Hi everyone! We have a long one this week, but if you or your child struggle with social anxiety- it is totally worth the time. Thanks for reading!
One of the most common problems that I encounter each day while consulting with gifted students is a generic form of social anxiety. I say generic because of the different manifestations the anxiety shows itself in. Some gifted students struggle with developing friendships, they feel as though people won’t or don’t like them for who they are. They try to interpret the facial expressions, body language, or voice tones of their peers to determine if they are accepted, ignored, or flat out disliked. Other gifted students have a hard time with their teachers, finding them unapproachable or believing that they don’t like them for some reason. A teacher who assigns a bad grade without much explanation, rearranges seating without notice, or seemingly targets specific students can cause social anxiety to spiral quickly. Due to the tendency for gifted people to be both highly sensitive and able to perseverate at length on true or untrue assumptions, managing any type of social anxiety during the school day can be torturous.
There is no one right solution for social anxiety, however- I would love to share with you all some helpful advice that I have gathered from two of my favorite authors/motivational speakers, Brene Brown and Byron Katie. The tips are in no way a cure for extreme social anxiety, but they are tools that you or your child can choose to try out.
The overanalyzing brain is always trying to make sense of every situation, good or bad, to make the person feel better or understand what happened. Unfortunately, the brain likes to fill in the unknowns of every situation with made up details to create a story for you to believe- even if the story isn’t nice!
For example, a co-worker/classmate/friend makes a weird face in your direction and your brain struggles to find a reason: Did I say something that made them mad? It must have been yesterday; they didn’t get my joke. They probably told everyone what a jerk I am. I sit with them at lunch, now I will sit alone. I should probably call someone to tell them my side of the story so that I can salvage my reputation. They are so awful to put me through this; I will never be their friend again. I will never have friends again and will be alone forever. I probably deserve it too.
These are what Brene Brown refers to as “silly first thoughts” or “SFTs” and they can take a person on an emotional rollercoaster in seconds. Here’s the thing, there is no proof to any of these stories. The brain is taking the strange face and filling in the rest with negative assumptions. The hard part is, in the moment- the brain can’t analyze these thoughts to sift out what is true or untrue. Brown urges people to write down their SFTs in a private journal before acting on their fears (calling a different friend to tell their side of the story or preemptively sitting alone at lunch). Once you read the thoughts on paper, the brain can recognize the inconsistencies in its story. It is as though the brain takes every uncomfortable situation and turns it into one of those silly math word problems in elementary school that you can’t solve because it is missing key parts but tries anyhow- and trusts its answer! Reading your SFTs can help reduce social anxiety because it allows you to analyze the negative assumptions from outside of your head and see the gaps in facts. In the end, you may just find out the weird face your co-worker/classmate/friend made was about the strange morning they had at home- that they can’t wait to tell you about at lunch.
Another strategy to help with social anxiety that has been especially helpful to me personally comes from author Byron Katie. As a teenager and young adult, I often experienced social anxiety. Showing up to school, work, or what should be fun events where I would be meeting new people was an internal battle that others couldn’t see. Instead, what they saw was a veil of fear that covered my true self. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize this veil as fear, they perceive it as shy, mean, stuck up, unapproachable, and/or awkward (no denying the awkward though!). In the end, the fear of being unaccepted or judged causes exactly that to happen. Many of my gifted students unintentionally put up this same invisible shield every day due to their own social anxiety. The fear that their teachers don’t like them causes them to seem standoffish or unengaged in class. The fear that a group won’t think they are cool enough causes them to not show the very things that make them awesome. The tip from author Byron Katie that has worked wonders for me (and hopefully for some of my students) is to walk into every situation as if every person already accepts you and adores you. This sounds silly and unimpressively too easy, but it has worked for so many people. Whenever I feel the anxiety rising as I prepare to enter a new classroom with an unknown teacher and students, I pull back the veil of fear and act as though I am already their favorite teacher and co-worker. At the soccer field, when I am standing with a group of parents I don’t know well, I talk to them all as though they have already known and liked me for years. If it happened that in the end, I am not their favorite and they do not like me, I know that I have shown them my true self and it is best that we are not friends if we are not compatible.
So, my advice to gifted students with social anxiety is to write down and analyze their “SFTs”, treat every teacher as though they are already their favorite student, talk to every potential friend as though they are already accepted and loved, and to lift off the veil of fear so they can show their inner light. This is easier said than done and for some, requires A LOT of practice and frequent role playing. Neither strategy is a quick fix, but I will tell you from experience that they can be extremely beneficial in your child’s social anxiety toolbox.
Have a great week!
Thanks to Erin Arnold for another great blog post, I hope you all enjoy this as much as I did. JRacano