“So What” ing Social Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder can be defined as anxiety in social situations due to fear of evaluation (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Essentially, this leaves an individual with social anxiety with two options: 1) Avoid social interactions all together; 2) Do so with anxiety and then engage in hours of what is referred to as post-event reprocessing. Post-event reprocessing entails revisiting social interactions and events mentally after they have taken place and critically evaluating your performance (Leigh & Clark, 2018). Ruminative thoughts about social errors may consume hours or even days after a social encounter for someone struggling with social anxiety disorder (Leigh & Clark, 2018). In addition, because social approval is never certain, uncertainty can fuel further rumination (Leigh & Clark, 2018). For instance, you may start to ask “did I really say that or did it come out incorrectly?” which further fuels uncertainty and an endless spiral of anxiety. Furthermore, because social anxiety tends to create internal focus (what should I say next, are they looking at me?, etc.), it can be very difficult to objectively evaluate social performance and therefore the cycle of post-event rumination can persist for extended periods of time, without factual data that one performed well (Leigh & Clark, 2018). It makes a lot of sense that many of my socially anxious patients come to me exhausted and disinterested in engaging socially with the world, as this process can be incredibly exhausting both during social encounters and after they are over.
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for social anxiety disorder, we will help you learn many strategies for combating social anxiety, including how to challenge your thoughts before, during, and after social events and how to “sit with” the anxiety during and after interactions. When “sitting with” anxiety, you learn that anxiety does not last forever and that what you are afraid of may not be as frightening or catastrophic as it feels.
Here, I will describe a “sit with it” tool I have entitled “so what” ing your social anxiety. Applying this tool involves starting to accept social mistakes. Many of my patients will ask the following types of questions after a stressful social encounter:
The “so what” approach involves saying to yourself, “so what if I sounded incompetent in that one conversation? What happens then? Hmm. I guess nothing.” We evaluate others based on data patterns. One slightly ignorant comment or error typically does not completely change our perspective on someone. If it does, the other person should likely engage in some cognitive therapy so that they can stop thinking so extremely and inaccurately about the world and other people. One data point does not create a line. Similarly, one error does not completely alter our social image.
We can say, “so what, I made a mistake,” and move on. Alternatively, we can ruminate for days about the one part of a conversation we could have engaged in better and change absolutely nothing about the past or the way it may impact our social image. Typically, “so what” ing honest mistakes is more helpful and less exhausting.
If “so what” leads to more catastrophic thinking, we can keep “so what” ing until we get to a resolution. For instance, “so what if I sounded incompetent in that conversation with my boss?” may lead to “what if I get fired?” We can “so what” the next thought too. “If I get fired, I will collect unemployment until I can find a new job. Would that be miserable? Of course. Would I survive it? Yes.” This technique is sometimes referred to as decatastrophizing (Zinbarg et al., 2006).
If we can start to “so what” social fears, it becomes possible to recognize that we all make social mistakes and most of them are not at all catastrophic. Generally, we are all doing our best to make a good impressions but no one will do so perfectly. Social errors are a part of our social existence. “So what” the social errors so that you can start to “sit with” your reality: You are a human being, an imperfect social creature like the rest of us.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Hope, D. A., Heimberg, R. G., & Turk, C. L. (2019). Managing Social Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach: Therapist Guide (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Leigh, E., & Clark, D. M. (2018). Understanding social anxiety disorder in adolescents and improving treatment outcomes: Applying the cognitive model of Clark and Wells (1995). Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 21(1), 388-414. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-018-0258-5
Zinbarg, R. E., Craske, M. G., & Barlow, D. H. (2006). Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry: Therapist Guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.