Beating social anxiety with shame-attacking exercises

Background

I talked about this on multiple occasions. Even wrote a full blog post about it. I’ve been attending REBT (Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy) sessions for 5+ years.

What I will focus on is a specific time period. Period when I was “tasked” with doing the shame-attacking exercises. Yeah.

For those unfamiliar, the concept of “shame-attacking exercises” was developed by Albert Ellis, father of the REBT therapy. He was a very shy guy. Shy as in – would completely freeze when found in a close proximity of opposite sex. As you can imagine, his social life suffered massively.

But one day he decided to put a stop on it. He made a resolution that, every single day, he will go to a park and start a conversation with at least one woman. Lo and behold, according to the official page, he made a contact with over 130 women.

How true the story is, I can’t really say. But here’s what I know for a fact — I did it and it was a close-to life-changing experience at the time. Why “at the time”? Because I can’t really evaluate how much of an overall effect it had long-term.

Three exercises that I did at the time, and that I will be discussing below, are:

  1. Saying “hi there!” to 10 random people, every single day, for 7 days straight
  2. Entering one pharmacy per day and asking if they sold dildos (for those unfamiliar – dildo is a rubber erect-shaped penis, usually used for sexual stimulation)
  3. Entering one bakery per day and asking something around the lines of “May I get something for free now, and bring the money later?” (this one took me a full year to achieve!)

Before digging into my own experience, let me share some general knowledge about the concept itself.

General idea behind shame-attacking exercises

Google for “shame-attacking exercises” and what you will learn is that they represent one way of dealing with social anxieties. Or, to be more precise – attacking them.

General idea is — do something that is, obviously, risk-free, non-harmful and legal, but that will draw attention towards you. What’s more, not just draw attention, but have people think that you’re weird, to say at least.

Some examples that I’ve found over the internet, are:

  1. Putting a banana on a leash and “walking it” through a city center
  2. Entering a crowded elevator and exclaiming each floor’s number
  3. Making a book cover that reads “how to live with stinky feet” and entering a crowded bus
  4. etc. (I’ll share a link to 100 of these at the end of the article)

One obvious question that keeps popping up every time I discuss this, is — WHY? Why the heck do it? What’s the logic behind making yourself a fool in front of many people?

I’ll tell you why. According to my therapist and apparently pretty much every therapist that follows the REBT approach, DIRECT EXPOSURE is one of the best ways of dealing with the anxiety. Definitely not the most pleasant, but effective? Definitely. It’s somewhere along the lines of being afraid of heights, and attacking that anxiety by standing at the window of a 30-story building. It’s brutal but effective.

Or, let’s assume that talking to strangers makes your panic. As in a mini-blown panic attack (if it’s of any help – you’re not alone in this one! There’s many of us out there dealing with it!). Funny thing about our utterly imperfect brains is that even THINKING about such situation would make you feel it.

So how do you beat that? Well, you can talk about it with your therapist, over and over and over again. And I have no data to say how effective would that be. Or, you’d do the following – you’d be instructed by your therapist to go out once a day, find a random person and introduce yourself to them. Or just say “Hi!”. Or “Hi, could you please tell me what time is it?”.

You might think it’s weird, or unimaginable, or whatever. BUT, can you REALLY tell me that there wasn’t a single instance in your life where you did something you thought it was unimaginable (e.g. approaching your crush) and immediately felt like “oh, that was easy!”.

It’s “just” the brain chemistry, really. Easy? Absolutely not! Simple? Yes; in a way! You need to attack that brain chemistry of yours and reprogram those cells and that’s what these exercises are aimed at! Attacking the “issue” spot on.

My experience with shame-attacking exercises

Funny enough, I have no idea what exactly led to my therapist having me do this, but I’m utterly grateful for it.

It was summer time. We were discussing some random topic (probably my anxiety of talking to strangers?) and all of a sudden he just brought up the idea. Point blank. “Mihailo, here is what you are going to do. Until our next session, you are to go out every day, find 10 random people and just say ‘hi!’ to them.”. That was it.

I remember it clearly as if it was yesterday. It started with my palms. Soaked in cold sweat. Then the rest of my body caught up. My pulse increased and my stomach started turning into a tighter and tighter knot. The scientific term being – “living shit has been scared out of me”.

“Sure thing!”, I said for whatever stupid reason. I have this weird habit of saying YES to things that make me feel panicky. It’s like being hooked to adrenaline. It’s not the adrenaline that you are hooked on, but the aftermath of the traumatizing event. The “pain relief” of whatever the crazy shit is that you were doing. Yeah. That’s what you get hooked on. And that’s why I said YES without even questioning the stupidity of the idea.

I was in the elevator now, my heart pounding through my chest. “I will do this shit NOW!”. Anxiety levels quadrupled.

Leaving the building had me located in the city center. Summer being at it’s fullest, and dozens of people strolling around. “Breathe, Mixa”, … “Breathe”, … “Don’t collapse man”. Again, an interesting thing about our brains is that they are so damn stupid that they can’t even make a difference between what’s happening on the OUTSIDE (i.e. ACTUALLY happening) and on the INSIDE (i.e. the story that you are telling to yourself).

In my head, saying “Hi” to a random passenger carried a risk in the ballpark of having that same person pull a gigantic sword out of blue, war-drums beating in the background, making a huge swing all the while screaming “YOU DIEEEE!” and literally cutting my head off. In the middle of the street. In the city center. And no one would even blink! Yeah, that’s how I evaluated the risk. The risk of saying “Hi!”. My shit WAS at the absolute zero now.

“Hi!”, said I to the guy passing by. “Oh, hi!” he replied back, all the while having the face glimmering with “I guess I know this guy?”. Okay, no sword, no drums. I guess this guy wasn’t the warrior after all.

Next person silently ignored me. No idea if they didn’t hear me or were just minding their own business. Same as the person after them. 10 random people in and no sword-swinging warriors were encountered. And it got easier. I hate to say it, but it became amusing as well.

I’ll spare you the details, but here’s what I’ve learned after 10 days and 100 people:

  • Most of the people acted friendly but confused. You could clearly see that they felt shameful because you obviously “knew” each other, but they couldn’t remember where from
  • Older people were super polite, as they were probably just used to youngsters saying “Hello!” to them
  • Teenagers would mostly leave you behind and pass you with an expression of confused hindu cow
  • The most interesting group were buffed up unfriendly dudes who’d evaluate you as a potential threat. They would act as if unsure whether you offended them or not, which would probably make them even more pissed. Funny enough, this was the first time that I’ve heard from my therapist — “Mihailo, you really need to take the ‘risk evaluation’ into the equation”. LOL.

But you know what DIDN’T happen? Nobody cut my head off. And no drums. Nothing. I’ve learned that my risk evaluation capabilities sucked in every possible way.

Dildo and a Bakery

After successful completion of Hi’s, it was time to juice up the game. Initial idea was to go to supermarket and ask whether they sold dildos, but we figured it’d be a bit too rude. So we opted for pharmacies instead.

My next challenge was – for the next 7 days, I will be entering one pharmacy per day, asking them if they had dildos for sale.

Funnily, even though it made me anxious, the sheer level of it was waaay lower. Go figure …

I’ll spare you the “Say that again?” and all the angry NO’s I’ve heard, but one particular instance that I find amusing to this day was a younger person who point-blank told me that they had no clue what a dildo was. Now THAT was a shame-attacking experience on it’s own! All up to this point was like a 5-10 seconds experience, but with this one I hit a mother-queen.

“Well, um, … you know, it’s …. um ….”, I was stuttering and sweating like no man’s business! “Umm, silicone …. umm … rubber … um, shaped … umm, …. penis”. Silence. That moment when you feel all eyes being pointed towards you. All the boys and girls in that pharmacy. Even the puppies. All eyes. On you. Explaining what a dildo is. Definitely not the highlight of my “teaching” career, but I digress.

“Oh, no”, they said calmly, “we don’t sell those. Try a sex shop maybe”.

I was blown. And done for that day. It sounds funny now but at that time … hell, if “Hi!” was a single sword, this was like an army of soldiers rushing towards me, each one competing to take my head as a reward.

My therapist gave it all a quick smile and proceeded. I guess he knew that the next thing to come out of his mouth will be like a death sentence. He surely was cooking it for a while. Yeah baby. You thought the dildo will cause you pain (pun intended)? Ha, watch what happens now!

“Mihailo, your next exercise is to go to one bakery per day, tell them that you don’t have any money with you right now, and ask them to get something cheap and bring the money later”.

This, without any exaggeration, hit the limit. We found the upper bound of what I can and can’t do. This was the first thing to which I said – “umm, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that”. And I didn’t do it. For a full year, I was trying and failing to gather courage to do it. No luck.

What I find especially interesting is the fact that many people I mentioned this to would act like “well, what’s the problem? Just go and do it”. They’d act as if there’s nothing spectacular about it. Amusing – sure. But nothing more to it.

For me? This was a full blown panic attack that I couldn’t control. Thinking about it would make me nauseous. I couldn’t even THINK about doing it, which made it even more painful!

But I did it, eventually. After a year and some, but still. I did it. Just once, but I did it. Never to repeat it again. It was just too overwhelming but, in a weird way, kind of a freeing experience.

It took me a while until I were to figured out that what my therapist was doing was attacking couple of problems I was internally dealing with – asking for any kind of exchange, informing them that they should do something now whereas I will do it later on, and most important of all – saying that I don’t have money to afford something. Yikes!

Aftermath

I can absolutely understand how sharing this story would make most of you wonder “WHY”? “Why do something like that”? Truthfully, I dislike sharing facts without having strong data to support it, but I can definitely tell you that doing them did make a difference:

  1. I learned that whatever it is that my brain serves at the moment (and trust me, it was painful imagery), 99.9% of time it’s faaar away from what really will happen. Usually not even remotely close.
  2. I stopped having issues approaching strangers. What’s more, I found some fun in it.
  3. I learned that saying “I can’t afford it” is actually perceived as a virtue.
  4. Finally, it made me realize that, no matter how shitty your day or week is, doing something that you’re scared of will ALWAYS fix it

So, was it worth it? You bet it was!

Should YOU give it a shot? I’m not a therapist so I can’t prescribe anything except advising you to actually go and talk to your therapist about it. And if you’re afraid of even starting, here’s an article that might help.

My opinion? Just go and do it! I’ll hold your hand “virtually” 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Beating social anxiety with shame-attacking exercises

  1. I dunno man. There’s an element of masochism to these shame-attacking exercises. Well, for those who are doing them. Sadism, for those who prescribe them, if we’re being honest.
    Hypothetically–for those who conduct shame-attacking exercises–wouldn’t a visit to a dominatrix be more productive, and–depending on ones preferences–more fun? Just saying.
    Great article, though. Sexual innuendos and sex related humor. A dying art, that.
    https://i.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/956/638/5bc.gif

    1. Hahah, I can understand where your comment is coming from 😀

      On one hand, yeah, you surely can call it “masochistic”. But I do believe that there’s actually something behind it. Something about “rewiring” your brain, so to speak.

      Like, whatever it is that you are having negative emotion against, the more you do it, the less frightening the experience. Masochistic for sure, but it seems to stick really. As in, the pain was real, but the aftermath … I like it honestly 😀

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