I was recently working with a lovely young woman who had Social Anxiety. Here is how the story goes…(she gave me permission to share this and she is also representative of many other people I have worked with in similar situations).
We will call her Lily (not her real name). Lily was an introvert, born to a family of extroverts. Even as a young child, she often preferred curling up to read a good book instead of going to play outside. Her family didn’t understand this, and they would constantly be cajoling her to “get your nose out of that book and go play with the kids outside“. Lily would reluctantly go outside, but she didn’t really want to play with anyone else, she wanted to be by herself. As we have talked about before, as humans we have a great BS detector, so when she made half-hearted attempts to connect with other kids, they weren’t really interested.
Then her parents and siblings would get even more distressed and ask why she can’t just make friends like her siblings. They would frequently talk about how she was “anti-social” and socially awkward. This became her single story (See Link). Her parents talked about this often, in front of her, and in front of her siblings, grand-parents, teachers and peers, so they would all tell her the same story back. Understandably, Lily believed this story and she would tell it herself.
Then, because she believed she was socially awkward and was going to be rejected, she acted in a way that made the story true, like a self fulfilling prophecy. We unconsciously do this because we are automatically drawn to people and situations that validate our world view, regardless of whether it is helpful or harmful. If we didn’t match our behaviours to our beliefs, it would shake our understanding of how we think the world works and who we are in it, as well as how we can get our needs met (survival maps). That causes so much distress that we unconsciously detect and are drawn to people who will validate our world view instead. For anyone who has had this happen, had their survival map shaken, it feels like the world is falling apart. We feel constantly unsafe and like there is nothing to hold onto. People often describe it as “the rug being pulled out from under us”.
In short, Lily was repeatedly drawn to people who were more likely to reject her and with whom she didn’t fit in. Not surprisingly, a lot of them were extroverts like her family. This is what she knew about how the world worked.
Over time, Lily developed Social Anxiety and became increasingly socially isolated and distressed, since so much of being able to function in life requires that we are able to interact with others.
When we started therapy, Lily discovered that she actually liked being with people, as long as it was on her terms. She became “awkward” when she was being forced to be around people and didn’t really want to. We were able to find many examples of how she was actually quite adept socially when we looked, and she was able to see that her FILTER of her single story about being socially awkward was making her NOTICE and INVEST EMOTIONALLY in the times she was socially awkward or rejected, and IGNORE and DISMISS the times she wasn’t. She decided to start a “Social Butterfly Journal”, where she actively jotted down positive social interactions at the end of the day, whether it was a pleasant chat with the person in line at Tim’s or a meaningful conversation with a family member. This helped her start to consciously change her filter as she would now actively LOOK for evidence that she was socially capable. This became easier and easier as she practiced and it morphed into “The Worlds Greatest Social Butterfly” Journal (she found that anchoring to it was helpful).
Then she had to tackle the big one, she didn’t actually have any tribe who were like her in meaningful ways, in the ways that she identified, which was as an introvert (See What we all need for more information). This meant that pretty much every interaction with her tribe (who were extroverts) left her feeling like there was something wrong with her. She didn’t share the same views, interests or activities as her tribe and this made her feel crazy and defective!
The first time Lily made friends with another introvert, she described it as “a relief, a breath of fresh air. It was amazing to be with someone who actually GOT me”. This translates into feeling she was SEEN, HEARD and like she MATTERED. We actually have a physiologic reaction when this happens. It almost automatically induces a relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system) which is what is responsible for healing, repair and maintenance functions in the body.
This is why having a social support system we feel connected to has been shown time and again to CHANGE MORTALITY OUTCOMES in cancer patients and improve QUALITY OF LIFE MEASURES and LOWER PAIN in people with autoimmune disease or chronic pain disorders.
Now I am happy to report, she goes with her new tribe of one or two people to the library and intermittently out for coffee. Lily no longer feels socially inept. She recognizes that she DOES BELONG SOMEWHERE, IT JUST WASN’T WHERE SHE STARTED.
Lily continues to spend time with her family and former friends, but she feels comfortable setting boundaries on how and when they spend time together. She gets to share the best of her with them instead of feeling forced and not really being present anyway. She also has a clear understanding and acceptance that it is ok for her to be different from her family (part of her tribe) tribe, as long as she has one or two OTHER tribe members (her friends) who are like her in ways that matter to her.
So, the moral of the story is that we have to find our own tribe, and for many of us, that may not be the tribe we were born to. The COST of not doing this can be VERY HIGH, it predisposes us to MENTAL and PHYSICAL ILLNESS. It is truly LIFE CHANGING when we find our tribe.
If you are a parent and there is significant temperamental difference between yourself and your child, TALK ABOUT IT, MAKE IT OK FOR THEM TO BE DIFFERENT and HELP THEM FIND THEIR TRIBE.
Even if you are not a parent, take a look around you. Have you found your tribe?
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See you next week!