Anxiety: Blushing Part 4: The Problem of Self

By Brian Robinson.

If you’ve read parts 1, 2 and 3 you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to the heart of the matter. You may also be wondering why Exposure Therapy doesn’t seem to work with social phobia. For example, a man with a supermarket phobia simply has to visit the supermarket repeatedly, and then with the passing of time his fear and discomfort dissolves away. On the other hand, you can go into the socially awkward situation over and over again but nothing seems to change. The awkwardness descends upon you and the blushing follows in its wake. If we are to make progress, we have to have some understanding of why social discomfort is so different.

One answer is that all phobias are not the same. This of course is obviously true because mono-phobia is clearly different to agoraphobia. But phobias are different in other ways. They can be weak or strong; simple or complex; long or short-lived etc. So if they are not the same, we shouldn’t expect them to respond to treatment the same.

Social phobia is more complicated because it involves elements which are not present in other phobias. One crucial difference, and perhaps the most important difference, is that the fear of the man with the supermarket phobia lies in the external world. It is the supermarket that is the object of his fear. For the man with social phobia, at least part of the fear is connected with something that lies within.

With the supermarket phobia, logic tells us that we have to find a way for our brain to change the way it sees supermarkets. This change is achieved through familiarity with the scene and as a result desensitisation happens. With social discomfort, familiarity with the social scene doesn’t seem to help. We first have to address the inner psychological scene. And if we do that successfully, the social landscape will no longer seem so threatening. We could call this Psychological Exposure Therapy, as opposed to Situational Exposure Therapy.

And once we have made some headway with the inner problems, entering the social situation becomes more about testing our new beliefs and perceptions. We may feel apprehensive at first, but if we are relaxed and comfortable about who we are, it is difficult to see how or why we should become tense in company.

The next step is to identify and correct any perceived inner flaw or flaws. Here I stress the word perceived, as of course there may be no flaws. How we see our self is not necessarily reflective of the truth about ourselves. However, this is where an article about flushing turns into a book or a series of books about our inner human worlds. That is not the intention here. What follows therefore, is the briefest of looks at how we might evaluate and get to know the world of self.

It would be very easy for this to now drift into talk about self-esteem, sensitivity, shyness, confidence, self-awareness and the like. However, it is better to begin with a look the more fundamental elements of what makes us human. If we get the foundations right, the chances are the superstructure will be strong and survive.

It is important for us all to feel equal to one another. We shouldn’t feel that another person is better or more deserving. We usually talk about this in terms of our human rights but that can be difficult. We ask what is a right? Where do they come from? Are they legal rights or are they God-given? Should they be upheld universally or can they vary from culture to culture? And why is it that the rights of large groups of people seem to have their rights ignored? It’s easy to get lost and it’s easy for rights to appear nebulous at best.

It sometimes makes more sense to talk about equality in terms of human needs. For example, we all have a need for food and shelter. We should all fee safe and secure in our environment. We should all have the means to support ourselves and our families. We should all have access to healthcare. And we should all expect to be treated with dignity and respect. It is easy then to translate these basic human needs into rights. They should be enshrined in law, not just in national law, but in universal law.

If we now try and move on from talk of basic human needs, to talk about equal opportunity and the like, this is where we hit another problem. All human beings are not the same. We have different skill-sets; different desires; we see the world through different eyes; we come from different cultures, different backgrounds. So, if we now try and pin down how we can give everyone the same opportunity, we get lost in this quagmire of variousness. It is far better to enshrine all this variousness in some sort of all-embracing right or rights. For example, we should all have the right to flourish; we should all be able to realise our full potential; we should all have the same chance to find happiness or inner peace. When discussing rights, therefore, we have to be careful not to confuse equality with sameness.

With this fundamental view of our basic rights, and with all the rest encapsulated in the above examples of all-embracing rights, we should all feel able to stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone in any social situation. We may not be the same as the rest: but we are all equal.

The next question to consider, is what are the values and principles we hold dear? These are the things which constitute our core selves. These will be looked at in part 5.

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