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Social Aversion Therapy

Posted Oct 03 2008 11:31am 1 Comment

In my practice I often see clients with what I refer to as a "social aversion." This isn't a DSM-IV diagnosis and isn't even necessarily a disorder. Rather it is a general sense of unease being with other, usually unfamiliar people due to feelings of inferiority or a sense of "being judged." Clients who struggle with this are afraid they will do or say something stupid and everyone will ridicule them. I will sometimes refer to these thoughts and feelings as Reverse Narcissism. In other words, the person believes he is the center of attention, the object of everyone's eye, but never in a positive way.

To help clients tackle this problem I encourage them to ask a few questions:

1) Is it factually accurate that people are focused on me?
2) If so, do they truly care all that much about what I'm saying or doing?
3) If they do care, for how long? In other words, will they remember something I've said or done, something foolish perhaps, in a few hours? How about a few days or weeks?
4) If these people who I'm not even all that close with do ultimately care so much about what I say or do, who the hell cares?

Ideally most clients come to recognize that, for the most part, people aren't hyper-focused on them, that people are more focused on their own lives. And if a client does make a faux pas, rarely do people care for more than a short while. In other words, clients are discouraged from " catastrophizing" what is ultimately not a big deal.

To help emphasize this point I'll have them draw upon their past. When clients have trouble generating examples from their own life in which they were embarrassed and nothing came of it, I ask them to think about seeing another person make a social gaffe. "Did you judge that person as inferior or think about the person's actions for more than a short while?" To further drive this point home I'll sometimes share with them a story from my own past. I don't consider myself a mental giant in every area of life but this was one day that I brought my psychological "A Game":

Years ago I drove out to Philadelphia for a friend's wedding. I stayed in a hotel the night before and woke up late because I forgot to request a call from the front desk. Not a great way to start off the day. I put on my suit, which I hadn't worn in about 3 years, only to realize that it was completely out of fashion (pleats were probably never popular). More importantly, however, the suit was much too big. Even the shoes were larger than before. This could have meant only one of two things:

1) Someone stole my suit and replaced it with another, larger one
2) I'm shrinking

Will anyone notice how stupid I look in this giant, out-dated clown suit? Probably, but I doubt this will consume anyone's mental energy during the wedding.

I waddled like a penguin out to the car, only to have the car alarm refuse to engage, which forced me to open the door manually. This set off the alarm. Of course, the car wouldn't start due to the technology, so I had to frantically press the button over and over until it finally worked.

Did anyone see me? A few people took a glance over at me pressing the button four million times but didn't seem all that interested. People's car alarms go off all the time.

I drove to the wedding, got lost, and arrived late.

Opening the door on the small church elicited a very high-pitched creaking sound, causing everyone to turn around and stare at me, including the bride, groom and priest whom were standing at the alter.

Okay, everyone is looking at me. Are they judging me? Maybe they think it's rude of me to show up late, but it wasn't my fault. Actually it is, but it's not like I'm ruining this special day. Maybe my comical appearance will ease any tension!

I remembered my Catholic upbringing and dipped my hand into a small bowl at the back of the church and sat down. When the wedding photographer came over and started drinking from that same bowl I realized that I had blessed myself with her drinking water.

That was definitely poor form. If someone saw that they'd probably think, "who is the idiot in the gigantic suit sticking his fingers in everyone's water?" People will probably have a laugh at my expense over this. I can deal with that.

After the ceremony and a slight trip over some concrete (due to my giant pant legs) on the way to the parking lot I got into my Toyota to drive to the reception. The newlyweds were in a very good financial situation and apparently so was everyone else there because the cheapest car there was a BMW.

I must look unbelievably stupid in my oversized Glad Bag and pretty dirty, albeit economical and sensible car. I wonder if they think I'm beneath them. I'll probably never know for sure, but even if they do, who cares? I'm a good person who just dresses poorly and doesn't visit a car wash all that often.

At the reception I proceeded to engage in more acts of social idiocy: I referred to the groom's sister as his mother. I commented how great the chicken being served tasted (it was quail), then proceeded to ask for a second helping. I drank one glass of wine too many, causing my Rosacea to flair up, making my red skin even more pronounced against my jet black suit. Looking like a beet, I told the bride that "she could do better" and ultimately decided to simply remain in my chair for the remaining two hours of the party.

By the time the night ended I had sobered up and was able to reflect more intensely on the day's events and others' possible perceptions of me. I did many stupid things that day and the reality is that I never knew, nor ever will know, if people were focused on me. I also won't know if they truly cared. If they did I'd have to guess that they didn't spend all that much time thinking about me, especially as there were more important people to attend to that day. Could they have had a few good stories to tell their friends because of me? Perhaps. Did they think they were better than me because I had less money or acted stupidly? Maybe. But the ultimate question, the most important point, is "who cares?" If I refuse to care about what they think of my ill-advised wardrobe, lack of knowledge of Catholic/Photographic etiquette, inexpensive car and ignorance of fowl, then I'm a much happier person. If I don't care what they think I can't be upset.

See? If you think like that you can act like a complete jackass all the time without any concerns of social condemnation...just like me!

Comments (1)
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"In my practice I often see clients with what I refer to as a "social aversion." This isn't a  DSM-IV diagnosis and isn't even necessarily a disorder."    

What you describe is Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or as it was once referred to as "Social Phobia". Yet you don't mention - even once - this disorder, which is PRECISELY what you're describing. 

I'm puzzled. Do you care to explain what I'm probably missing here? Thank you. 

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