Why It's Essential To Push Your Comfort Zone And Face Your Social Fears
This is one of the key articles on this site. Basically, if certain aspects of socializing make you nervous, you have to step outside of your comfort zone and get used to them. That's ultimately the only way to truly get comfortable with the things that cause anxiety for you. The same ideas apply to tackling non-social types of worries.
When it comes to more minor fears, just reading that may be enough to get you to start changing your behavior. For example, inviting people to hang out may make you mildly anxious, enough that if you live on autopilot and don't think about your actions you'll default to avoiding extending invitations to anyone. Once you're aware of what you need to do, it's simple enough to take a deep breath and go through with it.
For more intense fears you still need to face them, but you'll need to be more strategic about cultivating the nerve to do it. Willpower alone won't work. This article will explain the rationale behind getting used to your fears. Its companion piece lays out a step-by-step guide on how to actually do it.
In psychology coming into contact with your fears is called exposure. The process of facing your fears in an effective, systematic way is called Exposure Therapy. I'll start by describing the main principles behind it. However, applying these ideas is a little messier when it comes to social fears. I'll explain why later, but first I'll lay out the basic concepts.
When you're afraid of something your mind has formed an association between that thing and feelings of fear and danger. For example, a man might be afraid of cats because he was scratched by one as a toddler. Whenever he sees a cat his mind takes that as a signal to become tense and nervous.
Trying to purely think away a fear doesn't always work
When someone's afraid of something which most people consider fairly harmless and manageable, one of two things is going on: Sometimes they 100% know their fear is illogical, but they can't help but feel scared anyway. Alternatively, they may feel their fear is justified, because they have distorted beliefs that make it out to be much more threatening than it is. Identifying and disarming these unrealistic thoughts is an important part of reducing a fear's power. However, simply analyzing and debunking your thinking often isn't enough to complete the job. On occassion you can dissolve a fear just by putting it under a logical microscope, but usually they're more stubborn. Rationally challenging them either lowers their insensity only somewhat, or doesn't make a dent at all.
Why? For one, your mind will only give so much weight to your rational counterarguments. It responds much more strongly to real world evidence, and as far as it's concerned it has past experiences that show the fear is reasonable. You can feel at times like you've successfully logically disarmed a belief, but it will often return. Another problem is that when you have a fear, it can generate a nearly endless supply of worried thoughts. If you dismantle some of them, new ones will just take their place.
Improperly designed exposures just reinforce the fear
People who have phobias will often say, "But I've faced my fears tons of times. It hasn't helped." If someone faces their fear in a fleeting, haphazard way it just strengthens the association they've already made. For example, if the guy who's afraid of cats visits a friend's house and stumbles across their house cat in the kitchen, and then panics and leaves the room, he hasn't done anything to change his thinking. As far as his brain knows he was confronted with something scary and got the hell out of there, as he should have. Even if he forced himself to spend a few painfully anxious minutes with the cat before fleeing, it would still bolster the original belief; He feels bad around cats and better when he gets away.
Proper exposure revises the associations
For an exposure to be effective you have to be in the fear-inducing situation long or often enough that you experience firsthand that nothing bad will happen, so your anxiety dissipates. You need to create a new link in your mind, such as Cats = Nothing will go wrong.
Our example guy could hang out all afternoon in the apartment of a friend who has two cats. At first he'll be nervous, and if he bolted during that period he'd maintain his fear. However, after half an hour or so he'll likely be much calmer. After a few hours he may be totally relaxed and not even be thinking about the cats anymore. He could then move on to petting or playing with them. After half a dozen visits like this his fear may more or less be gone.
Let's say a scared cat hissed and swiped at him as a toddler, which really frightened him. His old Cats = Danger associaton is still kicking around his brain, but the newer one is more powerful and should affect how he responds to most cats going forward. Maybe if he comes across a really angry, aggressive cat his old fears will reemerge, but in those circumstances they would be reasonable.
Exposure can reduce your fears in two ways. The first I've already mentioned. The brain can automatically adjust old associations in light of new experiences. When people properly confront their fears they can also question their assumptions and revise their views on a more conscious level. For example, over a few weeks of being around his friend's animals the recovering cat phobic may think, "I always assumed cats were mean and temperamental, and since I avoided them I never saw anything to change my mind. But now I've watched my friend's more closely. One of them ignores strangers when they come over. The other is pretty affectionate, and gets downright weird and goofy when it wants to play. Either way, they're both harmless." Down the road he may even conclude, "I was play wrestling with my uncle's cat and it got a little carried away and nipped me. It didn't really hurt that much. I don't know what I was so scared of all those years."
Flooding and progressive desensitization
There are two preplanned ways to expose yourself to your fears. Flooding is when you face them at full force, all at once. An example would be to take someone who's afraid of elevators and have them ride in one in a skyscraper until they begin to relax, and then repeat the process as often as necessary. Technically this approach is effective, but it's also very nerve racking and most people aren't willing to sign up for it. It's also hard to do on your own. It's too tempting to bail out when your anxiety gets intense.
Progressive desensitization is when you face your fear in a controlled, manageable way. You start with what you can handle, get used to that, and then slowly work your way up to the aspects of your fear that truly scare you. Everything is structured to gradually and safely take you to your goal. This approach requires less raw willpower, which is a limited resource. If you start by facing more than you can handle you may be able to gut it out for a short period, but that angle of attack probably won't be sustainable.
As an example, someone may start by just standing around elevator doors, until it's much less anxiety provoking for them. Then they'd try getting on one, but exiting before it moves. After that they would try going up and down two floors in a three-story building. They may work up to taking a high speed elevator to the top of a skyscraper. The companion article I mentioned earlier covers this approach.
If a fear is maintained by unprocessed memories of upsetting events, even if you clear up that old baggage you may still need to do some exposure
One theory is that if someone goes through an emotionally difficult experience, and doesn't work through it soon after, a snapshot of the distressing feelings they had at the time gets preserved in their mind. Years later if they're in a similar situation their thinking can flip back to that old headspace. For example, whenever Example Guy is around cats, on one level he feels like a scared, helpless toddler all over again.
Going by this theory, logically telling himself cats are harmless doesn't do a ton in the moment because his adult mindset has been temporarily been taken over by a fearful kid mentality.
It also says facing his fears can still work, but it's an uphill battle while the old memories are still raw and emotionally charged. First, if the old feelings that get reactivated are really strong, he may have trouble doing any exposures to begin with. Second, even if he can do them the process is setting up a tug of war. It's creating new positive memories to compete with the old, scary ones. Ideally the New side will win and run the show, but the Old side is still there, and in some circumstances it may regain control.
Over time it's possible to work through and process these painful memories, so they lose their ability to set off as much fear in the present. Sometimes when you diffuse the memories fueling a fear it totally goes away. More often the fear is reduced, but you still need to face it in real life to really drive home that the situation is safe now.
Also, some things still feel scary even if they don't have old traumas attached to them. Say you never learned how to assert yourself. If you're thinking about confronting your toxic, vindictive boss there are legitimate, present-day reasons to feel nervous about that kind of conversation. If you have unresolved bad memories of failing to stand up to your bullying father, talking to your manager will feel extra-stressful, but it's not just about the past. Once more, you'd need to get some experience asserting yourself in real life before it feels more manageable.
Some fears will never completely go away, but can become much more manageable
It is possible to totally eliminate some fears. The guy who was irrationally scared of cats may come to love them. However, what's more likely is that someone will get to a point where they're still not crazy about their fear, but they're no longer completely paralyzed by it. For example, many people aren't keen on spiders, but they can still go into a cobwebby old shed to retrieve a lawnmower if they have to. It's the same for many social fears. There are situations that most people never become entirely comfortable with, like public speaking, job interviews, and approaching strangers they find attractive.
Facing your fears isn't as easy or as "clean" when it comes to social situations
So those are the textbook concepts. However, they tend to work best with certain kinds of fears. Take a fear of heights, specifically of standing on balconies:
- Balconies are an inanimate feature of a building. They're just there. They don't do anything.
- To face the fear you just have to stand on a high enough balcony. Once you're there you can stick around as long as you'd like.
- Someone who's afraid of balconies likely doesn't have particularly complicated thoughts toward them. They may think, "Balconies are scary. I don't like them. I feel like I may fall", but that's it.
- Someone may be a bit ashamed or inconvenienced by their fear of balconies, but it likely isn't central to their self-esteem.
- Unless someone wants to do construction on high-rise buildings, their fear of balconies isn't going to prevent them from being successful in life.
- It's pretty easy for most people to avoid balconies in their day to day lives. They don't have to face down their fear unless they want to.
- If someone were to gradually face their fear of balconies, it would be straightforward to design a way to do so: They could find some public balconies of various heights, then start with the lower ones, and work their way up.
With that kind of fear it's easy to have total control over the situation and face it on your own terms. Now take a fear of making casual conversation with people in your age group:
- People aren't inanimate objects. You have to interact with them. Each person is different. There's a level of unpredictability.
- To face your fear of talking to people you have to carry out the skill of making conversation. You're likely concerned about how well that conversation will go, and its ramifications down the line. It's not enough that you're simply in the presence of your fear.
- We often have complicated thoughts and beliefs about socializing and other people. Someone with social anxiety may have twenty separate worries going through their mind every time they chat to someone, which play a direct role in why they're so afraid.
- How people do in social situations is often central to their self-image and self-esteem.
- If your ability to navigate certain social situations is compromised, it can have a big impact on how successful and happy you are.
- Short of being a shut-in, it's very difficult to avoid conversations in your daily life. You can't expose yourself to your fear only under the circumstances that work for you. It's easy to accumulate a lot of unintended improper exposures that muddy your gains from the proper ones.
- It's harder to design a clean way to gradually face many social fears. The social situations you need to expose yourself to may not be available when you want them, or last long enough or go well enough for you to experience the necessary relaxation and sense that things are under control. There may not be a clear progression in steps, with there being unavoidable increases in difficulty from one to the next. Real life friends, classmates, and colleagues aren't robots that you can endlessly experiment with for your own purposes.
This is not to say facing your fears is a lost cause when it comes to socializing. The principles of gradual exposure are still useful. The process of applying them is just messier, and it helps to know that going in.
With the somewhat dry psychological theory out of the way, you likely want to move on to the next more practical article:
As key and helpful as exposing yourself to your fears can be, I don't want to give the false impression it works incredibly for everyone after three weeks. It's never that simple. This article goes over the range of results people can get from it:
Here's an article for when gradual exposure isn't an option: