Recognizing Social Habit loops
In previous posts, I have talked about how the first step in befriending anxiety is to become aware of how the mind works by mapping out our habit loops around anxiety. If we are not aware of what’s happening, it will be impossible to change. The following article talks about some of my own habit loops that come up in social situations and how a curious, embodied presence offers a way out of the habit loop because it’s more rewarding!
This is an article about the edge that I am working on which is social connection. As I do these practices myself and expand mindfulness to more and more aspects of my life, I am starting to really become aware of just how much my social interactions are directed by unpleasant sensations in my body.
While we all yearn to connect socially with others, I struggled over the years to feel connected to friends and strangers and community. As I got older that desire included wanting to connect with women in intimate ways. I found it challenging to connect because I was dealing with so much anxiety and sadness and also found that connection with others triggered those same emotions. However, over the years I made it a goal to learn more about human connection and to try to be more vulnerable and share more about myself. I read tons of books and learned about exposure therapy for social anxiety which was pretty much the same as the exposure therapy I was doing for OCD. I also read all sorts of content about social skills and signed up for a group coaching program on the topic.
Once I became aware that I was desperate for connection with others and that there was a huge gap between how I acted socially in the world and my deepest yearnings and desires, I made a pact with myself to try to improve this aspect of my life that was causing me so much suffering.
I committed myself to doing all sorts of cognitive exercises to change my beliefs around social interactions and I did little exposures to begin to progressively desensitize myself to certain aspects of social connection. These were the treatments that were touted both in the field of psychology and online in the various blogs I encountered where people told their stories of going from shy, socially anxious individuals to confident social operators. I wanted this. Sure, I wanted the social connections and the intimacy but what I really wanted was to achieve some level of congruence between how my body felt and how I acted in the world. This was the real sadness and desperation. I wasn’t living true to myself socially.
For a while I was convinced that the best way to do exposures was something called social mishap exposures. It is a well researched idea that what we really fear socially is the perceived high social cost of rejection or making a fool of ourselves. Therefore, if we intentionally construct social exercises where we can experience these unwanted consequences then we will see that we have nothing to be afraid of and that we can handle what comes up. This seemed like a good idea in theory, but I found that the exercises lacked any genuine connection to the real world and to the vulnerability of human relationships. I could sing on the street and be embarrassed to ask someone out by saying “Hey I like you would you like to go out with me?” to a random stranger, but I could still tell myself that this wasn’t me. My self and ego were not on the line. I had not shared any of my emotions or vulnerability- what I now see are the keys to human connection.
During these years of exploration I also found that I had many times where I got up the courage and did talk to someone I wanted to talk to and did actually have a vulnerable, real conversation where my mind wasn’t censoring what I wanted to say. I had studied human connection and had been practicing how to be vulnerable and open to letting the other person share as well. Some of these interactions felt truly incredible. It felt like I was able to just share a moment of connection with another human. However, the courage to put myself out there again in the future never seemed to last.
I found that often when I mustered up the courage and did the things that I wanted to do, none of the behaviors I did actually stuck. A week later it was equally as hard to do the same exposure as it had been before. I am a big fan of salsa dancing and when I first started going out to salsa socials I was anxious, but I managed to ask some women to dance. I enjoyed the dancing and the connection. Yet 4 years later I would often go to the dance social and find myself avoiding asking anyone to dance. How was this possible? I wondered for years why exposure therapy seemed to be somewhat helpful for some things like OCD and most other anxiety yet in social situations the connections I really wanted seemed to be operating under a different paradigm.
There were times when I went to the dance socials a few years ago having just come back from a meditation retreat. At these times, I felt very embodied and everything felt just so much easier and more natural. I was speaking and listening and interacting with the world from a centered place. I was living in my body and not all caught up in my mind. On these nights I felt like I could be myself and that it was easy to connect.
In hindsight, I realize that while I continued my formal meditation practice in the weeks, months, and years after these retreats, I did not consistently continue to apply these techniques of embodied mindfulness socially.
I now understand that my fears over the years of making friends, talking to strangers and meeting women were fears of the physical sensations and emotions in my body that come up in social interactions (or thinking about social interactions). These body sensations then would bring up more scary thoughts about the situation which produced more body sensations. Ultimately, I would avoid being vulnerable or avoid the social interaction all together. This gave my brain the reward of safety and perpetuated the anxiety habit loop that I talk about on this blog. It was never actually about the other person or about the social situation that was scary. It was about the unpleasant body sensations and emotions that the people or situations produced and my mind’s resistance to being with those sensations. Like everything else you will read on this website, social freedom and connection is really about being able to feel those difficult body sensations that come up socially and learning to just be with them. To just let them be there and to offer them care.
*Here is a little example from yesterday about how this all works:
I have recently got back into playing soccer after some time off. Yesterday, a couple of the people on my team seemed really critical of my play. I noticed that some of their comments triggered this feeling of sadness and shame in my face. My pattern my whole life when I feel these emotions is to avoid these people or situations or to create stories about the other person and seek to blame them. Even if I don’t agree with the criticism or don’t trust that the person making the criticism has my wellbeing in mind, I still have the tendency to lash out and defend myself. These are all really strategies to avoid feeling the sadness and shame that I now feel in my body. This response to the other person is often not about asserting myself, but more about trying to get rid of the sadness and not being able to tolerate its presence.
Trigger-Behavior-Reward → someone criticizes me and I feel sadness which I resist- defend myself or criticize the other person- feel a little better
With the practice of RAIN and an understanding of how habit loops are formed, I can now practice recognizing the sadness when it comes up. I can see how this emotion is affecting how I play and how I act around others. I can feel into the sadness and get curious about it and offer this hurt place inside of me some care. As I become more comfortable allowing this emotion to be there, I will see that I don’t have to change my behavior for others. I can accept their criticisms, speak with them if it seems skillful, and realize that these emotions I am feeling do not have to change how I live and act in the world. Once I can feel the sadness I am now free to be myself and play how I want to play without changing my behavior to reduce criticism from another person who may themselves just be having a bad day. Then over time as I become more resourced myself I can shift into offering them some nurturing phrases of care for their suffering.
Does any of this resonate with you? Can you map out some of your own social habit loops?