Social Anxiety, part 4
This post presents a personal perspective on one Cognitive Behaviour Therapy technique addressing social anxiety: asking for feedback. It continues the series about Social Anxiety Disorders that started with The Zone of Normality and the fear of standing out .
Asking people for feedback – Cognitive Restructuring strategy
Asking people for their feedback is a key CBT strategy. The purpose is to reality check negative assumptions about what others may think, and hopefully prove the negatively biased assumptions wrong.
I like this strategy, because it can provide valuable information that helps me to understand the world better. It also thrills my relentless inner researcher. Real life feedback helps me to update my inner social map, which makes social navigation much easier. So I actually often do ask people about their feelings and opinions (maybe even occasionally too much). The problem with it is that, very often, most likely, people don’t give honest feedback.
It is impossible to know when people lie and when they don’t, so the feedback isn’t really reliable information. But here is why I think it is a good idea to ask people for feedback anyway, even if they lie: because asking isn’t just to collect information; asking is in itself a statement.
In the best case, people respond with genuine positive or negative feedback, whatever is relevant. Positive feedback feels good and strengthens my self confidence. Negative feedback enables me to make necessary behavioural adjustments.
In the worst case, people lie and withhold negative feedback (they probably never withhold positive feedback). However, I’ll still be better off than if I had not said anything, because my request for feedback communicates that I:
- have feelings
- care about others’ feelings
- acknowledge that I may have done things other disapproves of, and am willing to listen and potentially change
That does, I think, tend to soften people’s attitudes and make them more likely to give direct feedback in the future rather than, say, vicious gossip behind one’s back. And it is a compliment of sorts, because it shows people that their opinion is valued; it shows respect. Win-win.
The phone phobia I used to struggle with was fuelled by a variety of factors, and one of the big psychological ones was negative assumptions about how others’ perceived my voice. Asked to put words on my assumptions, I said that I thought people perceived my voice as insecure, weak, depressed, and unprofessional on the phone (not far from the truth, I think).
I was tasked with asking people for feedback about my voice to test my assumptions. Did people think I sounded weak, depressed et.c? but I didn’t know who to ask. Asking at work would be inappropriate. It was suggested I could ask random ‘strangers’ in my community, e.g. in shops, and that they wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t think that was appropriate either. So I put it on hold for a while, while I contemplated how to carry out the strategy in a way that suited me better.
Singing in Church – Exposure ‘strategy’
While I ruminated about how to get on with the task, the pastor of our Church asked me to read up a Sunday’s Bible text in Church. That is common practice, but I hadn’t been asked before and found it daunting to have to confront all the eyes of the audience. So I practised reading it up at home and pretty much over-scribbled the short text with intonation marks.
The Church audience is small and familiar and reading up barely took a few minutes. It isn’t a big deal, but I was shaken anyway – spooked by all the eyes and the unfamiliar angle (usually I saw peoples’ necks and backs, not their faces). However, before I was finished I had started to enjoy letting my voice roam the big, acoustically pleasant Church room through the microphone and remembered that I didn’t use to be voice-shy… I used to enjoy playing theatre and never minded reading out loud. The anxiety-barrier started to crumble and seem like a thin paper wall rather than a major obstacle.
Then the pastor invited me to join the Worship Team as a singer, and I began singing in the team for the Church audience on Sundays + practice. I quickly became comfortable with it and got nice feedback too. I decided that it counted as the feedback strategy, although it wasn’t exactly one of the suggested strategies.
I have tried singing in a band before, in a different context, where it didn’t worked out well at all. I can see now that noise overload, perceived performance pressure and social anxiety combined to make singing difficult back then.
In Church, it was different. The Church room is acoustically pleasant, the volumes of the instruments are kept at a decent level, there is no electric guitar*, people are familiar and the performance pressure is low.
Church music isn’t about impressing anyone, in principle. Self-promotion is in principle just a delusion. Christianity is all about giving up the emphasis on how people see me, how people judge me. Free the mind from people politics to put it to better use.
I may sound cheesy, but it is true… Take away the self-focus, and the social anxiety evaporates. With no need to impress people and no emphasis on their judgement, there is no basis for social anxiety. That is the logical essence of it, although I know it isn’t that simple for most people (Christian or not).
And it is very rewarding to play (or sing) music. While band practice is inherently noisy** and unpredictable, often overloading… especially when individual spontaneous mini-practice-sessions and tuning of instruments evolve into hellish cacophonies and the crew is fickle and casual… and I’m often shell-shocked for a day or two after practice and performance… it is also fulfilling and empowering. I love music, and love that my body can create it, shape it; provide it.
And as a side effect, I got rid of those negative assumptions about my voice and replaced them with positive voice confidence that empowers me in many ways, including on the phone.
*Electric guitarists are notoriously hyper-active volume-maniacs
**Even though I always wear at least one ear plug (in the ear towards the band) when I sing to reduce noise and hear my own voice louder, so I can focus on what I’m doing and avoid too much overload. I can recommend that solution.
Illustrations from OpenClipart.org with Thanks!