I have a form of social anxiety. The effects of which depend on my mood, the events of the day, and of course how far the Moon is up Uranus (careful – I’ll do the jokes). For years this has been crippling and has, at times, cause me some real distress; it was easily a contributing factor to the break down of my previous long term relationship (but that’s a blog for another day).
Ask my chums from my University days (big up the Middlesex massive! – said nobody, ever) and they’ll probably quip that I was a right anti-social old scrotum who regularly declined invitations to student events, nights out, and anything that didn’t involve the safety of pyjamas. I couldn’t have told you at the time, but I really did want to socialise. I was jealous of friendship groups, I wanted to be part of the gang and be accepted; something I have wanted for as long as I can remember. It took CBT to highlight that the issues that I felt were issues, were issues that were only issues in my head. Issues issues issues.
Anybody who has completed a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will know this, but for those unfamiliar it is, in its very basic form, a way of figuring out why you feel a certain way and then using a variety of tools to change it, or at least manage it. Prior to completing CBT I had no idea why I acted like I did, what caused my anxiety and what on Earth I could do to help myself.
The cause of my ongoing social anxiety turned out to be a very simple formula:
Childhood experience + subsequent core beliefs = unsustainable coping strategy.
Unaccepted during childhood + belief that people don’t like me = make people like me by being something else.
The above coping strategy I had put in place for myself was entirely unsustainable.
When I was 9 I moved to a different town and a different school. Friendship groups were already formed and applications for admission were closed. Already a little weird, and with a slight speech impediment (that he, thankfully, eventually lost), baby faced Gregory went through the rest of his school years feeling ostracised by his peers. I had friends dispersed throughout The Seven Kingdoms of Secondary School, but never truly had a sense of belonging. One particular group of friends would sometimes let me hang out with them but sometimes they would have, what they openly referred to as, “Greg Free Days” and would banish me for crimes against social acceptance. Crushed, every time, I would wander around trying to find another kingdom in which to hitch my dragon, but ultimately would go and sit on a bench alone and drink my Muller Light (because, oddly, I thought eating it with a spoon would make me a weirdo).
This is one experience which cemented my core belief that people did not like me. Hindsight suggests that they were just kids who had no idea what they were doing, but try telling that to a 13 year old boy. The damage is done (so I’ll guess I’ll be leaving).
After time I found ways of making myself interesting / appealing as a way of attracting people; I came out (probably before I should have done), and I found that I could use humour to entertain people. It worked! I had created a rule. This reinforced the core belief that people didn’t like me. People liked a caricature of Gregory. A concentrated form of the original, like orange juice (only, too much of me won’t give you the shits). I became an exaggerated (and exhausting) form of Gregory which really could not be sustained. If you run everywhere you get better at running, but ultimately it’s still more exhausting than walking. I eventually got very tired of running and did so less and less – unfortunately I hadn’t yet figured out how to walk. CBT helped me walk.
A series of behavioural experiments helped me manage and challenge my core belief. One experiment saw me submerge myself in a social situation and purposefully not be The InGregible Hulk (not even sorry for that); this included predicting an outcome, completing the task, and then comparing the facts of what actually happened against my initial predictions. As you can imagine, people still liked me, nobody pointed and laughed, and this particular situation saw me invited back for more.
Another experiment, which challenged my core belief was attempting to remove my negativity goggles and document everything positive that people did for me over the course of a week – however small. I started noticing when people opened the doors for me, when people gave me 30p for a coffee at work, and when people complimented my hair. I wrote them all down and gave them a percentage score of how good it made me feel; I started to feel appreciated, and I found I focused less on the negative.
One further tool I was given was a document detailing Unhelpful Thinking Habits. This is fairly self explanatory, but something I found very useful. I saw myself in some, but not all, of the habits listed. Even if you don’t feel you have any mental health issues I encourage you to read them – if everyone in the world recognised these very common habits in themselves I feel we’d live much more peacefully. I have included a link below to the worksheet.
The experiments/tools were very helpful in cementing an alternative core belief that people do like me. I do not believe I am liked by everybody, and that was never a dream of mine, but it helped me recognise and appreciate when people do. The tools are not a cure, but they’re helpful to have. I still have moments where I still doubt if people like me, ongoing (albeit rare) battles with low mood, and occasional panic attacks, but having the tools to manage my social anxiety has been extremely helpful and has helped me identify and address everything you have read here (and more).
This is just my experience with CBT. It is a custom-made experience depending on individual need so please be aware that what worked for me may not work for you, and vice versa. This also serves as a sort of apology to anybody who I have ever given the impression to that I do not like you or did not want to spend time with you; I do like you, and I did want to spend time with you.
If you feel that you would benefit from any thought of support for your mental health (not just CBT) please speak to a medical or mental health professional who will be able to help you. Don’t go through anything alone, there is always someone who can listen.
Love you, bye.