Trouble With Confrontations

 

For those of us with a socially anxious temperament, it can be difficult to face even the most minor confrontation.  If you have difficulty managing confrontations, you may find this article helpful.  It explains some of the patterns that emerge for social anxiety sufferers when  dealing with a situation where you need to stand up for yourself. 

First of all, you should be aware that the experience of confrontational interactions is different for people with social anxiety.  It’s more intense.  We are born with a genetic predisposition that causes our brains to be highly tuned in to effect we are having on others.  We have a high degree of “mind sight,” which is the ability to be very tuned in to the way we appear in the mind of someone else.  As you have probably already realized, this mind sight ability can be a great asset in some situations, but it can become a funnel for fear when dealing with someone who is angry or upset with us. 

As a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people with social anxiety, I can tell you that dealing with confrontations is often very painful because of the increased sensitivity we have to other people’s disapproval or anger.  There is some research (in preliminary stages of the research process) that suggests that people with social phobia may have enlarged right-hemisphere amygdalas.  The Amygdala is the part of your brain that remembers things based on how much emotion is connected to a memory.  It’s primary function appears to be that it doesn’t let us forget situations that created fear or danger.  This is obviously a trait that creates a selective advantage for survival in the physical sense.  If you walk through a  certain thicket  in a forest and then almost die from a snake bite you receive there, the amygdala will make sure you never give the snake a second chance to kill you.  You could be in a different country, but if the humidity, temperature, landscape, or other aspects of your environment are similar to the place where you were bitten by the snake, your amygda will begin to activate the fight or flight fear reaction in your body.  Well guess what?  That same process appears to happen at the thought of going through a confrontation for some people who have social anxiety.  And because the right hemisphere of our brain is tuned into facial expression and emotions, having an enlarged amygdala in the right hemisphere very likely means that your brain is extra alert in its vigilant watch for signs of confrontation.  That’s why you get the sudden physical sensations of anxiety that cause you to feel that you will not be able to say what you have to say to stand up for yourself. 

Teaching the amygdala to label confrontations as benign (safe) is not easy, but it can be done.  That’s what the Social Anxiety Secrets system is all about.  You can download your copy by clicking on the blue book picture at the upper right side of this webpage.  In the mean time, there are a couple of things I would like you to do in order to get a head start.  The following technique is based on psychological research into the kinds of thoughts that trigger panic-like fear reactions for those of us who are highly tuned-in to social disapproval. 

·         Identify a  highly specific physical symptom that bothers you the most when facing a confrontation.

·         Identify the most fear-invoking thought that you tend to experience during these show-downs.

·         Now come up with a mental response to both the fearful thought and the fearful physical sensation.  Your thought does not need to be all-powerful and perfect, but it does need to get to the root of your fear, which in 90% of cases is the fear that you will fall apart or look ridiculous and pathetic because of your physical reactions to the confrontation.  In other words, the most fear-invoking thought is usually something about the most bothersome physical sensation, such as, “I’m not going to be able to speak because my heart races so fast and my voice starts shaking.  They’re going to laugh at me and trod all over me.”  Another version of this same line of thinking goes, “I’m going to blush or start stammering and they are going to treat me like some little kid who needs a scolding instead of getting what they deserve from me.”  Your mental response to these fears should support you like a good friend would if they were there.  Let me explain.

·          If the thought is, “They’ll treat me like a little kid,” then your good friend (if present) would say in a loud, clear voice, “Don’t you talk to her like she’s some little kid!  You need to stop and listen to what she is saying!”  The focus here is essentially to get the words out rather than allowing yourself or the other person to get sidetracked by your symptoms.  Since your best friend won’t be there to defend you in most circumstances, I want you to start rehearsing the kinds of statements your friend would make to assertively defend you.  This method is called “assertive defense of the self” by anxiety expert, Christine Padesky, Ph.D.  If you diligently practice with it before you go to confront someone, you will find that it guides your mind into a healthier state that gets the focus off of your feared breakdown, which tends to dramatically decrease your physical fear reactions to the confrontation.  As your confidence goes up in using this method, you will become even more secure and confident in facing confrontations. 

Be Courageous!

Dr. Todd Snyder