June 10, 2016 by Angus
Tackle social anxiety by optimising your “personal spam filter”

So many of us are in the habit of comparing ourselves to others. Often, the comparisons we make are unfavorable, to us. We perceive a particular personality feature or behaviour as our “weakness” when we compare to others on that dimension.

This common enough habit can drive you down. It can work away at your self-esteem. It can lead us to the challenges of overcoming social anxiety.

Keep that in mind.

Now think about spam filters.

Is your personal spam filter making you feel socially anxious?

If you’re like me, you use a spam filter on your email account. We use the spam filter to screen out unwanted messages in our lives.

In our email inbox, we only want to see messages that are “real” value. We want “legitimate” communications, not solicitous invitations to “lose weight while you sleep” or “earn a PHD on your existing knowledge”.

Now spam filters are pretty useful. But they can also cause us problems.

The trouble with spam filters is that the higher you make the setting, the more likely you’ll be to lose that nice birthday email from a close friend. Amongst the helpful “junk mail” filtering, some useful opportunities or pleasant surprises unwittingly get dropped in the bin.

Sure, with a high spam filter setting, you’ll rarely get the “rubbish” email. But you’ll also risk losing some of the good stuff in the tradeoff.

Let’s take this analogy and apply it to our personal psychology, self-esteem and social anxiety.

When we paint ourselves into a social anxiety canvas

A common enough example will get us rolling, here.

Regularly I see clients who tell me they feel bad about themselves. When we dig into the reasons for this negative view about self, we find scenarios like this.

Imagine one of my clients. Let’s call her Sarah.

Now Sarah tells me she feels terrible because of a recent incident with her home builder. Because of an interaction with him, she’s been feeling anxious about how she engages socially.

This is how her scenario played out.

The builder has been doing some renovations on Sarah’s house. One day, the builder came to her and said, “Look, sorry, but we can’t do all the building work we originally agreed on because of a few problems.” He then proceeded to list a number of issues. There were a bunch of practical reasons why the contract signed couldn’t be fulfilled. Shortcuts would have to be taken and she’d just have to accept the reality of the situation.

On the spot, that’s exactly what she did. She accepted his position.

Sarah’s heart sinks with disappointment, for sure. But being an understanding person, she took the builder’s arguments on face value. What he said, although disappointing to her, seemed reasonable enough.

When Sarah begins to feed her social anxiety by modeling another

Near the end of the conversation, Sarah’s partner, Steven, arrived home from work.

Steven joins in the conversation. But unlike Sarah, he “smells a rat”. He’s not about to accept the builder’s arguments on face value. Unlike Sarah, Steven disagrees with the builder. He begins to point out a number of ways the building work can actually proceed per the original agreement.

Eventually the builder gives in and the original plan is back on track.

Sarah now feels depressed. She’s feeling anxious. In fact, she even feels shame.

“How could I be so naïve!”, she says to her partner, Steven.

“How could I let myself be walked on, like that!”, she laments.

“I feel so stupid!”

“I’m always weak in situations like that!”

It’s not a pretty picture she’s painting of herself.

She’s convinced she should be more like Steven, her partner, who refused to fold.

When Sarah connects the dots and scribes her social weaknesses

Then she starts to fill in the landscape of her life.

Sarah starts to “remember” other similar times in her life when she “folded easily” and let herself be manipulated. In fact, she starts a list – a litany of “weakness” and “stupidity” moments she’s convinced are real, when her self-esteem has taken a hit.

OK, let’s pause with Sarah’s scenario for a minute.

Does it sound familiar to you?

Now let’s bring inject our spam filter analogy into the mix.

Sarah sees the best in people. She comes across as warm. She’s empathetic and emotionally safe. Ease of connection with other people comes naturally to Sarah. She has many close friendships.

On any measure, these above mentioned qualities are Sarah’s strengths.

Of course, Sarah’s orientation to the world means that, on rare occasions, unscrupulous people slip under her radar. She gets taken advantage of, from time to time.

Steven, on the other hand, is her role model in her self-deprecating assessment. For Sarah, she should have interacted with the builder like he did.

But hold on. Steven has few close friends. He is quickly suspicious of others. He suspects the motives of people in social interactions.

Now Steven might be guarded against having negative things happen to him in social interactions. But that “benefit” comes at a cost. His ability to be vulnerable and connect with others is compromised.

Steven’s spam filter is set on the highest level.

Steven’s spam filter won’t let through the real spam. But it will also catch out some good stuff. He’ll never know that good stuff was available. It goes straight into the bin.

Sarah, on the other hand, has her spam filter set a lot lower.

Sarah’s spam filter settings will let some bad stuff go into her “life inbox”.

Checking your spam filter to reset self-esteem and tackle social anxiety

But here’s the thing. Sarah’s spam filter settings will never, ever cause her to miss any of the good stuff in social interactions.

Sarah will maximise the meaning making potential of human connections in her life.

Importantly, Sarah didn’t need to “change” her personality. She thought she did. But no, she doesn’t. She was, in fact, more than fine. All she really needed to do was think about starting to make some slight adjustments to her approach when money or business was involved.

We need to see the full picture when we are comparing ourselves to others. Our self-esteem destroying and social anxiety provoking projections can be undone with smart approach adjustments.

Sometimes the bird’s eye view is far better than we thought.

Take a look at your 30,000 foot self-view from time to time.

Check your spam filter settings, too, from time to time.

And if you want some professional help delving into your own spam filters or overcoming social anxiety, drop us a line.


Contact Angus Munro Psychology

Clinical Psychologist Sydney

We specialise in evidence based treatments for relieving psychological distress such as anxiety, stress and depression. We also excel in helping people create lasting, powerful change in career, business and life. Find out more

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