Brian and Lee don’t know each other, but they are both clients of psychologist Dr. Wiley, who is treating them for social anxiety. They have each had 3 sessions with Wiley, mostly discussing diagnostic test results and their treatment plan. Wiley also runs a weekly support group of 5-6 people who are struggling with social anxiety, and he has suggested to both Brian and Lee that they join the group.
Brian and his wife decided that logistics would work out best for the first session if he worked late, ate in town, attended the session, and then took the bus home. That morning, Brian says to his wife, “I’m really upbeat about this session. I’ll be anxious in a group of strangers, but in the long run I think it’s going to pay off.” Brian is optimistic.
Lee and his wife have also decided that because his wife needs the car that evening, he should eat in town, go to the meeting, and then take a bus home. That morning, Lee says to his wife, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be a big waste of time. I mean, really, what can a bunch of people like me possibly have to say that would help. But I told Dr. Wiley I’d give it a shot, so what the hell.” Lee is pessimistic.
After the session, Brian is on his bus when a stranger sits down across the aisle from him and starts reading the paper. Brian thinks, “One guy in the group said that having a simple exchange with a stranger helped him. OK, deep breath and let’s go for it.” Brian looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper.
Brian thinks, “Wow! It worked! I started a conversation and he treated me OK, not like I’m some kind of weird loser! Can’t wait to tell Beth [wife]. This is the start of a new me.”
Same scene on Lee’s bus. He sees the stranger across the aisle and thinks, “That guy in the meeting said a brief chat with a stranger helped him. It’s nonsense, but I’ll try it.” He looks at the stranger and says, “This heat wave has been brutal. Hope it breaks soon.” The man looks over at him and says, “Absolutely! It’s too hot,” and returns to his paper.
Lee is crushed. “My God, I said something and what do I get in return? Two or three words? That’s it? This whole damn counseling thing is a big waste of time and money.”
Brian and Lee have experienced a self-fulfilling prophesy. Brian the optimist puts a positive spin on the exchange with the stranger, while Lee the pessimist interprets the same experience as worthless. The lesson is clear: It helps to be an optimist. A positive attitude won’t guarantee that things will go well, but as we said in Counseling Tips last week, you have to believe that counseling is going to work for it to have a reasonable chance of working for you.
But there’s another lesson here, equally important as being upbeat and confident – and that is how you perceive and interpret events you experience. When under stress that produces psychological conflicts, people generally focus on their emotions. How many times have you told yourself, “I should not be so anxious. I’ve got to do something about it. I’ve just got to become less anxious.” That focus is all wrong because anxiety is not your problem; your problem is how you interpret situations that bring on anxiety, and the inappropriate actions you take to subdue it. Don’t treat your emotions as if they are alien invaders. They are you! We all have them and it’s natural. You are not weird.
If Brian and Lee try to suppress their anxiety, they invalidate themselves; they open themselves to self-criticism, helplessness, and depression. They need to accept the anxious part of themselves, and work on changing their perception of situations involving strangers, and developing actions that reflect that new perception.