care by two.
These social experiments bear repeating, as all experiments do. It's all about the way variables are measured and if the measures measure what they should. If I had to guess, I'd bet people quadruple the number of people they imagine are noticing that stain on the tie, that bad hair day. I'd even double quadruple it.
I suspect we only get a tenth of the spotlight we think we get, if that.
It really isn't about us. There's so much more for life to be about.
But many people have disabling anxiety and it's no laughing matter. Perfectly normal looking people come to therapy and say that they look in the mirror and see Frankenstein.
And I tell them: Even people with fairly good self-esteem see Frank in the mirror.
We're all a little paranoid is the truth, some of us much more so than others, and yes, social context makes all the difference. Why we are this way? I used to blame Madison Avenue. But I know it's probably a mix of genetics and the way we grow up. And Madison Avenue (environment).
Cognitively we can trace this anxiety to fear of exposure. Although the O article doesn't use this language, it's possible the therapy docs who did the research do.
The journalist is totally right when she tells us that reluctance to take risks socially limits what we do. We grow with new experiences. I'm pretty sure our brains get bigger as they forge new cellular pathways. It's mind-expanding, so to speak, when the roads not taken, those neural highways in the gray matter, are taken.
She's also right when she says that people who feel they're in the spotlight exaggerate their mistakes and under-emphasize their accomplishments. They also tend to under function: they don't shout out good ideas; they dress too conservatively; and they rarely sing or dance in public.
Don't tell me that can be a good thing sometimes. I personally like it when it's off-key but happy. (Remind me to tell you about that choir I was in 10 years ago.)
The docs who did the research also say that people regret it when they fail to try new things. We should go ahead and try things even when we doubt ourselves. We should take a risk or we'll regret not having worn that red dress, never having skied.
For sure on that dress.
And there's MORE! Remember, O has promised to pass on the CURE for this problem, so there has to be more, and it's all good, if not the cure for everyone. As I've indicated, if you've had a traumatic history advice won't make much difference. You need to be in a place to take advice. To make bread you don't just need yeast. To make a person rise, having advice is like having a little flour and water, a good start, but not enough to make bread happen any day soon.
(1) We need to recognize that social fear is universal.
So I worry that I might be wearing two different socks, which can happen if you're me, but tell myself that everyone else is worried about how they look, too. If a patient isn't worried about socks, there's cellulite.
We should only care what the good guys say, by the way, and they won't care what we're wearing.
(2) We're supposed to double everything.
We docs are always going to tell you to exaggerate something, so doubling is a nice start. I prefer to think of it as over-shooting because you probably won't really over-shoot, so if you at least try to over-shoot you'll shoot. We learn this from the great 12th century Jewish thinker, by the way, the Rambam.
The research gurus are totally right. If we successfully rouse up the courage to put ourselves out there socially with gusto, then it is likely we'll be be appreciated for at least having some guts. Then there's always appreciation for providing comic relief and permission for others to chime in on a conversation, too.
(3) Think through your limits--not to them (I'd say, not about them).
A sensei taught Ms. Beck how to break a board with her hand. She had to pretend that the board didn't even exist and was told to aim ten inches behind it. Apparently you're not supposed to even be thinking about hitting the board itself. The focus is beyond the board, it's what's beyond the feared stimulus that matters.
Now this is great stuff. We see a situation as potentially very embarrassing so we're focused on the embarrassing moment, but we shouldn't. A person who is less anxiety-ridden still might see a possible negative experience, but keeps eyes on the prize, drives in the rain, so to speak, to get where he's going.
No pain no gain.
(3) Finally, there's the Universal Question, and Beck does a great job with this, by the way, her build up is really cute. The Universal Question is:
I personally go with So what?
Beck: If I do that I'll look like a clutz. So?
Beck: I say that, people will disagree. So?
Therapydoc: They'll think I'm nuts. Yes! So What? Who doesn't need therapy?
1. You want to worry? Worry about something that's already happening, not something that might happen. Like child abuse, for example, or the exploitation of women. Racism. Genocide. Then go to work on eliminating those things.
2. What we've talked about is all cognitive-behavioral therapy. Do you see how?
When you use your logic and imagination, it's cognitive. But the idea that you should make the spotlight less intense by subjecting yourself more to the source of anxiety is behavioral. It's an exposure therapy.
3. To make the spotlight feel less intense, you push yourself into it and find out what confident people already know:
The spotlight's not so bad, and someone else is going to take it from you anyway. In a nanosecond.
Copyright 2007, therapydoc