Social anxiety is rooted in the chronic fear of being negatively judged or insulted. If you’re suffering from the low self esteem that partners social phobia then criticism always seems spiteful and upsetting because it triggers your self punishing, painful thoughts. However, there shouldn’t be any reason for you to live in chronic fear of barbed comments if you can teach yourself how to respond objectively, and even be able to disarm insults like a master swordsman when they occur.
The isolation brought upon by social anxiety is normally partnered by depression and low self esteem. When you’re feeling rotten and worthless your thought patterns and emotions are shrouded in gloom by the black clouds that follow you around. This means that whenever anybody says anything degrading you’re likely to exaggerate its significance, take it to heart and incorrectly think it means you’re a worthless person.
How cognitive behavioural therapy can help
Thinking negatively and exaggerating the significance of the things people say is a thinking error brought upon by your depression, which prevents you from interpreting what people say in a realistic, objective manner.
Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches you how to identify the negative beliefs and thinking errors that make you get upset whenever you’re criticised. You can then learn to recognise unhelpful thinking errors when they occur and replace them with more positive, realistic thoughts.
This obviously sounds a lot easier said than done, and it can take many months to start changing the way you automatically think and feel. However, it has been clinically proven that it can be done, and CBT provides you with a goal orientated framework for overcoming your social anxiety a step at a time.
Once you’re able to assess the things people say more objectively you’ll then be able to apply a more logical approach to criticism and not take it so personally.
Learn how to interpret comments objectively
If there is an element of truth to someone’s comments then you should use it as an opportunity to learn about your mistakes and how you can correct your behaviour. You’re only human after all and will always make mistakes from time to time. And because you’re human you also constantly developing, so criticism can sometimes give you a few pointers to show you how to grow as a person.
On the other hand, if after assessing criticism objectively you think somebody is just being rude or insulting then their comments shouldn’t have the power to upset you. Why should you feel hurt or devalued because of somebody else’s mistake in judgement?
Remember that it’s not the things people say that can make you feel upset - it’s how you interpret them.
How to handle insults
InDr David D. Burns’ ‘Feeling Good’(a global bestseller which has shifted over three million copies) he teaches an ‘empathy and disarming’ technique for responding to insults without hurling them back or running home to hide under your bed covers.
Firstly, you have to emphasise with your attacker - objectively assess why they are attacking you. What is the basis for their barbed comments?
By listening and asking for clarification on why they are being insulting, you can calm them down by letting them know that you are listening and can prevent the situation escalating into full scale warfare.
Using empathy is an opportunity to understand if there is any basis to the insults, or if the attacker is just being offensive.
The next stage is to use the ‘disarming technique’ to defuse the situation without losing your temper or losing face. Simply find a way to agree with an aspect of what your attacker is saying, whether you believe it or not, and that way you can disarm their barbed thrusts with the skill of musketeer:
Attacker: ‘You’re a loser.”
You: “Well, I certainly make mistakes sometimes and I’m not the greatest sportsman. There’s certainly areas in which I could improve, but doesn’t everybody.”
Attacker: “You’re a skinny, stupid waster with nothing to offer anybody.”
You: “Yes I could certainly do with putting on some weight, I’m not going to be the world’s next Einstein and I could certainly apply myself better. But I have skills in other areas, just as everybody does, and I have lots to offer the people around me.”
By agreeing, if only partially, with their line of attack you simply take the air out of their sails and divert them from the collision course you’d be heading for if you were to fight fire with fire.
You feel the way that you think, so learn to change your negative thoughts
Being able to identify your positive attributes, rather than kick yourself over your weaknesses, is another skill taught by cognitive behavioural therapy, and is useful in being able to respond objectively to criticism and not take what people say to heart.
The key is to be able to react based on facts, rather than let disagreements deteriorate into name calling or a humiliating retreat.
With practice in learning how to respond in a more realistic, objective manner, you’ll find that the risk of criticism will no longer seem so terrifying, and your social anxiety will recede as a result.