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Book Review: How to Be Yourself

Book cover: How to Be Yourself by Ellen Hendriksen

How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety by psychologist Ellen Hendriksen offers cognitive behavioural therapy-based strategies to help readers overcome social anxiety. The author herself has experienced social anxiety, and I always like when authors are willing to be vulnerable and add that personal touch.

The book is aimed both at people who are shy and those who have what the author refers to as capital-S Social Anxiety, i.e. social anxiety disorder. The author describes the core issue of social anxiety this way: “Social anxiety isn’t just fear of judgment; it’s fear the judgers are right. We think there is something wrong with us, and we avoid in order to conceal it. In our minds, if The Reveal comes to pass we’ll be rejected, humiliated, or exposed.”

The author explores the difference between personality traits and social anxiety. People with social anxiety aren’t necessarily introverted, but a trait called behavioural inhibition (the tendency to withdraw from unfamiliar people, situations, and environments) is linked with social anxiety. In terms of what’s going on in the brain, she explains that it takes longer for socially anxious people’s prefrontal cortex (the most advanced part of the brain) to shut off the alarms that the amygdala is setting off compared to non-socially anxious people. CBT can help to narrow this gap.

The book describes two key strategies for dealing with the inner critic: Replace and Embrace. Replace is the defense lawyer in the courtroom, asking the Inner Critic for specifics rather than vague generalizations, overestimations, and catastrophizing. Embrace, on the other hand, involves creating a supportive environment for yourself with self-compassion.

Exposure is another topic that’s covered, and the book has some great creative ideas for things to try challenging yourself with. There were a couple of bits I quite liked:

“There’s a myth that you have to feel confident to be ready. In truth, you gain confidence by doing things before you’re ready, while you’re still scared.”

“True bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway.”

The author explains that when exposures aren’t working, it’s often because safety behaviours are getting in the way. These behaviours can inadvertently send the message that you’re aloof or snobby. Dropping these can help because, “Once all the bandwidth used for rehearsing sentences or managing their appearance was freed up, authentic friendliness—the good stuff—naturally filled in the gaps.”

While social anxiety can make you feel like your social skills suck, there’s a chapter devoted to explaining why you’re wrong about that. The author points out the good qualities people with social anxiety tend to have, and she frames anxiety as something that makes it hard for you to access social skills that you actually already have.

I liked the author’s friendly writing style and her sense of humour. I thought this bit was fun: “A good therapist is like a good bra: they’ll both push you and support you into the best shape possible.” I’m guessing she’s a fellow Gen-Xer, because there was a reference to Replace working in a courtroom that had a guy who looked like Bull from Night Court.

While the book is based on CBT, it’s not in that annoying class of CBT books that say you should do A, B, and C because they always work and that’s all there is to it. This book is down-to-earth and realistic, with a good helping of personal experience thrown in. It has more of a friend talking with you feel than an expert talking at you feel. I thought it was very well done.

Thanks to Talus More for recommending this book!

How to Be Yourself is available on Amazon (affiliate link). The author has free social anxiety printables available on her website, EllenHenderson.com.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

34 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Be Yourself”

  1. I’m intrigued by the book, but my experience with CBT for social anxiety as well as for depression has not been great. CBT has a low success rate for people on the spectrum. I want to get autism-adjusted CBT for my social anxiety, but who knows how long that will take on the NHS?

    My question about CBT for social anxiety, which I haven’t really seen answered or even posed anywhere, is what if people really would reject you if they knew you better? What if you really are doing things that are considered socially unacceptable in your sub-culture? I feel this in particular in the frum world, but also in other places too, that some of my actions or beliefs would be socially unacceptable if people knew about them. It’s why I hide so much of my life, even on my blog.

    1. Regarding being unacceptable, I think CBT would probably consider a few things:

      -How balanced is the thought? There probably are some people who will find what you think/do to be unacceptable, but are you overestimating the probability?

      -Have you tested the belief? If it’s something that you’re expecting, then you’re already carrying that burden around with you. Testing it at least clears up some of the hypotheticals so you can make decisions based on what’s actually happening rather than what might happen.

      -Is the behaviour associated with the belief serving you? Even if it is true that some people will reject you as being socially unacceptable; is hiding much of your life an acceptable price to pay to reduce the odds of that? To use a simpler example, traffic accidents are common, and you can greatly reduce the risk of being hit by a car by never leaving your house, but the pros of living your life without being housebound likely offset the risk of stepping outside.

      1. Regarding my current, Haredi shul:

        1) It’s very hard to tell how balanced some of the thoughts are. It can be hard to tell what people really believe, as opposed to what the rabbi tells them to believe, and I often find it hard to gauge what things are acceptable anyway. The previous rabbi of my shul was a surprisingly erudite person in many ways, but he was also a creationist who always the referred to the Enlightenment as “the ironically-named Enlightenment.” I’m not a creationist and I have a more positive view of the Enlightenment. Did other people in the community agree with me or with him? It is very hard to tell. Which brings me to

        2) it’s hard to test without knowing what the consequences would be of being right (that people would disagree). Would they reject me? Throw me out of the community? I don’t know. I never had the guts to risk it.

        3) Before E and I started dating again, I guess the price seemed worth it. I hoped people at shul would set me up with a “nice frum girl.” Over time, it became clear that I probably wouldn’t connect well with someone that my shul considered appropriately frum, if there even were any women my age still unmarried, and that no one had any intention of setting me up anyway (my paranoia said they had already sussed me out as an social and ideological deviant and were trying to keep me on the fringes of the community and especially away from single frum women). It still seemed worth staying, as I preferred praying there to any of the alternatives. But now I’m leaving to marry E, I find it more tiresome, particularly as the shul building works mean I’m not around the community anyway and find it harder to connect with them any more.

        The Modern Orthodox community should be more welcoming, but I’m still scared to test things. Evolution and secular studies would be OK there, but I find it hard to tell what level of cultural involvement is permitted.

        But I struggle even outside the frum community. I’m wary of showing off any breadth of knowledge to most people because I was bullied so much for it as a child. I can say I haven’t tested it with adults, but (a) I kind of did, because adults didn’t like me showing knowledge either when I was a child and (b) it’s hard to do the tests having failed them once, even if I might get different results now. And I don’t dare talk politics anywhere, in my experience most people I know have different thoughts and, as I don’t care that much about politics, it’s safer not to say anything than to out myself as different and see what response I get.

        I could probably safely talk more about Doctor Who, given that it’s more popular now than when I grew up, but being bullied for liking it as a child has scarred me for life and stops me mentioning it to anyone now. I guess I like it being “mine” too.

        (Of course, if my novel gets finished and published, it’s going to be boundary-pushing in a big way even in the Modern Orthodox world, and I’m not really happy about that.)

        1. I can definitely see how bullying would have a major impact.

          It seems like it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to ever feel accepted anywhere while keeping a lot of things actively hidden, as any apparent signs of acceptance could easily be dismissed as contingent on continuing to hide the things that feel unacceptable.

          1. That is pretty much how it has actually been for the past thirty or so years, except with a few trusted people e.g. E. I would like to challenge it, but the risk of losing the few friends and connections I do have always seems too great.

            Would you mind if I reposted this exchange on my blog, please?

  2. Oh my, can I relate to the statement that I don’t really fear judgement, I fear that the judgers are right. Then again, as an autistic person, I probably don’t fall into the category of already having social skills.

  3. Another great book review, Ashley! I’m still laughing about the therapist/bra analogy. Hopefully it’s easier to find a good therapist than to find a good bra!

  4. I read this book last year and absolutely loved it. The author was interviewed on a podcast I listen to (Your Social Anxiety Bestie), which is why I got the book. I like Ellen Hendrikson.

  5. Thanks for the shout out. I totally agree with your last sentence; I listened to the audiobook version and it struck me like having a supportive person calling on speaker 😂

  6. I’ve always been shy, nervous in new social situations, and that hasn’t changed any with either age or Covid. I should probably pick up this book 🙂

  7. I like the therapist- bra comparison. I think boobs are a theme this week.

    I’ve never thought of myself as having social anxiety, but this book sounds interesting, even fun, based on your description of the author’s voice

  8. I like “behavioural inhibition” rather than shy. I hadn’t heard that before. I tell people I’m shy in new situations, but that never felt quite right. Behaviour inhibition is a fit (you can’t abbreviate it, I tried: BI is something else).

  9. I read that book a while back, in Polish though, as it was available at our blind library, and really liked it overall, which is actually quite rarely the case with me vs social anxiety related books. I agree that the author’s own experience of social anxiety makes it very relatable and helpful and I really liked her style as well. And yeah, I remember actually laughing out loud at the bra comparison, since it’s always a struggle for me to find a properly fitting bra, so that probably explains why I’d had the same luck with therapists. 😀

  10. I have never really called my anxiety “social anxiety” because it does not necessarily flare up at meeting new people. But it does flare up with encountering new situations and new environments. So I guess I have a tendency toward that….?

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