Well-Being//

Fight Social Anxiety by Embracing Your Inner Fool

Don't be afraid to be silly.

Kalamurzing/Shutterstock
Kalamurzing/Shutterstock

By Heidi McKenzie, PsyD

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

On my first day at that school, I wore a neon green jumpsuit. I loved that jumpsuit. It had shiny silver zippers up the front and on the pockets. It was the coolest thing ever. Except that it wasn’t. Not in 1980s Michigan.

Somehow the latest European trends hadn’t found their way to the Detroit suburbs, where the height of “cool” at the time was Lacoste Alligator shirts and sweaters tied around the neck.  Those preppy kids made merciless fun of me and my jumpsuit from Milan.

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

For the rest of that year, I resigned myself to wearing “dorky” clothes. I became obsessed with not drawing further attention to myself in any way that would make me look “uncool.” I elevated being invisible to an art.

Most of us have a similar childhood tale about a time when we felt foolish. We remember how deeply painful that moment felt. That “Inner Kid” takes tyranny over our lives.

As adults, some people go to great lengths to avoid looking foolish in any way. That inner kid is in the driver’s seat of their adult lives. Whenever they think about coming out of their comfort zone, that Inner Kid yells, “Watch out! They may laugh at us or think we’re stupid!”

What has the fear of looking foolish cost you? What were the risks not taken? The words not spoken? The adventures unexperienced?In the extreme form, this fear of negative judgment and the steps taken to avoid it becomes social anxiety. This diagnosis refers to an intense anxiety in situations where one might be negatively evaluated. The fear is typically out of proportion to the situation.

Indeed, as I so often witness in my practice, people find themselves overpreparing for a work meeting to the point of exhaustion. They obsess for weeks about what to wear to a reunion and then, at the last minute, don’t go at all. They turn down a promotion because the new job involves speaking in front of groups. And so, it goes – parties not attended, classes not completed, jobs not applied for, potential partners not met – in short, lives not fully lived.

In the context of discussing success, author Malcolm Gladwell has said, “What I try to do – try to be- is unafraid of making a fool of myself.”

In fact, the empirical research supports just such an approach to vanquishing the inner demons that keep us from stepping forward more confidently in our lives. Numerous meta-studies support the use of exposure therapy, a form of therapy that helps us to confront our fears. One such meta-study analyzed 33 treatment outcome studies conducted between 1977 and 2004. It found exposure-based treatment to be more effective than either no treatment, placebo, or non-exposure-based interventions.

The fear of appearing foolish can crush opportunities for spontaneity, mastery, and joy. What has the fear of looking foolish cost you? What were the risks not taken? The words not spoken? The adventures unexperienced? If more than a few examples come to mind, it may be time to challenge yourself to confront that fear and to learn to embrace “foolishness.”

How, exactly, can we learn to embrace our “Inner Fool?” The answer lies in changing not only how we think about foolishness, but also what we do in response to it.

I tell my clients, “Play it out all the way to the end.” In other words, whatever catastrophic outcome you imagine, play it out to its horrible conclusion (even better, write it out.)

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

“I walk into the room and it turns out that I didn’t get the email that said it was a Beach Party-themed reunion.  Everyone is wearing Hawaiian shirts, and I’m way overdressed in a formal wear gown. Everyone has apparently been on Keto for the last 363 days of the year and they all I look amazing.  I’ve gained 30 pounds since the last reunion. A few people comment on my weight gain. People are pointing and snickering at me. I go into the bathroom and cry. I sneak out as soon as I get a chance.”

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

“Well, pretty bad,” you’d say. And I’d agree. If all of that happened, that would stink. But then the next thing to ask yourself would be, “For how long?”

In other words, would it still matter in a day? Yep.  A week? Probably. What about in a month? Less so. What about in a year or five years from now? Probably not. (I am, after all, telling you about my green jumpsuit.)

This is known as perspective-taking. It refers to the ability to look past the immediate feeling of embarrassment and to re-assess it from a perspective further out in time. Perspective-taking helps us take small, positive risks because it helps us to see that even if the worst imaginable thing happens, we will likely still recover and live to tell the tale.

Along with perspective-taking, it helps to do probability testing. In other words, ask, “How likely is it that the worst possible thing that you are imagining will actually happen?”

Odds are, not very likely. The most probable outcome is likely somewhere in between the best-case scenario and the absolute worst-case one. Again, it helps to write these down—the best-case, worst-case, and the most probable outcome.

Anticipatory anxiety is typically far worse than the actual situation.The anxious brain automatically goes to the worst-case scenario, and we often forget to consider the other outcomes as well. Perhaps the reunion goes flawlessly, and you have a fantastic time. Or maybe you feel a little discomfort at first but are later able to relax and even reconnect with a few people.

When we remember to include all the possible outcomes, it helps our brains relax enough to come out of our comfort zones.

Another thing that helps with embracing our Inner Fool is to purposely go out and do something foolish. “Why on Earth would I do that?” you ask.

The research strongly supports leaning into the fear and exposing yourself to the fearful situation rather than avoiding it. Avoidance tends to make the fear stronger because it gives you short-term relief. That short-term relief reinforces the behavior, so you continue to avoid things that make you anxious.

The problem, however, is that the short-term relief creates a long-term sacrifice—a sacrifice of quality of life, a sense of mastery, and increased confidence in the world. Exposing yourself to the feared situation, on the other hand, allows your brain to get the message that it’s not so bad. Anticipatory anxiety is typically far worse than the actual situation.

In my practice, I work with socially anxious clients to come up with experiments that teach them to embrace their Inner Fool. One of my favorites involves going through the drive-through at McDonald’s but ordering as if you were at Taco Bell.

Yes, I know. That sounds horrifically embarrassing, and you can’t even imagine doing such a thing. How did I even come up with such a torture?

Truth is, I didn’t come up with it. I was sitting in the passenger side of my car one afternoon when my jokester husband did exactly this. He has a playful side to his nature and loves to make others laugh. He is, in all ways, a natural jester.

Following his order, there was a long pause. Then a voice responded through the microphone, “Sir, this is McDonald’s, not Taco Bell.” He made some joke at that point and laughed. When we pulled up to the delivery window, the person taking the order was smiling and laughing too.

Natural jesters embrace foolishness and enjoy the spontaneity that comes from those moments. For the rest of us, especially those who may struggle with social anxiety, we must challenge ourselves to discover that most of the fears in our head are unfounded ones.  All of my clients who have completed this exercise come back giggling, saying, “I did it! And it was actually kind of fun!”

So, go ahead. Order some fast food at the wrong place. Wear the green jumpsuit. Embrace your Inner Fool.

References:

  1. Abramowitz, J.S., Deacon, B.J., & Whiteside, S.P.H. (2011). Exposure therapy for anxiety: 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 in the treatment of specific phobia: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(6), 1021-1037.

Originally published on GoodTherapy.

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