Fear of Humiliation, Embarassment

 Vijai P. Sharma, PhD. Clinical Psychologist

This is the third article in a series of eight on obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Practice makes perfect.  But just any or all practices won't do it.  Only perfect practice makes one perfect.

The art of overcoming fears lies in practicing one bit at a time, only in the measures that one can stand.  Do just the parts that make you a little nervous but don't freeze you with fear.  There is no point in going through a breath-choking, knuckle-breaking, teeth-griting, "do or die" fear-mastery ordeal.

Some people all of a sudden decide to be brave and take a bash at what is scary to them.  They close their eyes and clutch on to it so tight that their knuckles turn white.  Instead of "white-knuckling," start with a little, get used to it, and then try some more.

Let us take the example of John who is afraid of going to a restaurant because he may drop his fork, spill water, burp or choke while eating.  He is afraid that such accidents on his part will make him a laughing stock and that he will be subjected to humiliation by everyone in the restaurant.  John would be wise to first go in the vicinity, say perhaps a hundred- or a fifty-foot distance of the restaurant.  John should check his anxiety level.  (Incidentally, the term "anxiety" and fear are used here interchangeably.)  If his anxiety is moderate, he should stay at that distance until he loses his anxiety altogether.  Then he should go a little closer and keep on repeating this procedure until he can stand at the door with little anxiety.

The next step then may be to go inside the restaurant and come out immediately.  He might then be ready to just sit at the table, look at the menu and get out.  As time goes on, he should step up his efforts as many increments as he needs to while maintaining his level of comfort.  If John follows the procedure correctly, he will one day be able to order a meal and eat it, too.

Get used to each step comfortably before you try the next step.  To make sure that you don't bite too big a bite at a time, become an expert in "scaling" your anxiety.  The "anxiety scale" has a zero on the extreme left and a 10 on the extreme right.  Assume a zero to mean "no anxiety" and a 10 for "extreme anxiety."

Now you can evaluate how much anxiety you experience with regaurd to any part of an avoided situation.  Postpone the ones which arouse your anxiety to seven or more points on this anxiety scale.  First try small parts of an avoided situation which raise your anxiety to five or six points and no more.  Only when you can bring the anxiety down to three or four points should you try the next step.  This way, you will gain more confidence as you continue with your practice.

We also increase our fears by imagining that others are too critical and unsparing in their scrutiny of us.  A lot of people are uncomfortable in going to a restaurant alone for "what will others think about me."

How many times have you looked at a person eating alone in a restaurant and said, "Look at that loser sitting by himself.  I bet nobody wants to talk to him and so he is left by himself?"  I am sure you never said that for someone sitting alone in a restaurant and I can assure you other people don't do it either.  But if you are an anxious person, you would still imagine that other people would think like that in your case.

Many of us think that if we make the slightest mistake people will laugh at us inside and regard us as complete fools.  It is not an accurate view of others.  The fact is that "they" are just like us and treat others just as we do. 

When we go to a restaurant, much of the time we are preoccupied with our own thoughts or busy talking to the people at our table.  If somebody drops a fork, coughs or sneezes, we may either not notice it at all or if our attention is drawn to it, we may swiftly return to what we are doing.

If we know that we don't closely scrutinize others all the time, how can we be sure that others do this?  The truth is that nobody is watching us as closely as we watch ourselves.  What we can find under a magnifying glass on our face, others may not be able to tell from a distance.

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