What To Expect In Your First Counselling Session

What To Expect In Your First Counselling Session

I remember my first counselling session. I was pretty freaked out. I didn’t really want to be there. I didn’t know what to expect. I think that last part was what made the situation difficult – I’d never been before, I didn’t know anyone who had seen a counsellor before, so I was completely lost and anxious about it.

I saw a new client yesterday and this reminded me of my own first experience seeing a counsellor. This client had never been to counselling, had no idea what to expect, and I could see that there was definitely some anxiety about the whole situation.

While every counsellor will be different in their approach, I thought I’d write an article about what to expect and how to make your first session as successful as possible when you meet with your Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time.

Here at Alongside You, your first interaction will be with our front desk staff who will explain much of the administrative details that you’ll need to know, give you recommendations on which of our counsellors might be the best fit, and help to book your first session. After that, they will send you our online intake form to fill out prior to your appointment. This helps us take care of the necessary paperwork ahead of time, and also helps our counsellors get an idea of what you’re coming in for and some details before you arrive.

When you arrive, you’ll enter the waiting room to wait for your appointment. We have a self-serve waiting room, so please feel free to help yourself to water, coffee, or tea and take a seat. We want you to be as comfortable as possible! If you have any questions before your appointment and it’s during our reception hours, feel free to wander toward the back and speak with our office staff, they’ll be happy to speak to you.

Once your appointment time arrives, your counsellor will come greet you in the waiting room, and invariably, probably offer you another drink. Feel free to get a refill, they’re free! Now it’s time for the main event. Your first appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.

Each counsellor will have a bit of a different interview process to start out your work together, but remember, they need to get to know you and also, you need to get to know them for the relationship to work. The first appointment will be about building the relationship and getting to know each other.

Here are some areas that I usually ask clients about at our first session to get to know them and how I might be of help. Again, every counsellor will be different but a lot of these questions are fairly common to ask new clients.

 

Things A Counsellor Might Ask You At The First Appointment

 

Personal and Family History

I like to know what life was like growing up, and how clients got to where they are today. This can be a short or lengthy discussion. As a marriage and family therapist by training, I believe that our personal and family history have a strong influence on our development and I like to know how people came to be where they are now. I usually suggest that clients tell me their story – however, they want to tell it – in as much or a little detail as they feel comfortable.

 

Mental and Physical Health History

I like to know the history of a client’s mental and physical health. What has your health been like throughout their life? Do you deal with any chronic mental or physical health conditions? Does anyone else in your family deal with any of these conditions?

Another question I often ask is, “When is the last time you saw your family doctor? When is the last time you got a checkup and bloodwork done?” This may sound overly-medical for a counsellor to be asking, but it’s important. If you’re coming in because you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or otherwise, I want to make sure that there isn’t a physiological problem at the root of your symptoms. There are many physiological issues that have symptoms that can masquerade as psychological or psychiatric issues. If you are dehydrated, have a thyroid imbalance, your blood sugar is off, iron is low, etc., these can all cause symptoms that look like a mental health issue. The last thing I want for you is to treat something as psychological if there’s a physiological cause.

Now, these areas not mutually exclusive conditions either. You may have a physiological issue and also be struggling with a psychological issue. We want to cover all of our bases.

 

What Brought You To Counselling

This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s also an important one. We all struggle with various things in life, it’s the joy of being human. I want to know what it is that brought you in today, what are the challenges, how did they start, and my favourite question, “Why now?” What made you decide to come get some help now, particularly if this has been an ongoing thing for a while. This question is important because it clarifies what is the key issue that you are experiencing, and what your motivation level is, and what is specifically motivating you to get help now.

 

How To Measure Success

I often ask clients, “If this works, what will be different?” I want to know what your goals are and how they’ll gauge if counselling is a success. This both handles the goal setting, and how to find out if the counselling process working. My goals and metrics may not be what my client is going to use. I want to know what your gauge is. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own tools and metrics for the process (I do), but it gives us a common language to monitor the relationship and the process on an ongoing basis. It helps us answer the question I ask pretty regularly with clients, “How’s this going for you? Is this helpful?”

 

What Do I Need To Know About You For This To Work

We are all special little snowflakes. We have our idiosyncrasies, oddities, preferences, hot button issues, and more. I’m no different. I want to know what is going to help you in the process, help us build the relationship, and help you feel safe and supported while trying to avoid things that do the opposite. Some people need a very gentle approach, others need a straight shooter. Some are very wary of a particular gender because of past experiences, others aren’t. I want to know these things so I can be the best help I can be for you.

I remember my first appointment with my current counsellor about 7 years ago. As you might imagine, I can be picky about my counsellors, and I’m also pretty headstrong and assertive. I know what I need in a counsellor. So, I sat down in his office and said, “Here’s what you need to know about me if this is going to work. I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out on my crap. I need that, and I respond well to it. If you can do that we’ll get on famously, and if you can’t, no harm or foul, I’ll give you your money for today and be on my way.” I know myself and know that if I’m matched up with a counsellor who is softer and non-confrontational, I’ll be able to get away with things and manipulate the conversation easily and this won’t help me. I need accountability.

 

Things To Know About Counselling As A Client

 

As a Registered Clinical Counsellor, I want your experience to be as positive and helpful as possible and I know I can speak for the whole team here at Alongside You on this one. It’s important to know, however, that counselling is a team effort. Counsellors aren’t magicians with a magic wand that can fix all that ails you. The process works through the development of a safe therapeutic relationship and a joint effort to move forward. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start your counselling journey.

 

Your Counsellor Cannot Read Your Mind

Some of you who have been to counselling before may laugh at this, and I know that I’ve had clients who were relatively convinced I had this magical power based on some of my interactions with them. We have intuition, not mind-reading powers. What this means is, it takes two active participants in a counselling session to get to where we’re trying to go. If you’re not an active participant, the process is very difficult if not impossible.

 

Being Open and Honest Are Important

We know this is a big ask of you. It’s not easy to sit down with a stranger and talk about the difficult parts of life. The counselling process needs this, however. If we can’t be open with each other, we can’t work together and create a safe space to wrestle with life. It’s not all-or-nothing, however. It takes time, and you don’t have to be an open book from the first minute. Build the relationship, and share as you do so. We’re in this together.

 

Try To Know What It Is You Want From The Session

This is sometimes a difficult one. I know that I often struggle to know what I want out of a session with my counsellor, but part of that is because I have a standing appointment that I go to every month regardless of how I am feeling that day because that’s what works best for me. Some of the questions I’ve outlined above can also be used on an ongoing basis to figure out goals and focus points, but it’s always helpful when clients know what they want to focus on in the session. It helps keep the process on track.

 

Ask The Counsellor Questions

Sometimes clients are surprised when I turn the tables and ask them if they have questions for me! As I mentioned above, counselling is a two-person endeavour and process. If I need to get to know you, it only stands to reason that you should get to know me as well. Ask away! The fit between a counsellor and client is important and getting to know each other helps us figure out if we’re the right fit. I always encourage clients to ask whatever questions they want, with the caveat that I may choose to decline to answer questions of a personal nature if they go beyond what I choose to reveal to clients about myself or my personal life. Every counsellor is different in this area but feels free to ask. You may want to ask about experience, qualifications, approach, personality, or things like hobbies, etc. It’s up to you and your counsellor to navigate how best to get to know one another.

 

Give The Counsellor Feedback

I always tell my clients, and then remind them periodically, that I need their feedback. Going back to my inability to read minds, I need feedback to know if we’re on the right track, if I’m focusing on the right things, and if things are helpful. Sometimes clients are afraid to tell the counsellor if they feel the process isn’t going in the direction they want or isn’t working. I absolutely want to know these things. I’d rather find out that something is off than continue believing all is well only to find out after the fact that it wasn’t helpful. I also want to know what is working so we can do more of that!

 

Counselling Is A Journey

 

I know that going to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor for the first time can be anxiety-provoking. I promise it’s not as scary, and we’re not as weird as you might think. We’re just regular people too, who have some training and experience to help you through some of life’s challenges. If we keep some of the above in mind and are open with each other, we can find a path through the challenges and help you thrive!

Feel free to give us a call or send us an email through our contact form if you have any more questions. We’re happy to answer them! Have you been thinking about taking the first step in seeing a counsellor? There’s no time like the present – take the first step, that’s the hardest part. It gets easier from there.

Am I A Perfectionist?

Am I A Perfectionist?

I never thought that I was a perfectionist growing up. The state of my room at any given point in time seemed to be an indication of my lack of perfectionism. As I grew older, however, I started wondering about it. At the same time, I also didn’t really know what it was. So, I continued on and forgot about it.
 

Fast forward to the present day, and again I’m wondering about it. Anyone close to me knows that I’m pretty particular about things, and often have a specific idea of how things need to be. If you visit our office, you’re likely to see some of that in action. As I worked on my car this morning, I noticed it creeping in. My fun car, a 1997 BMW M3, is now 22 years old. It has squeaks and rattles. It’s well maintained, but even so, if I’m working on the engine and I notice a sound that doesn’t seem quite right, it’s incredibly easy for me to obsess about it, rather than accepting that it’s a 22-year-old car that is going to have some strange sounds at times.
 

It even creeps into work. Shocking, I know. When we first started, we set out to fill gaps in services, particularly in counselling in Delta. The reasonable person would know that we were flying by the seat of our pants many times, trying things that didn’t work, and revamping again. Truth be told, as we’ve expanded and branched out far beyond counselling, we’re still figuring it out as we go along. I think this is actually a good thing because we’re trying to figure out how to help people in new, creative, and needed ways. It just doesn’t sit well with my perfectionism most of the time, and as I’m writing this, I also think this has a lot to do with the anxiety I often feel around work.
 

My counsellor and I were talking about this last week, and he gave me a really helpful handout on perfectionism that he’d come across, which you can read here. Addressing the full topic of perfectionism would take far longer than this blog post, so I want to give you some bullet points that I’ve noticed in my own life with perfectionism, and also what has helped me – and I hope that it helps you!

 

Three Signs That You Might Be A Perfectionist

 

  1. You care deeply about everything, even things that really don’t matter much.

    Don’t get me wrong, caring is a good thing. Particularly as a counsellor, caring is important! Here’s the thing though – we need to care about things at an appropriate level. The difficult part is knowing what that appropriate level is, especially if you’re a perfectionist.

  2.  

  3. You have unrealistically high standards, in almost everything you do.

    High standards are a good thing. It’s something that I actually appreciate about myself, and usually, something people appreciate about me. The problem comes when our high standards become impossible One of my battles is that it is impossible for me to know about, account for, and control all of the details in a rapidly growing clinic. It was much easier when it was just me, Meg, and a couple others at the beginning. If it goes on for too long, it’s easy to get frustrated and just stop caring about anything, which doesn’t help either!

  4.  

  5. You have a difficult time with criticism.

    I don’t know anyone that likes criticism and coupled with the fact that most people suck at giving constructive criticism, it’s a difficult thing for many people to handle. It’s very difficult for perfectionists because it flies in the face of their standards, their view of themselves, and their views of their accomplishments. How do you feel when someone offers constructive criticism? Does your body respond in revolt? Do you immediately go to justification and finding ways to fight back?

 

These are only three of the many signs of perfectionism you may notice in yourself if you’re indeed a perfectionist. If you’re interested in getting a quick sense of whether this might be a thing for you, you can try this screening tool as a way of finding out if perfectionism should be on your radar.

So, what if you are indeed a perfectionist? What do you do? Here are three things that help me keep my perfectionism in check, and I hope they’re helpful for you!

 

Three Ways To Combat Your Perfectionism

 

  1. Question your level of care about things.

    If you are caring about everything very deeply, then there’s something goofy in your meter. This one can be difficult, especially for something high on the emotional spectrum. Caring deeply about fellow human beings is a wonderful attribute, although it too needs to be kept in check. Caring deeply about whether the Kleenex boxes match the wall colour, or the specific noise your car is making is exactly as it should be when everything is running fine, or other such things may be an indication that your level of care is off.

    One question I ask myself frequently is, “What is my level of care on this one, and is that reasonable?” I find this question to be especially helpful if my stress, or anxiety levels are high – because if they are, then that lovely limbic system is going to shut off our frontal lobes, which is the area of the brain that helps us determine reasonability.

  2.  

  3. Question your standards and expectations.

    Working hard is a good thing. Being disciplined is also a good thing. Having no boundaries on either of these is not. It was pointed out to me when I did my Birkman assessment during my certification training that I will never expect anyone else to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. I’ve found this to be very true. The problem is, I expect extremely high standards from myself, and thus, it’s easy for me to pass all of those onto others. My own standards are often impossible to meet.

    A question I use to keep myself in check on this one is, “If someone else were doing this, and it had nothing to do with me, would I think this standard was reasonable?” This integrates a little bit of the mindful self-compassion that Kristin Neff has developed and I find very helpful. We often expect things of ourselves that we would never expect from others. It also helps us give our brain a break, reduce anxiety, and increase the chance of having a reasonable perspective.

  4.  

  5. Have key people in your life whom you trust.

    This is perhaps the most important of these three. I cannot overstate the value of key people who know you well, care about you, and are able to speak truth into your life, even when it’s hard. The trust part is key, because you’re going to have to trust that they’re doing it for your benefit, and it’s not because you’ve failed.

    I’m fortunate to have a number of key people like this in my life who keep me in check. First and foremost is my wife, Meg. She knows me better than anyone else in the world, loves me despite my inadequacies, and also isn’t afraid to speak the truth to me when I need to hear it. I know that when she calls me out, she’s doing it for my own good, and I need that.

    I also have my Registered Clinical Counsellor that I have a standing appointment with each month. I’ve been seeing the same counsellor since 2014, and I still remember our first appointment. I sat down and said to him, “Here’s how this works. I have impossible standards, I care deeply, and I don’t always have perspective. I need someone who isn’t afraid to call me out when I need it. If that isn’t you, that’s ok and I’ll thank you for your time. If it is, awesome, and we’ll get on famously.” He said he had no problem with that, and true to his word, he’s still supporting me, pushing me, and calling me out when I need it 5 years later.

 

Perfectionism can be a difficult thing to manage. It’s part personality, part anxiety, and wholly exhausting at times. I’ve been dealing with it for many years, but through some of the strategies above, and thanks in great part to some key people in my life, I have learned to manage it well, most of the time.

I know that my counsellor has played a key role in my ability to manage this part of myself. If you’re struggling with perfectionism and would like some help, we’re here. We’ve all got our stuff, and sometimes that outside perspective can be really helpful.

 

Why Counsellors See Counsellors

Why Counsellors See Counsellors

I was speaking with a friend on the phone a few weeks ago. She was curious about what I do as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and what happens in a session.  As we continued to talk, I mentioned that I was going to see a counsellor myself. She gasped and said: “You have issues too?” I chuckled and said, “Yes, we all have issues, even counsellors.”

 

I mentioned to a few colleagues that I was going to see a counsellor and they encouraged me to write about my experience as a way to share with others and ultimately normalize going to seek professional help. As a counsellor myself, it is so important to understand the perspective of what it is like to be a client. This post will try and shed some light on my experience as a counsellor, and being a client.

 

I have been thinking about seeing a counsellor for a while now: over a year. However, it always seemed like it was never the right time. I was too busy, juggling different jobs, other commitments, financial constraints: all these things seemed to vie for my attention and appeared to be good reasons to once again push down counselling on the list of “things to do.” May I offer my perspective for a moment? There are always going to be things that seem more important and seem like they must take priority, yet, my mental health and overall well being should also be a priority. It is my deepest desire to be the best counsellor that I can be, to show up and be the right support for each of my clients. Therefore, I need to make myself a priority. I need to make the time to work on areas of my life that will ultimately help me in my career helping others. I struggle with the idea that this sounds selfish, but as the old airplane analogy goes, I need to put on my oxygen mask first before I help others with their masks.

 

So, I put on my mask, so to speak, and made my first appointment. I left a message. I was brief and gave my contact information. Julie (this is not her real name) called me back promptly and we set up a time to meet in 2 weeks time. I had done it. I was proud of this first initial step. I filled out the intake form, sharing contact information and reasons for counselling. It was personal. I was reminded of the initial vulnerability that all clients must experience as they complete the forms; from a counselling perspective, it is crucial for liability and legality sake, yet there is also a piece that asks the client to try to put into words the areas they want to work on. In my experience, this process allowed me to think about the areas that I wanted to concentrate on and helped organize some of my thoughts a bit more.

 

Seemingly small, making that first phone call was the first step towards reaching out and asking for help, acknowledging the importance of having someone to listen to my story. As I tell all my clients on our first meeting, coming for counselling is brave. It is trusting a stranger with pieces of your story and there I was asking for a stranger to listen to mine. The tables have been turned, or perhaps another way, this time I get to sit on the couch instead of the armchair.

 

The day arrived. I saw some clients of my own. As the day progressed, I continued to check in with myself and see how I was feeling. My stomach felt a bit “off.” I named this feeling and voiced that I was nervous. This seemed like a natural reaction to me as I was preparing to meet with Julie.  I left myself enough leeway in my schedule to arrive on time, as I tend to be late and did not want to arrive flustered.

 

Disclaimer: It is May, and I still have my snow tires on my car. Again, this is something that is on the “to do list,” not really a priority, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, there is a misconception about counsellors that they have it all together and have reached new levels of perfection. May I say, this is not the case. At. All. I share this with you, because as I sat in my car waiting to go into the office, I saw Julie getting out of her car, and to my delight, she too had her snow tires on. At that moment, I felt a sense of connection and validation that counsellors are people too, people that care deeply, they are human just like everyone else and perhaps have left car maintenance slide a bit as well.

 

I got myself comfortable on the couch, Julie has a few couches in her office, and so she chose the couch opposite to where I was sitting.  She went over the limits to confidentiality and said that although I was a counsellor myself, she would treat me like any other client. I appreciated that.  She mentioned that as she asked me questions if there was anything that I did not want to answer, then that was fine; in addition, if there was something that I wanted to talk about more in-depth for another session, I was free to do that as well.

 

Julie explained the importance of finding the right fit with a counsellor. This is so important. Just like in life, you are not going to click with everyone. Sometimes I like finding a counsellor to that of eating ice cream. There are many flavours and while some folks might enjoy more daring flavours of Bubblegum, Tiger or Moose Tracks, others enjoy the classic Vanilla, Neapolitan and Chocolate Chip Mint. It is a preference, and like ice cream, finding the right fit is crucial in a relationship with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.

 

My first session was basically me providing background. I gave a brief summary of what my childhood was like and highlighted some major events that have happened throughout my life. My counsellor listened intently, she provided encouraging nods and asked questions when more insight or clarification was needed. Her approach was gentle and genuine. As I shared about a situation that is particularly meaningful to me, I started to cry. I am not saying that crying in mandatory in counselling sessions, but as I share with my clients, “tears are welcome,” while ensuring a box of tissues is close by. When I cried, my counsellor sat with me. She shared the space. She acknowledged this was important to me and therefore she took the time to understand it more from my perspective. This was a beautiful gift for me to receive from her. It validated my experience and allowed me to know that she understood the importance for me.

 

At the end of the session, I felt like I was in a bit of a fog. Sometimes I have referred to this with my own clients as a “vulnerability hangover.” It is the sense of having shared meaningful information with someone and trusting them enough to hold the information. Did I share too much? Not enough? My life cannot be condensed to 50 minutes. Nor can the lives of the clients that I see.  Counselling takes time to unpack, learn and discover. As I tell my clients, after my own session, I took some time to breathe and think and be calm. I booked another session to see Julie again in 2 weeks.

 

In summary, the session went well. I felt safe, heard and validated. For me, this is a sign of a positive therapeutic rapport. Moving forward, I anticipate more tears, more questions, more wrestling with the reasons why I do the things I do; but I know that what I learn and discover as a client will help me tremendously as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. My second session with Julie is in a few days. I am excited to see her again and see where the conversation takes us. And I must say, I still have my snow tires on my car. Perhaps I will have them taken off before my third counselling session, and maybe Julie will too?

 

If you have been thinking about going to counselling, can I give you that little nudge and say to do it? Find a Registered Clinical Counsellor who is a good fit for you. Can I be so bold as to suggest looking at Alongside You to find a one? Like ice cream, we have some daring counsellors as well as classics and everything in between. There is no shame to ask for help. There are counsellors who want to help. Put on your oxygen mask. Be Brave. Contact Us.

Why Is Therapy So Exhausting?

Why Is Therapy So Exhausting?

It’s finally happening, we have decided to seek out counselling. We go in for our first appointment and talk about what’s been going for us, why we’ve decided to start counselling and answer any questions we might be asked. Eventually, our 50 minutes is up, we leave, and we’re feeling…terrible? Well wait, isn’t counselling supposed to make us feel better? If therapy is supposed to be helpful then why are we leaving our therapist’s office feeling exhausted, vulnerable, and exposed?

This strange contradiction sometimes referred to as a therapy hangover, is a completely normal feeling after counselling. After opening up to our counsellors or processing difficult emotions, we may feel drained, heavy, or not feeling like our regular selves. We often hear that it needs to get worse before it gets better, but no one really explains why that’s the case.

Imagine having a toothache that gets more painful every day and makes it almost impossible to eat and sleep. Eventually, the toothache gets to the point where it can’t be ignored any longer. You go to the dentist who then decides that the tooth needs to come out and therefore, you must go through an uncomfortable procedure of getting the tooth pulled. Upon leaving, the freezing eventually wears off, and there are some pain and a little discomfort but it gets better over the next week. However, the discomfort of healing is easier to cope with than the original pain. Think of the problem as the toothache that won’t go away, it gets worse until we can’t take it anymore and decide to seek help. Then, therapy as the uncomfortable procedure we go through to work through our issue and the difficult emotions that come after sessions as being the pain and discomfort that comes after our procedure.

In sessions, we are being asked to explore our problems in a much deeper and open way and not using any defence mechanisms (such as avoiding, distraction, denial, etc.) that may have been used to protect ourselves prior to seeing a counsellor. We are being asked to express intense feelings and to sit in discomfort which is emotionally draining and sometimes scary.1 This goes against our instinct which is to avoid negative emotions and memories, but in counselling, we are facing these feelings head-on. We’re asked to do this so that we can fully explore our problem which eventually helps us to find insight, a solution, or peace.2 We are going to be uncomfortable sometimes, however, this discomfort is a positive sign that counselling is progressing.1 Counselling is hard work, so it’s understandable that all we want to do after our session is veg out in front of the tv or take a nap.

If we’re feeling like this after our appointments, we need to take care of ourselves by being kind to ourselves and engaging in self-care. Ultimately, only we know what is best for us but some common self-care methods are:

  • Resting
  • Reflecting and journaling about your sessions
  • Going for a walk
  • Treating yourself with indulgence or guilty pleasure
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Talking to your counsellor

Letting your counsellor know about the ‘hangovers’ can be beneficial. It is helpful for our counsellors to know how we’re feeling after sessions, that way they can provide us with more strategies and options to handle our feelings of exhaustion and vulnerability and to prepare us for what to expect before leaving our session.

If you’re feeling anything like what we’ve talked about today, take heart!  Counselling can be hard, and even exhausting but you’re doing the good work of doing the work. Let your counsellor know how you’re doing, and press on! Feel free to contact us if you feel like to reach out!

 

References

  1. (2016, March 17). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/psychotherapy/about/pac-20384616
  1. Shouldn’t psychotherapy make me feel good? (2008, July). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/in-therapy/200807/shouldn-t-psychotherapy-make-me-feel-good
How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

In my previous blog post, I talked a bit about what social anxiety is and the many strengths that people prone to social anxiety often show. I recommend reading that post first, but as a little re-cap, people who develop social anxiety are often highly compassionate, conscientious and creative. They tend to feel deeply which can either lead to anxiety or an ability to creatively explore their world with curiosity. What often stands in the way of the ability to creatively explore their world is an intense fear that they are not good enough. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, I’d like to offer some strategies to move past that fear while maintaining your many strengths!

 

How to Hold on to the Good Traits of Social Anxiety and Work Towards Growth

 

Get out of your own head and turn your attention outward

When we feel socially anxious, we tend to turn inward and start monitoring ourselves. Thoughts like “why did I just say that,” or “what if I just offended her,” circle around and around in our heads and take up all of our mental energy so we often then freeze and can’t think of anything to say.

 

When you notice this happening, turn your attention outward. Focus on who you’re talking to and listen closely to what they’re saying. This takes our focus away from what we think we’ve done wrong and frees up our mental capacity to be able to engage in the conversation with natural curiosity. Studies show that doing this dramatically increases a person’s likability, and also combats our fears.

 

Expose yourself to social situations and allow confidence to catch up with you

Don’t wait until you feel ready to give that toast or attend that party! Usually, when we start doing something, our mood follows – you’re more adaptable than you think. If it doesn’t go well the first time, keep practicing. If you persevere, the skill and confidence will catch up with you.

 

This allows you to refute the two lies your anxiety is telling you:

  1. The worst-case scenario will definitely happen
  2. You can’t handle what life throws at you

When we face social fears, we learn that we can live through it and it’s never as bad as we think.

 

tip: sign up for an introductory improv class. In improv, there is no script and you’re put in a situation where you’re forced to make mistakes in front of others. Sounds terrifying right? I thought so too so I tried it at the height of my social anxiety and it ended up being surprisingly safe. At first, it was embarrassing but then I realized everyone was being embarrassed too. Improv helps us to develop the skills to navigate unstructured social situations that cause anxiety in the real world.

 

If you drink at a social engagement, do it because you want to, not because you have to

A lot of people drink to make themselves feel more confident in social engagements; after all, it is called “liquid courage.” The problem is that if you do have a good time while drinking, the tendency is to give the alcohol the credit, not you. In reality, that person who was having a good time navigating an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation was you without inhibition. You have that confidence within yourself and you can access it with practice; in facing your fears, you don’t need the alcohol.

 

Dare to Be Average (Dr. David Burns)

A lot of anxiety comes from our belief that we need to be perfect in social situations. We believe that if we stumble over our words or pause in a conversation, people will see our flaws and reject us. There’s a whole list of “musts” that come with that belief:

“I must be entertaining”

“I must sound smart”

“I must carry the conversation for both of us”

Everyone pauses in conversations, loses their train of thought and says something awkward from time to time; it makes us human and it’s endearing. Dr. David Burns encourages us to “dare to be average.” He reminds us that people are attracted to people who own their averageness because most of us are average. It’s relatable, it’s honest and it’s human. As Dr. Kristin Neff says, “we’re all on this long, awkward journey together.” If you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment, a million other people have had that same embarrassing moment – you’re not alone.

 

Create a structure for yourself in social engagements

Simon Thompson and Ronald M. Rapee (2002) found that in structured social interactions, people with social anxiety showed a much higher level of social skill than in unstructured social engagements. Dealing with the unpredictable creates anxiety for many people so next time you’re in an anxiety-provoking social setting, create a structure for yourself. Dr. Hendricks suggests giving yourself little missions at parties such as taking to 3 people you don’t know and finding out as much as you can about them. This creates some predictability and some direction in the social interaction.

 

Dr. Hendrickson’s Tips for Making New friendships

a) Repetition – Show up!

It takes an average of 6 hangouts for someone to consider a person a friend. Many people with social anxiety become discouraged when they work up the courage to go to a social engagement and don’t come away with a new friend. But in reality, this almost never happens for anyone. The way to make new friends is to keep showing up and to see the same people over and over again. Some options might be joining a fitness class with consistent members, dropping the kids off at school and saying hello to the same parents each day or going to a café at the same time each day.

b) Self-disclosure

Many people with social anxiety have trouble talking about themselves for a variety of reasons that may feel really valid after past hurts. Dr. Hendrickson urges us to push through and to gradually share a bit about what you think, feel and do with a person you want to be friends with. Friendships are reciprocal, so gradually the other person will begin to share about themselves as well. People are generally interested in what the world looks like from another’s point of view.

c) Just be kind

Many people think they need to appear confident and competent in order to make friends. In reality, people are drawn to warmth, kindness and trustworthiness. You don’t have to appear confident, just be nice and curious.

 

Practice self-compassion

Shame feeds social anxiety, but if you can think about yourself in the same way you’d think about another person you care about, it will help you to forgive yourself when you make a social blunder that feels so painful and isolating. Dr. Kristin Neff has an amazing website full of free exercises to help build self-compassion. My favourite is the self-compassion break which is a guided mindfulness exercise that takes only 5 minutes.

Find the exercises here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises

 

Counselling

Social anxiety can be completely unbearable and painful and so it can be hard to take any of the above steps on your own. A counsellor can help work with you, at a pace that feels safe for you, to remove the blocks of shame and fear that are inhibiting you from living the life you want to live. If you’re struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counsellor who can help you with this. You’re too important to deprive the world of getting to know you!

 

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

Neff, K. (2018). Self Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 · 

What is Social Anxiety?

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is an intense fear about one or more social situations. It can be generalized to all social situations, or it can be activated in specific situations, such as having a conversation, meeting new people, being observed while eating, drinking, walking, etc., or performing in front of others, such as giving a speech or speaking in front of a class. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is the third largest mental health care condition in the world today. So, if you’re dealing with social anxiety and feeling alone, statistics show that you’re not; at least 7% of the population is right there with you!

 

Dr. David Moscovitch, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Waterloo, discovered that social anxiety is more than just a fear of being embarrassed. Rather, it’s an urge to cover up a perceived flaw. People with social anxiety believe that something is fatally wrong with them that makes them socially undesirable, and they fear that this perceived flaw will be seen by others. Finally, they believe that when this flaw is discovered by others, they’ll be humiliated and rejected.

 

Here’s an example of a situation that someone with social anxiety might find themselves in, and their thought process:

 

Joe is an average guy, but he believes he’s really boring and that if people found out how boring he is, they won’t like him. One day while Joe was talking to his friend Martin there is a long pause in the conversation. Now, long pauses in conversation with people we’re comfortable with are pretty normal! In this case, however, Joe perceives the long pause as an awkward silence, and believes that the awkward silence confirms his worst suspicions that he is boring and at fault for the awkwardness. His brain became flooded with thoughts about how Martin must be noticing and judging Joe as a boring person, who he’d rather not be friends with. Joe’s mind is filled with even more anxiety, and he can’t think of what to say to Martin. It’s so overwhelming that he can’t bear the idea of being placed in this situation again where he might be judged as boring, so he proceeds to avoid social interactions as much as possible. In reality, Martin didn’t think Joe was boring, and he wasn’t judging him, he was lost in his own train of thought and didn’t think much of the “awkward” silence at all.

 

This is why Dr. Moscovitch stresses that Joe’s fatal flaw only exists in Joe’s mind. He perceives himself to be boring, and so finds information in the conversation to confirm that his perception is true. People with social anxiety are extra sensitive to social blunders, to the point where they often believe they’re the only ones who make them. The truth is that social blunders are part of what makes us human. Everyone is boring some of the time, we all trip over our words and we all have awkward moments. As Dr. Ellen Hendrickson states in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, “nothing is wrong with you, it’s just the blemishes of being a person.”

 

While it’s normal for everyone to feel socially self-conscious from time to time, “social anxiety is like self-consciousness on steroids”, as Dr. Hendrickson says – it’s a big and heavy feeling, and often very tricky to work around. Because of this, people who have social anxiety are often quite distressed and unable to function as fully in their lives as they’d like. When self-consciousness reaches this level of social anxiety, most people benefit from getting help with regulating it.

 

How Does Social Anxiety Work?

 

Social anxiety works in a cycle of fear and avoidance. People begin to avoid the social interactions that make them feel anxious because the anxiety they feel is so painful and unbearable. They understandably want to protect themselves from the trauma of feeling rejected or inadequate. Unfortunately, avoiding social situations only makes things worse because when we’re not interacting with our source of fear, the fear increases and becomes much scarier. On top of that, when we avoid certain social situations we’re also unable to practice the social skills necessary to get through them and the associated anxieties. When we feel we don’t have the necessary skills for something, we continue to avoid it and the cycle of fear and avoidance continues.

 

Are There Good Things About Social Anxiety?

 

Many people with social anxiety believe there’s something wrong with them and want to change their personality altogether. They often believe that the opposite of social anxiety is confidence. In her book, Dr. Ellen Hendrickson points out that people with social anxiety tend to have a lot of desirable traits. They’re so anxious because they desperately want to connect, and so are sensitive to the needs of others to such an extreme that it becomes a fault. In fact, psychopathy; not confidence, is the opposite of social anxiety.

 

People with social anxiety tend to be very conscientious, compassionate and caring, open to new experiences and agreeable. They have all the traits that would make a person socially desirable, they merely are inhibited by fear and an excess of shame. It’s, therefore, best to work through social anxiety by removing the fear and developing confidence on top of the amazing characteristics that are already there! It’s a process of learning to be yourself without fear. Dr. Hendrickson points out that your true self is the self you are without fear. Think about the person you are when you’re most comfortable, maybe when you’re with a pet or with a person you trust or doing an activity you enjoy. That’s who your real self is, and that person is lovable and worthy of connection.

 

How Can We Move Past Fear and Shame and Live the Life We Want?

 

My next blog post will detail eight strategies for working through social anxiety. In the meantime, I recommend picking up Dr. Ellen Hendrickson’s book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. It is also a great idea to talk to a counsellor and see how you can work together to come up with a plan to work towards quieting that inner critic. For any question, feel free to contact us.

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

 

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

 

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

 

Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

 

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

 

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 ·