When Emotions Interfere With Thought
I’m checking in for my flight at the airport kiosk, a task that has become like tying my shoes, when I look up and see her face. Cindy (not her real name). I know her, but I don’t know her. We have plenty of mutual friends, we are with the same agency, we follow each other on social. I have to say hi. Shit.
“Heyyy! Oh my gosh, what a surprise! How are you??”
I give Cindy a hug and continue trying to check in, while she starts to do the same, and we chat.
My inner dialogue:
Shit. How do I do this? What is my name? I’m looking at this screen but I have no idea what it says. Where do I put in my flight number? I can’t remember my frequent flyer number. What airline is this again? Shit. Shit. Shit.
Does this sound at all familiar? (Or am I the only one?) Surely you’ve found yourself anxious and unable to speak around some cute human you had a crush on….no? See - same thing. You get it.
I have pretty bad social anxiety around most anyone outside my close circle of people. It comes 100% from the desire to be liked and to simultaneously please and impress everyone around me. The really cool thing about starting this blog is that it has prompted me to do some real research into what this social anxiety means and why I function the way I do. My obsession really is why people function the way they do, but I obviously have a very unique insight into my own inner experience that I can only scratch the surface of with another human being’s inner experience (one of the biggest challenges of psychology research, indeed). My mom has suggested to me multiple times that I maybe don’t need to do so much digging (similar to how some CBT-focused therapists can have a tendency to dismiss the deep dive into the past of formal psychoanalysis). And while I agree that finding practical solutions to issues like social anxiety is an essential step to overcoming it, I can’t help my preoccupation with figuring out the why. I want to go deep.
Literally the first sentence I came across when beginning to research this was the following: “Social anxiety influences social behavior, information processing, and the self-concept” (Schroeder, Intro.).
YASSSSSSSSS. What I always believed but never put time into researching! Social anxiety influences information processing!
Let’s keep going: “Anxious self-preoccupation often arouses negative emotions that interfere with information processing” (Schroeder, Intro.). Which is exactly what I couldn’t do at that dang kiosk: process information. My instant fears of judgement or looking like a fool (a.k.a. anxious self-preoccupation) hijacked my brain and prevented me from doing the simplest of tasks. Mind boggling.
A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist would likely take this situation and begin with the thoughts that are occurring, since CBT is founded on the idea that your thoughts (cognitions) influence your behaviors. So he/she might ask: “What are you thinking about yourself in that moment of seeing Cindy?”
I will tell you what I’m thinking:
Shit. How do I handle this? Should I say hi? Will she recognize me? Does she even want me to say hi? Do I say hi and then walk away? What if we are on the same flight? Should I wait for her? Are we supposed to go through security together? What will we talk about? I don’t know her that well. She’ll probably think I’m a total dork. I’ll just make up for it by being really nice. But what if I want to stop talking? How will I get out of it? Will she think I’m rude? But what if I just want to be alone? It would actually be kind of nice to have a friend. She seems like a great person. But what if she doesn’t like me and I can’t tell? What if I’m annoying to her? What if she wants to get out of the conversation but is too polite as well? I better pay really close attention to any social cues she gives. Shit, how do I check in for this dang flight?!
My heart rate speeds up just typing that out.
“Well, what if we change those thoughts? What if, instead, you make a conscious effort to change your thoughts to something like:
Oh look, it’s Cindy! She has always seemed like a nice person. Let me say hi. We could have some nice conversation and kill time before our flights. Maybe we will have something in common. Maybe I’ll even make a new friend. At the very least, we will have a nice time in the airport, a generally not-so-nice place. I bet we have a lot in common, actually. We are both models. We have friends in common. If she likes my friends, she’ll probably like me too. And probably the reverse would be true. I bet she’s a great person. Let me say hi, finishing checking in, and ask her if she wants to hang while we wait for our flights.”
I can literally feel my anxiety that was built from the prior description dissipating just writing these new words out. Using that wonderful prefrontal cortex us humans have been blessed with, I can put myself in the situation mentally and can observe how much better I would feel should I choose to think these hopeful thoughts over the negative ones. Siggghhhh. That feels like relief. Obviously, it would take practice. Forcing myself to bring up these more positive thoughts would still temporarily distract me from the task at hand (which is what I'm trying to avoid), but as I become more familiar with the good thoughts and begin to believe them and welcome human interactions instead of run from them, the more those positive thoughts would begin to influence my inner experience and, thus, my actions. Running into an acquaintance would have the potential to become a comfortable and welcome experience, full of opportunity.
Since this same research I came across described shyness as “a particular manifestation of social anxiety" (Schroeder, Intro), and stated that shy children have been shown to perform worse on information processing tasks than non-shy children, I decided to look the term "shyness" up. Pretty much no one that knows me would ever describe me as shy. However, when I discovered what the American Psychiatric Association defines as shy...well, I realized that it couldn’t be more me. “Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters…” In other words, shyness is not really an outer expression of a character trait, it is really an inner experience (APA, 2018). (I use italics a lot, I know.) My perfectionism, desire to please and impress, and need to be liked override this personal inner experience for me and, therefore, everyone thinks I’m a freaking social butterfly. (This misconception often leaves me quietly infuriated, if I’m being honest.) But this realization of shyness as an inner experience is fascinating to me. It helps me understand why I find social interactions to be exhausting: my brain goes into overdrive.
Perfectionist Heide vs. Shy Heide.
I worry about every possible thought he/she might have, thing I might say, situation that might occur...for what? To prepare myself for how to handle each thing should it occur? According to some research on Generalized Anxiety Disorder, this sounds about right. “Worry has been shown to be associated with reduced autonomic arousal upon exposure to images containing feared material” (Turk, et al., p. 90). I interpret this to mean that I'm preparing for the worst case scenario in order to lessen the blow should that scenario occur. If I mentally prepare myself for this bad thing, it won’t be as bad.
So what to do with all this information? I think the most important thing I’ve garnered from it is to recognize when the situation is happening, and pause. If it’s a scenario where I can excuse myself for a moment, I should do so. Take that moment to remind myself of all the ways this could be a hugely positive experience. Take that moment to remember that the negative assumptions I make about myself are false; they are 100% not based on anything real. If I can’t escape for a moment, remember that it’s completely ok to just stop and take a deep breath. This person does not need to know what I’m going through and, to him/her, that deep breath to reset my thoughts could be a deep breath coming from anything. Number 2, come up with a mantra to hold onto in this type of moment.
This moment has the potential for beauty.
I am someone to love.
Or, what I’ve been holding onto lately:
I see what others see in me. (*More on this one in a wellness post I’ve got in the works at the moment - keep your eye out for it as it’s one of my favorites so far!)
My whole life, everyone has told me such great things about myself and, instead of accepting them graciously, I argued with them. But no longer. Now, I am choosing to see what others tell me they see in me: confidence, intelligence, drive. I choose to see her. I am her. I am worth loving. My shyness is not something to be ashamed of, but is something I can improve upon. It is something to be shared with others. It’s a place from which to grow. As I continue to research these feelings, I am feeling empowered to understand them as something that is not me. I am learning to not identify with this feelings. And I am working towards a place where, when I see a friend, I do not feel fear...I feel hope. Just the thought of this becoming my reality makes me feel tingly all over. :)
Do you have experiences/thoughts/feelings similar to this? Please do share below (or email me if you’d rather keep your experience private). Have you learned interesting ways to cope? Do you have some additional insight? My hope is that we can learn from each other, through our experiences, and come to understand our inner workings better because of what each of us uniquely brings to the table. I hope to hear from you!
Schroeder, Jonathan E. “Self-concept, social anxiety, and interpersonal perception skills”, Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 29, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 89–106. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-005-1651-1
Turk, Cynthia L., Heimberg, Richard G., Luterek, Jane A., Mennin, Douglas S., and Fresco, David M. “Emotion Dysregulation in Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Comparison with Social Anxiety Disorder.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 29, No. 1, February 2005, pp. 89–106. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-005-1651-1