Part one of this post may be found here.
My soon-to-be college freshman son believes he is socially awkward. Most external observers would be puzzled by his feelings since he is articulate, bright, polite, and well-liked by kids his age and teachers. Most would say he is an engaging conversationalist. Nevertheless the feelings are very real to him.
Recently, we had a conversation about his thoughts and feelings about social situations. With a note of “here you go again, Dad” in his voice, my son said, “You’re not going to convince me that I’ll be really great in social situations if I would get my thinking out of the way.”
“Well,” I replied, “I have no idea how you ‘really’ are. I’m just saying that your thinking is limiting your possibilities. No doubt during a past social encounter you had a bunch of thoughts about the experience that generated anxious feelings. When the thoughts came again in a second social situation and a third social situation, you decided you had discovered something about yourself: ‘I am socially awkward.’”
We can all relate to the way he constructed his conclusion. When the same thoughts and feelings come up multiple times during similar situations, we attribute causative powers to the external situation.
I asked my son to consider whether he had incorrectly attributed causation for his thoughts and feelings. “But, Dad,” he reflected, “that doesn’t give me any guidance for how to behave differently.” He was correct. I was not telling him to put on a big smile and take five deep breaths before walking into a new social setting. What I did explain is that he will discover his own new path, his own way to behave, if he could move away from thinking that he had discovered an objective reality about himself.
His next social encounter will be different if he can feel his feelings of awkwardness and not add on the story about what is causing the awkward feelings. If he adds on his story, he’ll continue to feel awkward and wish the event was over. His story will almost certainly revolve around the circumstances of the event.
The same is true for all of us. Since we make the error of attributing causative powers to the circumstances we’re in, we feel literally powerless to change because we’ve handcuffed ourselves to a single response. On the other hand, if we simply feel our feelings without adding on a story, we give ourselves the space for additional thoughts and feelings to enter. For my son, thoughts of being interested in his surroundings and of enjoying the situation may arise, too. With these thoughts he’d give himself the freedom to have a wider range of feelings and responses.
I told my son that one day he’d surprise himself. I made a prediction, “One day after a social encounter, you will notice that you are not feeling anxious and you’ll ask yourself what happened to those thoughts and feelings that were always there in the past. You will have backed off from your story of being socially awkward, and you’ll see for yourself that your thoughts and feelings are much more variable than you can imagine now.”
In A Course in Miracles it is written, “How deceived was I to think that what I feared was in the world, instead of in my mind.” What if those words carry not just a nice idea but the truth?