Back in November I asked my Twitter followers what some of their greatest social-anxiety related fears are. Even though there is no one-size-fits-all presentation of social anxiety, I thought there was a good chance that I would have had (either now or in the past) similar anxieties, and that even if I hadn’t, with the experience of CBT under my belt, it might be possible for me examine and challenge those fears and beliefs.
I haven’t blogged in a while. Tell me some of your biggest #socialanxiety fears and I’ll write about the most popular (provided I have any experience of them – which is likely!).
— Social Anx (@social_anx) November 6, 2018
I think most people, whether afflicted with social anxiety or not, would agree that being laughed at is a mortifying experience. Unless you’re a stand-up comedian who’s decided to make themselves the butt of all jokes and makes a living off of it, there is nothing pleasant at all about having people laugh at you (note that there is a difference between someone laughing at your jokes, or even laughing at something a bit silly you did, when you are also able to see the humour in it). The real difference between the socially anxious and everyone else is that the socially anxious think that people are going to laugh at them even when there is no real cause for laughing, and it might even control their behaviour to the point where they do not engage in some or all aspects of social interaction in order to avoid the potential for public humiliation and derision. It doesn’t seem to matter that we know that the likelihood of this happening is almost none, as the fear of it happening and the perceived consequences if it does happen is not worth the risk in putting ourselves in such a ‘dangerous’ position. This is a fear that follows some of us everywhere:
“If I pay in cash I might drop my change all over the floor, and everyone will laugh at me for being clumsy.”
“If I get up to dance I might look stupid, and everyone will laugh at me.”
“If I put up my hand to answer that question in class, the answer might be wrong (really wrong) and everyone will laugh at me for being so stupid.”
“If I eat this sandwich in front of people, I might get food on my face and people will laugh at me for looking ridiculous.”
“Laughter is contagious. Once one person laughs, everyone else will laugh, and I won’t be able to stop it or challenge it or run away, and I will just be stuck in a room with everybody laughing…”
My biggest fear: I’m afraid of being laughed at, even though I haven’t been laughed at in that way since leaving school, decades ago.
— Miriam Drori (@MiriamDrori) November 7, 2018
Interestingly, @MiriamDrori recognised that the laughter from others that they fear has not actually happened for decades, signalling great self-awareness and an understanding that the fear doesn’t really stand up against their experiences since their school days. One thing that CBT taught me is that, when we are consumed with a belief that we suspect may be incorrect, what we should do is really examine the evidence for and against it. Acknowledge where the fear comes from. Did you get bullied, teased or laughed at by your peers at school? Did your parents or siblings perpetuate this? Understand why this belief came to exist and forgive yourself for feeling this way, as it is not your fault.
Now look at the evidence for the belief. What hard evidence is there that people will laugh at you? Are there any problems with this evidence? If your evidence is that it happened last week when you said something in a meeting at work or spoke up in class, is it possible that the people who laughed thought that you were being deliberately funny rather than unconsciously funny? Sometimes you will find that people laugh at you out of endearment, and it can be easier to accept this when you know the person and recognise their good intentions, but why not apply the same belief to a stranger, as well?
Now look at the evidence against the belief that people will laugh at you. Perhaps, in your recent experience, it hasn’t happened, even when you’ve felt you’ve made a fool of yourself. It’s possible that the fear overwhelms you to such a point that you deny yourself the opportunity to challenge this belief. If you can, test it. Do something that you perceive to be silly or laughable. Do people laugh? If they do, are they laughing at you or with you? What is the fallout from people laughing ‘at’ you, if any?
Finally, give yourself a new belief. Here’s one that I like: “Everybody makes blunders sometimes and people may laugh, but this rarely happens to me. When people do laugh, it is usually out of comradeship and in good humour.”
It’s very difficult to change a belief that you’ve held close to your heart for decades, particularly when it’s borne out of an upsetting and potentially traumatic experience in your formative years. I was laughed at during my school years. A lot. But y’know something? Looking back, I know that there was nothing I could have done differently to stop people from laughing at me; I was just who I was and they were just who they were. They were people who enjoyed laughing at others.
You and I did nothing wrong.