Social Anxiety Help
Larry Cohen, LICSW
44-year-old single, female nurse
“My life is different now.
I feel like I can be who I always was inside.”
I am a headstrong, sassy, attractive, loving woman. The thing is, I had trouble showing that to the world.
When I was in kindergarten, the teacher said I was intellectually advanced for my age, but recommended holding me back for shyness. I went through my school years compensating for my perceived lack of good looks and fear of engaging others by getting straight A’s in school and being “a smart kid.” Even in college, that supposed playground of social development, I remember dreading changing classes and ducking my head going through the common areas of campus where other students “hung out.” I also chronically avoided mirrors anywhere, even though I had a body like a model and bright blue eyes. I can recall college parties standing excruciatingly along a wall, hoping for someone to talk to, but not knowing what to say if I had someone.
After college, I went to Africa to work as a teacher. African culture really brought me out of myself and I became a pseudo-celebrity in my village. I loved it, couldn’t get enough, and spent day to night with other people chatting in a language that was not my native tongue. I stayed for 4 years instead of my commitment of 1 year. The problem was, I was afraid to go home and face my own culture, which I felt had shunned me. Somehow I could express myself in a foreign language, just not my own.
I experienced a very tough readjustment to the U.S., and once again, lost faith in myself. I eventually went to nursing school, and excelled. I got my Masters’ and began working. I then met a very outgoing but abusive partner. We stayed together for 10 years. I liked him because he was very assertive and could small talk with anyone for hours. I hid behind him at parties and cooked great meals for others when they came to our place.
At some point, I realized that I had given up marriage and children through my 30s to stay with this outgoing, handsome, but angry man, who was not going to commit to me. I broke up with him and had a “come to Jesus” with myself. I heard something about a social anxiety therapy group on public radio, and realized (finally!) that this was a huge part of my problem. I almost couldn’t believe people were actually going to ADMIT they had the problem.
I went to the orientation for group, which was packed (the first shock to me). The people were in rows of folding chairs and all the way up the stairs in Larry’s house. They were normal looking and many were attractive! Only 10 of us eventually signed up, because it sounded like a lot of work.
Larry, my therapist, was strict, and I quickly realized I needed to make a commitment to working on this lifelong problem. I was then 40 years old. We had to make goals for ourselves and choose “in group experiments” to do, which involved things like speaking in front of the 8 other members. Just the sound of that made my heart beat fast. We had to be on time and were together 3 hours on a weeknight. He kept us busy the whole time. We had homework. We began to realize that our thoughts and actions were related. We did “homework experiments” that we each chose for ourselves, as well. It was like we were researchers in a lab, thoroughly studying our own condition.
My homework experiments entailed things I never thought I could do. I went to a bar and started talking to men with the goal of getting 3 rejections. I got 2, and many more smiles and winks. Myself and another group member hung “Bud Light” buttons around our necks and acted like hippies, playing guitar and shaking maracas outside a Metro stop, all while reading poetry as loud as possible. At rush hour. A man from Europe actually asked if he could join in!!!
I chose to have my in-group experiments videoed and sent to me via email. I was terrified to watch the first one and it sat in my inbox a few weeks before I watched it. Till this day, I watch them proudly. I hadn’t realized I didn’t look or sound silly at all. Most of my fears were truly paper dragons. I began to see, really, I was kind of, well, PRETTY.
My ultimate goal for group was to give the toast that I “chickened out of” at my sister’s wedding. I prepped it and was ready to give it to my 8 group mates. I started speaking, and began thinking how stupid my words were. I said I couldn’t do it in front of the group, and left the room. Larry found me in the dining room and showed me that, if I backed out that day, I would be forming a track in my brain to back out of other things. After a few minutes, shaking like I was, I went back into the small porch in Larry’s house and gave the toast, start to finish, to my 8 group members. Larry videotaped it and I gave my sister and her husband the DVD for their first anniversary. They cried when they watched it. It was good.
I also learned how to do cognitive restructuring worksheets. This is a technique I have used over and over again to confront social anxiety, bad moods, or decision making. I have some of the cheat sheets on my phone *just in case.*
My life is different now. I enjoy parties, and talk even if I am turning red (I can feel it). I see how opening my mouth, no matter how silly it feels, bonds me to others. I see chit chat with others as an opportunity, and sometimes I tell myself it’s an experiment. I gave a speech last year at work in front of about 50 expectant mothers. I still struggle sometimes, but family and others have noticed how much I have changed. I feel like I can be who I always was inside.
I finally decided to try and become a mother on my own, and, when I went to my first support group for single moms, I took charge and gathered everyone’s emails. I organized a group of 9 women that has been together for 2 years now. We are like sisters. I never would have had these women in my life – these positive forces who look to me as an equal and someone “easy to talk to,” if I had not done the social anxiety group.
I am not yet a mother, but do feel more confident that I can advocate for a child just as I have advocated for myself in so many ways because of the techniques I learned.
And, more than once, I have had the urge to play maracas outside the Metro, just for kicks! I will always feel indebted to Larry for making this social anxiety group available. It synthesized all the knowledge out there about how to work with this disorder and made it
More Personal Change Stories