How embodied connection can help us face our social fears

Embodied connection can help us move closer to our social values and face our social fears.

When we are not acting according to our social values, we are often unaware of what’s happening in the moment. Despite our best intentions, we end up acting in the same ways we have always acted.  There have been so many times when I was genuinely curious about talking to someone, yet I only became present and aware of that curiosity after the fact.  When the moment had presented itself I was stuck in my head which led to acting in the same ways I would always act. 

The first step in moving out of this autopilot mode and towards our social values is to actually train ourselves to be mindful so that we see the choices that are possible in each moment.  Next, when we are aware of our desires in the moment, we need to turn our attention into the physical body and get curious about what’s going on there.  I would always have thoughts like “Oh you can’t talk to her” or “She would never talk to you” or “ She’s too busy “ or “You’re too (could be anything) for her” whenever I saw a woman I was curious about and wanted to talk to.  These thoughts actually served the function of distracting me from the unpleasant sensations in my body.  I made a deal with my mind.  You can send me thoughts so I don’t have to feel and I won’t take any action so that you don’t have to change!  The thoughts reinforced the avoidance habit loop and avoidance became deeply ingrained.  

Every thought comes with an emotional charge in the body.  This emotional charge is based on past experience and past habit loops.  Every time we act out the same habit loop we are ingraining that habit loop into our brains.  This means that every time we experience the trigger, the physical sensations in the body will be stronger.  This is because our body doesn’t like change.  The pull to act out the behaviors and complete the loop will be stronger.  This is what was happening to me in the example above, and why it was so hard to change my behavior even if I could see that the thoughts were just thoughts.  

 If we take a moment to check in with the body when we see someone we would like to talk to but we are scared to, we will notice a lot of really unpleasant sensations.  It’s these sensations that we are afraid of and not the person themselves.  We also may be afraid that interacting with the person may bring up even more unpleasant sensations than we are already feeling.  These could be sensations of sadness, shame, rejection, or anger, for example.  We experience unpleasant sensations and our minds remind us that there may be more unpleasant sensations to come in the future.   

However, if we are able to use RAIN to recognize fear in the body, welcome it,  feel the sensations, and offer them care, we can begin to create a different relationship to the fearful sensations.   We can keep those sensations that we just explored in mindful awareness as we go talk to the person we are curious about.  This is turning towards fear and acting according to our values.  If we try to avoid those fear sensations, stay the mind, and go talk to the person, not only will we have avoided truly facing our fears, but we will not be showing up in a vulnerable way.  The connection will be stunted because we are not in touch with the sensations and emotions in our bodies. 

 If we can interact from a grounded, embodied place, supported by our RAIN practice, then we become free from othe stories of the mind.  We are training ourselves to be with the difficult sensations that arise socially and we learn that feeling good and feeling only “positive” emotions is not a prerequisite for getting social needs met.  

We also learn that our acknowledgement of our own felt experience allows the other person to feel safe to reveal what they are feeling.  For years I thought that I had to get rid of difficult emotions before I could connect. The sensations that we feel and emotions we feel are not meant to be hidden from others.  They are what’s true for us in the moment.  I learned all about telling my story and sharing vulnerable thoughts and emotions verbally, but I never learned to actually feel my emotions somatically and share them from that place. This means that when we are talking with someone we actually learn to have part of our awareness rest in our own physical bodies.  

Social freedom begins where we gain the courage to be with these difficult sensations and emotions that run though our bodies in social interactions and realize that we can tolerate and even befriend them.  When we are comfortable holding space for the unpleasant sensations that come up in social contexts, we are free to act according to our desires.  We can plan a party for friends or go talk to the person we want to talk to because we are acting from an embodied place knowing that we can handle whatever comes up in the body.  

Here are some examples of social habit loops from my life: Trigger→ Behavior→ Reward

Need to say-

Often when the other person is talking a thought will pop into my mind (trigger) as I attempt to listen to them.  Often it’s an idea of something to say in the conversation.  Because of my ingrained habit loops, this “need to say ”as I call it comes with unpleasant sensations in the body.  There is this contraction and craving.  Sometimes it feels like the sensations of fear.  Like I need to escape the difficult sensations in the body.  The reward is that when I do blurt out (behavior) what I “need to say”, often interrupting the person, then I do feel less anxious .  I do feel some relief, but I have not acted according to my values.  If I say the random thought and act out the behavior,  I perpetuate the loop.  Furthermore, if I am distracted by thoughts compelling me to speak then I am not really hearing what the other person has to say.  I am not being present with them, which is a value of mine.

Anger-

When I feel anger I often try to defend myself against the other person.  Maybe something someone says triggers anger in my body and again there is this urge to release the emotion by blurting something out of defending myself (behavior).  However, I am not really trying to defend myself.  What I am really trying to do is get immediate relief from the unpleasant sensations of anger in my body. Difficult emotions in others often trigger difficult emotions in myself.  To get rid of these emotions and temporarily feel better(reward), I need to say or do something.  I may start an argument or try to suppress the other person’s emotions by saying something like “wow you’re anxious” or I may try to “fix” their problem for them with the goal of mitigating the emotion they are feeling.  These are all strategies to lower the unpleasant sensations of anger inside of my body.  The catch here is that my mind is often making up stories that the other person’s emotions mean something about me!  If I stop believing this story, I can simply let them feel what they feel and notice how their emotions trigger something in me.  Then I can use RAIN to get curious about what’s coming up for me. 

Desire to control-

If I feel like I need to control a situation when I’m with others (behavior), what I am really trying to do is actually control the unpleasant sensations that get triggered inside of me.  When I have a really, really strong opinion and need things to go a certain way, what’s really happening is that I am anticipating that if things don’t go the way I want I won’t be able to handle what comes up in my body (trigger).  Control is simply a behavior that I do to try to feel better.  This creates a habit loop that never serves me or moves me towards my values.  

Need to do-

Another thing that comes up for me in social interactions is what I like to call “need to do”.  For example, I have the thought that I need to do something and my body feels really unpleasant (trigger).  The behavior is acting out the thing my mind says I need to do.  The problem is that when I have this habit loop in a conversation with someone then it’s going to really hurt my ability to listen to what they are saying.  For example, I am talking on the phone with someone and my mind says “do the dishes now!” (trigger).  I feel unpleasant sensations in the body and go to the dishes( behavior).  The reward is I feel a little bit better.  However, the real “reward” is a loss of attention and a loss of connection with the person I am talking on the phone with.

Can you relate to any of these examples above?

I am planning to spend more time in the coming weeks paying attention to the autopilot habit loops and the bodily sensations that are driving my social behavior.  I encourage you to do the same if it’s something that interests you.  I would love to hear what you discover!

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