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Opinion: CBT and improv helped me to conquer my social anxiety (people-terror)

‘I’ve failed job interviews, turned down opportunities and ruined relationships because of anxiety’, writes Stephen Buggy.

Stephen Buggy

2018 WAS THE year that I got control of my social anxiety and I got into improv.

The two events were related. 

Social anxiety is too clinical a phrase – it sounds like a rash you get a cream for but what social anxiety really is – is people-terror.

It’s the feeling that you’re about to be found out, but not knowing your crime; that you’re always under exam; of exhaustion from preparing to fight an enemy that never arrives.

I’ve failed job interviews, turned down opportunities and ruined relationships because of anxiety.

But, while knowing that I shouldn’t allow anxiety to control my life and despite having the support of loving family and friends, and the kind of stability that should have given me all the confidence in the world, I couldn’t stop doing it on my own.

Getting better

My path to getting better began in late 2017.

After a new job failed to make me happy, I decided to go to therapy for the first time. I ended up doing CBT. 

CBT stands for Cut the Bullshit Therapy, otherwise known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

You speak to someone who is open and attentive and at first just listens to you, sort of like a good friend (except this person is being paid by the hour and so you don’t feel guilty about it) but then asks you to cut the bullshit and challenges you to notice and change your behaviour.

Some of it is unpleasant – spending an hour thinking about the things you’ve built your personality around avoiding is just as horrible as it sounds. But, as I began to apply her strategies and saw the improvements in my life, I began to look forward to every session.

If someone reading this suffers from anxiety, I encourage you to try CBT. I can’t promise that it will work for you. It takes a long time and often isn’t fun but I can say that it worked for me. It changed my life.

Out of my comfort zone

CBT gave me the confidence to get out of my comfort zone. I took a short improv course at the Crescent Arts Centre and in February 2018 I decided to take Paul Mone’s class at the Belfast Accidental Theatre.

In the very first improv class, he laid out some basic rules: Everything that happens on stage is a gift and so you should accept whatever is on the stage, he said. 

These are antithetical to an anxious person, whose default is to look at a situation and think about how it can go wrong. If it has already gone wrong, to think how it could become a catastrophe.

Another golden rule of improv is to trust yourself - which is something I found very difficult. I have a long memory of every mistake I have ever made and amnesia about my strengths.

In some ways, anxiety is the fear of making mistakes; in improv, mistakes are not only inevitable but frequent and even beneficial.

Poor social focus

One of the problems with social anxiety, with looking at what you are doing wrong, with constantly reviewing your performance in social situations, and questioning every decision you make, is that you are always focusing on yourself and you don’t pay enough attention to other people.

Your attempt, to be as good as you can be at being social, backfires.

You are at a party and you are so worried about picking up someone’s name that you fail to listen to their story. You’re so intent on listening to their story that you forget to respond to it with an anecdote of your own.

You try to focus on what someone is saying, but all you can hear is the voice in your head giving your actions a one-star review. You drop eye contact so that you can pay attention to your thoughts. You feel like a little social worm, gnawing at the canopies and reflexively tearing up the beer label, in order to take your mind away from the moment.

Consider, in contrast, the social butterfly who of course is at the same party.

The butterfly is wandering around flapping her graceful wings. Her proboscis is slurping up Kopparberg drinks (for the sugar) at an alarming rate. She has antennae that are brushing against the ceiling.

She isn’t perfect by any means, but she never considers how she looks to others, while she is floating around the room, pollinating conversation with anecdotes and careful listening.

The social butterfly can easily pay attention to the other guests because she isn’t distracting herself by reviewing her own performance.

Going on stage

Improv is about training yourself to cope with the unexpected, by being aware of what is happening and then reacting. Or, as the slogan goes, “Yes, and ….”

I finished that first term of classes with a show in front of an audience of strangers.
Before the show, I got terrible nausea. I started to fill with gas and to burp rapidly. My heart rate exploded. I was sure I was about to throw up.

Once I got on stage, I felt fine.

Since then, I’ve done maybe a dozen shows or more. I’ve never had the same pre-show nerves.

I find myself less nervous in improv because there is so much else to pay attention to:

What is my partner doing? How do I respond to what she has just said? How does this fit into the rest of the scene?

And I realised, just as good improv is always about collaborating with your partner, good socialising isn’t about you being interesting so much as it is about everyone involved attending to each other.

So now, in real life, I try to apply the techniques of improv.

Recently, my sister got married and I was not looking forward to the after-party: a whole day of being social with strangers, of doing the work of being friendly. But it went much better than I thought possible. Whenever I got lost in a conversation, I didn’t look inward and attack myself – I knew that was a distraction.

Instead, I re-focused on what the other person was saying. It was a tiring day, but I enjoyed it. I wasn’t the social butterfly at the party, but neither was I the worm.

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About the author:

Stephen Buggy

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