Dr. Robert F. Mullen
This is a draft of Chapter Three – ‘Assessing the Enemy’s Tactics’ in my upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. I present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions that I will gratefully consider and evaluate as I work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
Assessing the Enemy’s Tactics
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid,
but he who conquers that fear. – Nelson Mandela
I want you to mentally dissociate yourself from your social anxiety. Recognize it as a separate entity, familiar but distinct from the substantive individual known as you. The most important thing to take away from Chapter One is the commitment that you will no longer define yourself by your fears and apprehensions, but by your character strengths, virtues, and achievements.
This is a crucial lesson in recovery. When we identify ourselves by our emotional dysfunction, we attribute our self-destructive feelings and behaviors to a personality defect. Something must be wrong with me. That is false. Our life-consistent negative thought patterns are SAD propaganda – biased and misleading information that promotes a false self-image. Nothing is wrong with us.
We are not dissociating ourselves from our memories, feelings, and achievements that constitute our unique personalities. We are dissociating ourselves from the things that make us feel incompetent and undesirable while embracing our inherent and acquired qualities that challenge these irrational self-beliefs. It is purely a mental exercise, and it is a necessary one. Our fears are expressed by unsound emotions. We challenge them through rational responses. Mind over emotion. Right now, social anxiety disorder controls our emotions. The goal of recovery is to take back our rightful control.
SAD is the enemy. Seize that awareness and emblazon it on your frontal lobe – the part of your brain that processes your emotions and your decisions. To successfully engage this sinister adversary we must learn its tactics and the scope of its weaponry. From that, we devise our stratagem. That is the substance of this chapter. This is a war for control over our emotional wellbeing and quality of life
As the third-largest mental health care problem in the world, SAD is culturally identifiable by our persistent fear of social interaction and performance situations. Our suspicions of criticism, ridicule, and rejection are so severe, that we avoid the healthy life experiences that interconnect us with others and the world. It is not the fears that devastate our lives; it is the things we do to avoid them. We have far more to fear from our distorted perceptions than what we might encounter in the real world. Our imagination takes us to dark and lonely places.
Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are the anxiety-provoking emotions or images that occur in anticipation of or reaction to a feared situation. They are unpleasant expressions of our life-consistent negative self-beliefs that define who we are and how we relate to others, the world, and the future. (I am incompetent; No one will talk to me; I’ll say or do something stupid; they’ll reject me.) They are our predetermined assumptions of what will happen in a Situation. We will discuss ANTs in more detail when we analyze the life-cycle of our negative self-beliefs in Chapter Five.
These cognitively distorted emotions can elicit an endless feedback loop of hopelessness, worthlessness, and undesirability, leading to substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
We fear the unknown and unexplored. We obsess about upcoming events and how we will reveal our shortcomings. We experience anticipatory anxiety for weeks before a situation and anticipate the worst. We visualize those events in high school when we were the last to be chosen. The times we felt shunned when we tried to join a conversation. We do not revisit the good times or relive our happy experiences because SAD sustains itself by focusing on the negative aspects of our life.
As the saying goes, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We do not seek power in recovery, however, but empowerment. There is a huge distinction. Empowerment is the process of overcoming power and becoming stronger and more confident. We exponentially erode SAD’s power by consciously compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. Out with our life-consistent negative self-beliefs; in with the self-appreciation of our value and significance. As our neural network realigns, we regain control of our life and emotions. We embrace our universal entitlements.
SAD is ostensibly the most underrated, misunderstood, and misdiagnosed disorder. Nicknamed the neglected anxiety disorder, few experts understand it, and even fewer know how to address it. The constant and massive number of revisions, substitutions, and changes in defining SAD do little to remedy the problem. SAD is routinely misdiagnosed. What did your therapist tell you? That you are depressed or obsessive-compulsive. That you might be borderline personality or agoraphobic? Here is an indisputable reality. Experts may be up-to-date on the latest issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and familiar with the revolutionary new anti-depressant, but they cannot comprehend the personal impact of social anxiety. One has to have SAD to recognize the severity of its impact. We know it because we experience it every moment of every day.
Chronic and debilitating, SAD attacks on all fronts, negatively affecting our entire lived-body. It manifests in mental confusion, emotional instability, physical dysfunction, and spiritual malaise. Emotionally, we are depressed and lonely. We are subject to unwarranted sweating, trembling, hyperventilation, nausea, and muscle spasms. Mentally, our thoughts are discordant and irrational. Spiritually, we define ourselves as inadequate and insignificant.
We feel unjustifiable shame and guilt for an emotional dysfunction that is due to heredity or childhood disturbance that interfered with our natural human development. Social anxiety disorder sensed this vulnerability and onset during our adolescence. The disturbance might have been real or imagined, intentional or accidental. It is essential to recognize it is not our fault. It is not the result of aberrant behavior. We did not make it happen; it happened to us.
While we understand the relevance of past circumstances, the focus of recovery is on the present and the solution. In the case of David Z., his recollections of childhood physical and emotional abuse helped him understand and moderate his avoidance of trust and intimacy. Notwithstanding, awareness is not obsession. The past is immutable, the future to be defined. Transformation is a here-and-now endeavor. Dwelling on the past is not helpful to recovery. We must unencumber ourselves of things over which we have no control, giving us room for new possibilities.
Our commitment-to-recovery rate is abysmal ― reflective of our SAD-induced persuasions that manifest perceptions of worthlessness and futility. SAD’s recovery rate mirrors a general inability to afford treatment due to employment instability. Over 70% of us are in the lowest economic group. Why? Because SAD makes us feel non-essential and incompetent.
Do you feel trapped in a vicious circle, restricted from living a normal life: Do you feel alienated from your peers and isolate yourself from family and friends? Do you reject new relationships before they reject you? Do you repeat the same mistakes over and over again?
Feeling anxious or apprehensive in certain situations is normal; most of us are nervous speaking in front of a group and anxious when visiting our dentist. The typical individual recognizes the normality of a situation and accords appropriate attention. The SAD person dreads it, dramatizes it, and obsesses about its potential ramifications. We make mountains out of molehills and spend our days in tortuous anticipation of our projected negative outcomes. We guarantee our failure through SAD-fulfilling prophecy.
We intuitively know it is an irrational and maddening way to live. We have tried everything to circumvent our behavioral patterns, yet nothing seems to work. That is because SAD thrives on counterproductivity, a tactic that guarantees the opposite of the desired effect. Established recovery approaches fail because they are not designed to address this irrationality. SAD is the ultimate enigma – an intractable condition difficult to evaluate. That is the purpose of this book – to unravel the enigma and defeat the enemy.
Do you feel like your actions are under a microscope, and everyone is judging or criticizing you? Do you worry you are making a poor impression on individuals who do not matter? Are you inordinately concerned about what you might do, how you look, and how you express yourself?
We live with persistent anxiety and fear of social situations such as dating, interviewing for a position, and even contributing to class. We anticipate others will deem us incompetent, stupid, or undesirable. Often, mere functionality in perfunctory situations – eating in front of others, riding a bus, using a public restroom – can be unduly stressful.
The fear that manifests in social situations can seem so fierce, that we feel it is beyond our control, a conclusion that manifests in perceptions of helplessness and hopelessness. We avoid situations where there is the potential for embarrassment or ridicule. Negative self-evaluation interferes with our desires to pursue a goal, attend school, or form relationships– anything that might precipitate our anxiety. Our imagination creates false scenarios.
Elisha D. was terrified of the everyday introductory question, Tell me about yourself. It was one of her five primary situational fears. By simply devising a rote rational response and trying it out in graded exposure situations, she was able to dramatically moderate her fear. Planning structured responses to our situational fears is an important facet of recovery. Tolkien reminds us, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one.” Meaning, that if you know you have a feared situation, devise a rational plan to counter it. The solution is obvious, but SAD thrives on irrational responses to the simplest situations. What is irrational? Anything thought or behavior that is emotionally self-destructive. It is irrational to self-harm.
Do you imagine you are the constant focus of everyone’s attention? Do you worry that people will notice you sweating or blushing? That your voice will tremble and become incoherent? We are overly concerned that our fears and anxieties are glaringly obvious to everyone. That is rarely the case, however. Each of us is the center of our little universe, too self-conscious to notice the idiosyncrasies of another.
The overriding fear of being found wanting manifests in our self-perspectives of incompetence and unattractiveness. We walk on eggshells, supremely conscious of our awkwardness, surrendering to the GAZE―the anxious state of mind that comes with the fear of being the center of attention. I am reminded of that phrase from the Book of David: You have been weighed on the scales and you have been found wanting. It is a self-image difficult to reconcile when SAD is the scale upon which we are being weighed.
Our social interactions are often clumsy, small talk inelegant, and attempts at humor embarrassing. Our anticipation of repudiation motivates us to dismiss overtures to offset any possibility of rejection. SAD is repressive and intractable, imposing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. It establishes its authority through defeatist measures produced by distorted and unsound interpretations of reality that govern our perspectives of desirability.
It does not have to be this way. We function under false perspectives – illusions perpetuated by SAD. We are not unworthy, undesirable, or insignificant. We are children of the universe, endowed with all its unalienable substance. We are an integral part of the evolution of consciousness.
Let us briefly discuss one of the more devious strategies of a well-executed campaign of warfare. Propaganda is the distribution of biased and misleading information. SAD utilizes propaganda to convince us of the validity of our self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. It is a form of control and manipulation. We manifest the effectiveness of this propaganda through maladaptive behaviors and cognitively distorted responses to our fears.
Maladaptive behavior is a term coined by Aaron Beck, the pioneer of cognitive-behavioral therapy. A unique characteristic of SAD, maladaptive behaviors are manifestations of our negative self-beliefs. We find ourselves in a supportive and approving environment, but SAD tells us we are unwelcome and the subject of disparagement and ridicule. SAD distorts our perception, and we adapt negatively (maladapt) to a positive situation. To analogize, if the room is sunny and welcoming, SAD tells us it is dark and unapproving.
Cognitive distortions are the exaggerated or irrational thought patterns involved in the perpetuation of anxiety and depression. Because they reinforce or justify our irrational thoughts and poor behaviors, it is a crucial element of recovery to recognize these distortions to eliminate them from our self-destructive repertoire. We will be discussing this further in Chapter Five as we familiarize ourselves with the origins and trajectory of our life-consistent negative self-beliefs
Do you incessantly replay adverse events in your head? Do you stay constantly relive all the discomforting things that happened to you during the day? Do you avoid meeting people or going on dates because you persuade yourself it will be a disaster? Do you beat yourself up for all those lost opportunities?
We circle the block endlessly before confronting a situation, then end up avoiding it entirely. We avoid recognition in the classroom, our hearts pounding, hands sweaty, hoping we will not be singled out. We lay awake at night, consumed by all the negative events of the day.
We do not have to live like this. We do not have to be afraid to connect with others. We do not have to constantly agonize over how we will be perceived. We do not have to worry about criticism and ridicule from people who do not contribute to our quality of life. By deliberately and repetitively feeding our neural network with healthy information, we proactively transform our thoughts and behaviors from self-doubt and avoidance to self-assured expressions of our relevance and contributions.
We crave companionship but shun social situations for fear others will find us unattractive or stupid. We avoid speaking in public, expressing opinions, and fraternizing with peers. We are prone to low self-esteem and high self-criticism due to the childhood disturbance that precipitated the disruption in our psychological development, allowing the onset of SAD.
The various positive qualities prefixed by the term self, including -esteem, -efficacy, -reliance, -compassion, and -resilience are not lost, however, but are underdeveloped and redeemable. The renewed recognition of our character strengths, virtues, and achievements augmented by the deliberate, repetitive neural input of positive information, awakens and reinvigorates our dormant self-esteem and motivation. All that is lost shall be found when you commit to recovery. That is the wonderful product of transformation.
Do you avoid persons and situations for fear of criticism and rejection? Do you refrain from sharing your opinion because you believe people will think you are stupid? Do you lose out on life’s experiences because you are afraid others will disapprove of you?
We blame ourselves for our lack of social skills. We feel shame for our inadequacies. We guilt ourselves when we avoid getting close to someone, terrified of rejection. We know these feelings are irrational, we know we are not responsible for onset. But our social anxiety compels us to self-loath and self-destruct. Then to top it off, we consistently beat ourselves up for these feelings that are the product of emotional dysfunction that is not of our doing.
We must stop beating ourselves up. We did not ask for our social anxiety, we did not make it happen; it happened to us. We are, however, responsible for doing something about it. We are the captains of our ship. The onus of recovery is on us; no one else does it for us. It comes down to a simple choice. Are you happy with who you are now, or would you like to change for the better? Do you choose to be miserable or comfortable in your own skin? It is that cut and dried. The tools and techniques for recovery are ours for the taking.
We are not defined by our emotional dysfunction but by our character strengths, virtues, and accomplishments. If we break our leg, we do not become the injured limb. We are an individual with a broken leg. The same logic applies to our condition. While not accountable for the cards we have been dealt, we are responsible for how we play the hand we have been given.
We are engaged in a war that is not easily won – a life-consuming series of battles. The process of proactive neuroplasticity is theoretically simple but challenging, due to the commitment and endurance required for the long-term, repetitive process. We do not don tennis shorts and advance to Wimbledon without decades of practice with rackets and balls. Philharmonics cater to pianists who have spent years at the keyboard. Neural restructuring requires a calculated regimen of deliberate, repetitive, neural information that is not only tedious but also fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat and abandon hope in this era of instant gratification. However, once we initiate the process of recovery, utilizing the appropriate tools and techniques, progress is exponential.
There are many things that seem impossible
only so long as one does not attempt them. – André Gide
Social anxiety disorder is comorbid with multiple emotional dysfunctions including depression, substance abuse, panic disorder, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. Proactive neuroplasticity and subsequently, this book addresses emotional dysfunction in general because each originates with childhood disturbance and benefits, dramatically, from neural realignment.
Comments, Suggestions, Constructive Criticism.