Fight social anxiety with the embrace of your inner fool

Lady smiling in a storm of confetti

When I was in seventh grade, my family relocated to the United States after living in Europe for many years. Before we moved in, my mother took me shopping for new school clothes.

On my first day at school I was wearing a green suit. I liked it very much. It had glossy silver zippers in the front and in the pockets. It was the coolest thing ever. Except it wasn't. Not in the 1980s Michigan.

Somehow the latest European trends had not found their way to the suburbs of Detroit, where the height of the "cool" back then were Lacoste Alligator shirts and sweaters tied around the neck. These preppy girls had merciless fun on me and my costume in Milan.

I asked my mother to take me shopping, but she refused. He told me that I should set trends instead of following them. Sure. Say to a seventh grader.

For the rest of the year, I gave up wearing "dorky" clothes. I was obsessed with not paying more attention to myself in any way that would make me look "forgotten". I wanted to be invisible in an art.

Most of us have a similar childhood story about a time when we feel stupid. We remember how deeply painful this moment was. This "Inner Kid" is reigning over our lives.

As adults, some people go to great lengths to avoid looking stupid in any way. This inner child is at the seat of the adult life guide. Whenever they think about getting out of their comfort zone, the Inner Kid shouts, "Watch out! They can make us laugh or think we are stupid!"

What is the fear of looking silly? What were the risks that were not taken? Words that were not spoken? The infinite adventures?In the extreme, the fear of negative crisis and the measures taken to avoid it become social anxiety. This diagnosis refers to severe anxiety in situations where one can be assessed negatively. Fear is usually disproportionate to the situation.

Indeed, as I often get used to in my practice, people are overwhelmed by a work meeting to the point of exhaustion. They watch for weeks about what to wear to a reunion, and then, at the last minute, they are gone. They remove an offer because the new job involves talking in front of groups. And so it goes – places that are not monitored, classes not completed, jobs not submitted, potential partners not filled – in short, they do not live fully.

As part of the talk about success, author Malcolm Gladwell said, "What I'm trying to do – try to be – not afraid to make a fool of myself."

In fact, empirical research supports precisely such an approach to the eradication of inner demons that prevent us from moving more confidently into our lives. Many meta-studies support the use of exposure therapy, a form of therapy that helps us cope with our fears. One such post-study analyzed 33 treatment outcome studies conducted between 1977 and 2004. He found that exposure-based therapy was more effective than any intervention without treatment, placebo, or no exposure.

Fear of appearing silly can overwhelm opportunities for spontaneity, ownership and joy. What is the fear of looking silly? What were the risks that were not taken? Words that were not spoken? The infinite adventures? If more than a few examples come to mind, it may be time to challenge yourself to confront this fear and learn to embrace the "fool."

How exactly can we learn to embrace the "Inner Fool"? The answer lies in changing not only how we think of the fool, but also what we do in response to it.

I tell my clients: "Play it to the end". In other words, whatever the catastrophic outcome you imagine, play it to the horrible conclusion (even better, write it down).

Let's return to the example of not going to the reunion of high school. Maybe, something like this:

"I go into the room and it turns out that I didn't receive the email saying it was a beach party reunion. Everyone is wearing Hawaiian shirts, and I'm overkill in a formal wear dress. Everyone has been in Keto for the last 363 days of the year and everyone looks great. I've won £ 30 since last meeting. Few people are commenting on my profit. People are pointing and scoffing at me. I go to the bathroom and cry.

Let's say it's the worst thing that could happen. And now let's imagine this does happen. How bad is it?

"Well, very bad," you say. And I would agree. If all this happened, that would be a hit. But then the next thing to ask yourself will be, "For how long?"

In other words, would one day still matter? Yes. One week? Probably. What happens in a month? Less. What's going on in one or five years from now? Probably not. (I am, after all, telling you about my green suit.)

This is known as perspective. It refers to the ability to look beyond the immediate feeling of embarrassment and reassess it from a perspective further into time. Prospecting helps us take small, positive risks because it helps us to see that even if the worst imaginable thing happens, we will probably recover and live to say it.

Along with getting perspective, it helps to do probability tests. In other words, ask, "How likely is the worst thing you can imagine to happen?"

Chances are not very likely. The most likely outcome is likely somewhere between the optimal scenario and the absolute worst case. Again, it helps to write these down – the best case, the worst case, and the most likely outcome.

Preventive stress is usually much worse than the real situation.Anxious brains automatically go into the worst-case scenario, and we often forget to look at other results. Maybe the reunion is going to be perfect, and you have a fantastic time. Or you may feel a little annoyed at first but later you may be able to relax and even reconnect with some people.

Remembering to include all possible outcomes helps our brain relax enough to get out of our comfort zones.

Another thing that helps with our Inner Fool hug is to deliberately go out and do something stupid. "Why on earth would I do that?" you ask.

Research strongly supports the slope in fear and expose yourself to a frightening situation instead of avoiding it. Avoidance tends to make fear stronger because it gives you short-term relief. This short-term relief enhances the behavior, so you continue to avoid things that make you impatient.

The problem, however, is that short-term relief creates a long-term sacrifice – a sacrifice of quality of life, a sense of excellence and increased confidence in the world. Exposing yourself to dangerous situations, on the other hand, allows your brain to get the message that it is not that bad. Preventive stress is usually much worse than the real situation.

In my practice, I work with socially anxious clients to experiment with teaching them to embrace their Inner Fool. One of my favorites is to cross the road to McDonald's but order as if you were at Taco Bell.

Yes I know. This sounds terribly annoying and you can't imagine doing that. How did I even do such a torture?

The truth is, I didn't. I sat on the passenger side of my car one afternoon when my husband Joker did just that. He has a playful side to his nature and loves to make others laugh. It is, by all means, a natural jester.

After ordering it, there was a long pause. Then a voice responded through the microphone: "Sir, this is McDonald's, not Taco Bell." He made a joke at this point and laughed. When we pulled up to the delivery window, the recipient smiled and laughed as well.

Natural scammers embrace the nonsense and enjoy the spontaneity that comes from these moments. For all of us, especially those who can cope with social anxiety, we have to challenge ourselves to discover that most of the fears in our heads are unfounded. All of my clients who completed this exercise come back saying, "I did it! And it was really fun!"

So go ahead. Order some fast food in the wrong place. Wear the green suit. Embrace your inner fool.

Bibliographical references:

  1. Abramowitz, J.S., Deacon, B.J., & Whiteside, S.P.H. (2011). Anxiety Exposure Therapy: Principles and Practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Wolitzky-Taylor, K.B., Horowitz, J.D., Powers, M.B., & Telch, M.J. (2008). Psychological Approaches to Treating Specific Phobia: A Meta-Analysis. Clinical Psychology, 28(6), 1021-1037.

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