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!