Written in January 2016 by Erica Rice
Three months ago, I started a 12-week program by a company called Joyable to conquer pretty severe social anxiety that has negatively affected my life in some way or another since my childhood.
Here’s how I described my background with social anxiety at the beginning of the program, at a time when it was most crippling for me and only getting worse:
Because of social anxiety:
- It takes me an hour to get comfortable in a new setting. If it takes longer than that, I usually just leave, if I can.
- I am afraid to speak up and voice opinions, and have trouble even forming my thoughts in front of people. I’m better in writing or when I’ve had time to think about the topic while I’m alone.
- I get shaky when I speak in a meeting. No one has ever noticed though.
- I speak too quickly in meetings or giving demonstrations – I worry about people judging me – I worry about embarrassing myself.
- I left my last job because there were too many triggers for my anxiety. (Social and time-related.)
- I will duck into the bathroom or my cubical more quickly than normal if I see someone turn a corner walking my way, to avoid small talk.
- The thought of making someone I care about angry or disappointed with me is too much. I’m afraid of losing friends and family and being alone.
- If I embarrass myself or make someone upset with me I will dwell on it for hours and can’t stop thinking about it. The only thing that helps is writing in my journal.
- I have gotten nervous to the point of almost throwing up before an interview and did not get any sleep the night before.
- Sometimes I wish I could “turn my brain off”.
- I freeze up before I have to answer a phone call at work.
- I don’t like answering personal phone calls unless it’s my immediate family.
- People with “big personalities”, very opinionated people, and authority figures make me particularly nervous and I clam up around them.
- I find being one-on-one with someone more nerve-wracking than being in a group, because all of the attention is on me and I feel pressured to be awesome.
- I tend to blend in when I really want to stand out and be unique.
My goals would be:
- To more openly express my thoughts and ideas at work. I am a designer, so this is really important – they want my professional and creative opinion and I struggle to give it.
- To be able to go to events, not knowing anyone, and make some friends.
- To be able to call up my friends more often or invite them to hang out.
- To stop worrying what people think of me ALL THE TIME.
- To pursue activities without fear of making mistakes, giving up, or not being the best.
That first list captures my behaviors and reactions with social anxiety, but it doesn’t describe the way social anxiety made me feel and the negative thoughts that constantly ran through my head:
“You’re going to say something stupid.
You aren’t good enough.
You aren’t smart enough.
You look dumb.
That’s not the right thing to do, or is it?
Why is this so hard for you?
Why can’t I just not care, like everyone else?”
It was isolating. I came to a point where I was not interested in anything and I lost who I was. I had no passions, no outlet for creativity or self-expression. I was afraid to form opinions because being WRONG was unacceptable. Also, I was a people-pleaser. I felt that if I never disagree with anyone, they would like me better. I lost pretty much all self-confidence when I was in social situations, even though while I was alone I thought I was a pretty cool chick on the inside. I just didn’t know how to let that shine on the outside. There was a two year (or so) period of time where I conformed to the environment at my job, which I felt was “too professional” for my tastes, and I was being pushed down a career path I didn’t want to take because I had so much trouble standing up for myself.
The funny thing is, most people never knew I struggled with this. Sure, they might have thought I was quiet, but when we did talk, even in an interview, or a presentation I was giving (i.e. really nerve-wracking situations!), I was great at faking confidence!
Focusing on Recovery
Before I started Joyable, I had already spent a year making good strides. I had had enough of living a dull life, with the same daily routine day in and day out – uninspired and feeling meek and totally out of place at my job. I started journaling again, which helped me take what I was feeling and put it into words so I understood myself better and what I wanted in life. I started opening up at work about one of my more recent (and somewhat unusual) hobbies, hula hooping, and I began hosting a hula hoop Meetup group at a local park. I also took a 30-day hoop coaching class online, and even booked myself for Hoop Convergence, a 5-day retreat in North Carolina.
This is A LOT for someone with social anxiety, but I have always been very goal-oriented and able to push through my social anxiety to achieve goals. I feel very lucky that my anxiety was not severe enough to stop me from doing these things, but it did often stop me from enjoying them as much as I could.
Shortly thereafter, I found a new job I was very excited about. Actually, it found me through an IT recruiting company. I had a HUGE amount of anxiety during the interview process (this is where I almost puked before the interview because of a terrible pain I get in my stomach when I have an anxiety attack), but I managed to land the job! I thought that since the work environment here (particularly dress code, the way people seemed more open with each other) was more fitting for me, I wouldn’t have to worry about my social anxiety so much, but I was wrong. I still had trouble starting casual conversations with co-workers and I would duck into the bathroom or cubicle quickly, whenever possible, to avoid small talk. I was being asked during meetings for my opinion on design enhancements, and struggling to form my thoughts while someone was sitting right in front of me. I knew I wanted to be great at this job, and I wanted great relationships with my co-workers. So, I started Joyable after seeing an ad on Facebook and pondering over it for a few weeks.
Joyable’s CBT Program
At the beginning of the Joyable program, I was paired with my coach, Karoliina, who called to chat about how my anxiety affects me. Then, I spent a couple of days completing exercises online that helped me better understand social anxiety and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Some of my key takeaways were:
- Everyone has social anxiety to some extent, it’s normal and won’t completely go away but should not keep you from doing things you want to do
- Social anxiety manifests itself in different ways for each person. Some people are very uncomfortable with one-on-one interactions with a friend, while others fear large groups instead. One person may have trouble talking to strangers, while another really struggles with speaking to authority figures.
- Your fear is caused by negative automatic thoughts, or “thinking errors” you have (such as, “I’m going to screw up.”) when particular social situations occur, or are going to occur.
- Those negative thoughts can be challenged to come up with a more positive view of the situation, and this helps bring your anxiety down a bit
- Those negative thoughts are based on CORE BELIEFS about yourself such as “I’m not a likable person”
- When you identify and challenge those core beliefs, that’s a HUGE step to overcoming your social anxiety!
- Exposure therapy (the “behavioral” part of CBT) helps with social anxiety and requires preparation before the exposure, doing the exposure and sticking with it until your anxiety drops, then debriefing (stating what you learned from the situation)
I created a Fear Hierarchy which ranked all of my goals (such as sitting in a coffee shop alone, attending a board game Meetup, calling to order lunch, speaking up in a meeting at work, or calling up an old friend just to chat) from 1-10 based on how SCARY they were. The rest of the program was spent doing exercises to identify the thinking errors I commonly make, challenging my negative thoughts by coming up with positive alternatives, and completing lots and lots of exposures from my fear hierarchy.
The Coaching Experience
My coach scheduled a phone call with me for every two weeks, but she responded via email to EVERY assignment that I completed throughout the course, including exposures. We conversed through email and text messages a lot and she would reassure me that I was doing a great job countering my negative thoughts and was very brave for facing my fears. She built me up, encouraged me, and let me know she was there if I had questions about what I should do or say, or if I just needed a different perspective because my own expectations of myself or the situation were holding me back. There was a time near the very end of the program that I was overwhelmed to the point of tears in the midst of an exposure and she picked up the phone and walked me through the steps of challenging my negative thoughts and ultimately overcoming my fear. I never felt alone throughout the program since I could turn to Karoliina when things got tough, but she would always remind me that I was doing all the work and I should be very proud of myself!
As I worked my way through my fear hierarchy, I could feel my self-confidence building. I could see differences in how I conducted myself around my co-workers, around strangers, and around my friends and family. I realized I no longer felt so intimidated. These are some of the physical changes I recognized during the program:
- I started walking down the hallways of work a little taller rather than staring at the floor. I no longer avoided eye-contact with people I passed. I actually started saying “Hi” or “Good Morning” when I passed people. In doing this, I realized it actually made me feel better about myself because I didn’t have to worry about the person thinking I was being rude. Rather, they would think I’m friendly. Nothing wrong with that!
- I would start conversations with co-workers instead of waiting to be spoken to.
- I began to notice negative thoughts when they popped up and countering them with, “No, that’s not right.” and “You can do this.”
- I realized I was being more assertive in meetings and emails by offering my opinions, even if someone else might disagree and EVEN if it was an authority figure. This is HUGE for me, and one of my main goals when I started the program!
- When I was in a coffee shop completing a transaction, for example, my mind was not on what I was doing wrong or whether people were looking at me or if the cashier thought I was doing/saying something stupid. I could just focus on the transaction. How freeing!
- I started voicing opinions more on deeper topics such as politics and religion, and more trivial topics, in the company of close friends.
Completing those exposures taught me two really important things:
- My predictions about upcoming social situations were usually wrong. Everything including how I thought the situation would play out, how I thought I “should” act, how I would surely screw up, and all the critical things people would think of me – were all wrong. The situations rarely went the way I expected. Other people, especially people you already know, are less judgmental than you think.
- Even if the worst case scenario does occur (i.e., I am criticized, get embarrassed, or offend someone) I will be able to recover and/or deal with it. (Being more open and honest about how you’re feeling can help clear things up, oftentimes.)
Those two concepts may seem really simple, but as someone with social anxiety, you have to break past all kinds of negative thoughts and self-esteem issues to truly realize them for yourself. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me do that. I started Joyable in mid-October and graduated from the program on January 9th. It is hard to believe what a difference it has made in my life in such a short period of time! I had no idea it was possible, and I spent WAY LESS time and money than if I were seeing a therapist for 3 months.
As I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin, I started exploring my interests again. I started listening to music more and making playlists which I hadn’t done in years. I started studying happiness, motivation, and creativity so I could get more of those in my life. I did this through podcasts, self-improvement books, and reading blog posts. I was really branching out in the ways that new information entered my mind and my life and it felt SO good. I’m still doing this today!
I started decorating my cubicle at work, doing crafts and finding other ways to express myself without fear of judgment. I’m regularly attending a weekly board game meetup and making new friends. I’m still writing in my journal daily, and now, at the start of a new year, I’m setting measurable goals for myself and planning how I will achieve them. I’m better able to understand what I want in life, and actually believe I’m more than capable of achieving it!
Basically, I’m not ashamed of myself anymore. I’m less afraid of social situations. I realize that mistakes are possible and will sometimes happen, but they aren’t going to be THAT bad and I will quickly recover with the techniques I’ve learned. I feel…. FREE.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if this helped or motivated you in any way to get help for your social anxiety. I’d love to be a part of your amazing recovery and I’d be glad to answer any questions you have about my journey.
All the best,
P.S.: Here’s the link for Joyable: https://joyable.com/ I promise no one paid me to write this, I just wanted to share in case my story can help others to become the very best version of themselves and live life to the fullest!
Edit May 3, 2021: I still give Joyable’s coaching program roughly 78% of the credit for why I am where I am today (a happy and confident entrepreneur with actual people skills), though they’ve changed their service offerings over the last several years. They are now called AbleTo.
Meet the Author
Erica Rice is the owner of Erica Rice Digital Consulting, a website design and digital marketing company based in Hampton, Virginia. She specializes in helping small, service-based businesses improve and expand their online presence through unique and authentic branding and content marketing strategies.
Erica provides training on social media and online marketing best practices which, of course, are ever-evolving. Join Erica’s Facebook community, Tech Help for Healers and Helpers, to stay current on the latest trends.
Photo by: Cilla Tuckson Creative