Your boss has sent you to represent your company at a social function, with reps from other companies, to hear a presentation on improving employee morale. You’re uneasy about this assignment because you get anxious when you’re around a lot of strangers. “Damn,” you think as you pull into the parking lot, “Let’s stay calm this time.”
Let’s stay calm? That comment is called Denial, and when you go down that road you’re doomed, like a student taking a test without studying for it. When confronted with a situation that has always made you anxious in the past, never tell yourself, “I won’t be anxious this time.” You will be anxious, but now you will be totally unprepared to deal with it.
Back to the social function. You walk into the room and fear strikes your heart as you look around and realize you don’t know anyone. And then the self-criticism begins: “I’m going to look and sound like a total idiot. They’re all going to wonder, ‘Who’s that poor soul without a friend in the world?’ I’ll never make it through this thing. If this gets back to the boss I’m screwed! I’ll just grab a drink, hang out at the food table, and wait for the program to begin. Maybe staying in the restroom until then would be better.”
Can you identify your focus? You’re obsessing about your anxiety; you are focusing directly on the emotion you’re feeling, and desperately wondering what you can do to get rid of the emotion. You’re anxious about being around all those strangers, and all you can think of is how to escape. This is a self-defeating focus that just adds to your anxiety.
You’re also focused on putting yourself down by assuming you will be the laughing stock of the room. You create a pessimistic, self-fulfilling prediction that you will be helpless in the face of your anxiety. You’re focusing on your undesirable emotion, thinking irrationally, assuming that you are not living up to the expectations of others, and seeking an avoidance strategy so you don’t have to confront and accept your fear. That is a recipe for coping disaster; you make yourself the primary ingredient in your thinking, and form a pity parade just for you.
How can you turn this agonizing situation into a challenge and not a threat? First of all, note that your task has been complicated because you began with denial: “Let’s stay calm.” Had you accepted the inevitability of your anxiety – “I’m going to walk in there and feel anxious as hell. But that’s OK; it’s who I am. What I need is a plan to work through the anxiety” – you could have prepared yourself in advance, instead of working on the fly, so to speak.
So, what can you do in your anxiety-laden situation? Various techniques are often suggested, such as deep breathing, or challenging the irrationality of your thinking. The latter would involve self-talk like, “Let’s face it, no one is paying the least bit of attention to me and my anxiety, and if they are, so what? Am I going to die? Hell, they might even know someone at my company if I bother to tell them where I work. Just head for the food and ask some folks where they work and let things go from there. Ask if they know the presenter, have ever heard her before, or ever been to an event like this. Simple stuff, small talk. These people are not here to judge me.”
Rational self-talk like that can indeed be helpful. There is, however, another technique that may work for you, one people seldom hear about it. First of all, note that your discomfort is caused by specific characteristics of the situation. In this case, it is a crowd of strangers, and when you enter the room, you automatically default to interpreting what you see as threatening. What if – instead of focusing on crowd and strangers – you focused on using additional information provided by the people in the room to speculate about them?
For instance, you survey the room and think, “I’ll use their manner of dress – color of clothing, and accessories like lapel pins and jewelry – to guess what office they work in at their company. Could be human resources, payroll, budgeting, distribution, sales…places like that. Then I’ll strike up a conversation and ask them.”
It’s simple to do, and it will help. Why? Because focusing on analyzing information helps you concentrate on a task, a problem to solve, and gets you away from focusing on your anxiety. This latter focus is emotion-based, and sets you up as a self-perceived martyr to be pitied. The former focus is task-based, and allows you to take yourself out of the equation and solve a problem.
So, you pick a guy standing over at the food table. He’s alone, not talking to anyone, and looks like he’s trying to decide on what kind of cheese to put on his cracker.
You decide that with his flamboyant tie he’s got to be in sales. You walk over next to him, stab a piece of cheese with a toothpick, and say, “How’s it going? Are you with Amalgam Products? You look familiar.”
“Amalgam? No, sorry, I’m with Fairfield.”
“Fairfield. I’ve heard it’s a great company with a quality sales department. You in sales?”
The game is on! What happened to that anxiety?