Social connection and acceptance are crucial for our survival. Without these things, it would be a very lonely and miserable existence.
Your brain understands this. And it’s on high alert to make sure you avoid anything that threatens social acceptance. Like negative judgment from others.
So, if you constantly feel like others are observing, judging, gossiping, and maybe even conspiring against you, congratulations, your brain is doing its job. It’s protecting you.
Sometimes though, our brains misfire. Alerting us of danger that doesn’t actually exist.
In this article, I’ll explain why we don’t want to get rid of the fear of judgment entirely. I’ll also address some ways we can keep the fear in check.
Keeping Our Fear of Judgment is Essential
Oftentimes people come to see me for therapy with the spoken or unspoken goal of wanting to get rid of the fear of judgment altogether: “I want to stop caring what people think of me.”
It’s nice to imagine. But if it came true, our lives would be disasters.
We would constantly say the first thing that came to our minds: “Thanks for inviting me over for dinner, but the food was awful. I’m going to leave now and pick up something on the way home. Bye.”
And we wouldn’t care how it impacted others. We would become sociopaths.
Being curious and caring about how others view us is at the core of empathy. It’s also essential for having a functioning and safe society. It keeps us in check.
We need the fear.
At the same time, when it becomes overactive and we find ourselves obsessing or constantly preoccupied with how others view us, it holds us back.
The great news is, it’s much easier to move from constantly fearing the judgment of others to a perspective that’s more balanced than it is to move from having no empathy.
How Our Brains Misfire
Elizabeth McMahon, a leading expert in anxiety, explains in her book that the brain has two parts: The Reacting Brain and The Thinking Brain.
The Reacting Brain
Our Reacting Brains are primitive and are mainly responsible for keeping us away from danger. It is responsible for creating intense emotions like fear and anger.
The Reacting Brain does just that. It reacts.
It doesn’t examine the meaning or context of the information it receives. It simply categorizes it as “good” or “bad.”
If it’s “good,” it doesn’t react. If it’s “bad,” it sends our body and other parts of our brain intense signals.
For example, you’re walking down a dirt road and there is an old dirty hose coiled up. You notice in the corner of your eye, and before you have time to think, you’re flooded with intense emotions.
Your Reacting Brain thinks it’s a snake getting ready to bite you.
A second or two later, you have a thought “Just a hose. Phew.” Your Thinking Brain intervenes. You instantly calm down and continue walking.
The Thinking Brain
Our Thinking Brains are responsible for complex thoughts and making meaning out of situations. It can examine information thoroughly and decide if it’s going to involve the Reacting Brain or not.
For example, you have an extremely important exam this week. And you have a series of thoughts, “What if I fail?” Then, “I’m never going to advance in my career.” Then, “I’m going to be stuck in a dead-end job the rest of my life.”
This sends a message to your Reacting Brain to get involved.
Though the Thinking Brain is smarter, it’s far from perfect. I’ll talk more about that later.
How to Stop the Misfiring
Stopping the Reacting Brain from Misfiring
The Reacting Brain only learns from experience. The Reacting Brain does not learn from logical explanations.
Take, for example, someone who is terrified of flying on airplanes. You can show them the data on plane wrecks. You can show them data explaining how much safer they are to use than cars.
It won’t work. If it was that easy, my job as an anxiety psychotherapist wouldn’t exist.
The only way someone gets over their fear of flying is from experiencing the intense emotions, but getting on the airplane anyway.
This is because The Reacting Brain learns only when it is activated. We activate The Reacting Brain and we do the opposite of what it’s urging us to do, “Reacting Brain, you’re sending me bad information. You can scream and yell at me not to get on that airplane, but I’m going to get on. It’s perfectly safe.”
After time and experience, the Reacting Brain learns flying is safe. And will no longer activate when the person gets on the plane.
So, if you notice in certain social situations you find you are quickly flooded with emotions. Your Reacting Brain needs to be addressed.
And the best way to do that is to override your Reacting Brain by doing the opposite of what it’s urging you to do.
Stopping the Thinking Brain from Activating the Reacting Brain
If our Reacting Brain is activated by our Thinking Brain, then we can use logic. We can challenge the thoughts that are activating our Reacting Brain.
For example, say you have an important presentation tomorrow and your brain is sending you this message: “You will lose the ability to talk on stage and make a fool of yourself. Everyone will judge you and you’ll lose your job.”
We can counter it and say, “Really? What’s the chance that I lose the ability to talk. And if I do, will everyone judge me? Don’t you think some people will actually empathize? And will I lose my job? I have a great reputation there.”
We can only challenge the thoughts that we are aware of though.
Becoming aware of our thoughts are easier said than done.
Most of the time we are viewing the world FROM our thoughts. For example, you see two people whispering and the first thought you have is “They are talking bad about me.”
And you react.
You don’t challenge it because it’s likely you’re not even aware of the thought. You simply believe the thought to be fact.
Instead of looking FROM our thoughts, the goal should be to look AT our thoughts. That is, to become an active observer of our thoughts rather than a passive participant.
And when we observe first, we put ourselves in a position of having a choice. Do I act on the thought or do I simply let it pass?
Take the same example, you see two people whispering and the same thought pops up.
This time, you are aware of the thought. Instead of instantly believing it, you say to yourself “I’m having a thought that they are talking bad about me.”
Instantly, a completely different experience. All of a sudden you have more control. You have the choice to challenge it:
“Do I really know they are talking bad about me? I have no evidence.”
“And if they are talking about me, how bad could it be? I’m a decent person.”
“And even if it is something bad, what’s the worst thing that can happen to me? And how likely is that worst-case scenario likely to happen.”
If you find yourself on edge, feeling as if people are constantly judging you, you’re not alone. We’re all concerned with judgment, just to varying degrees.
And the fact you even care about how others view you is proof that you’re a good person. You’re not a psychopath.
At the same time, we don’t want to be paranoid about judgment all the time. It’s exhausting and will limit us.
The way we reduce our fears are through telling our Reacting Brain, “I’m going to keep putting it in the situation you’re telling me not to. This situation is safe. I will teach you that it’s safe.”
We also reduce our fears by becoming more aware of the thoughts that the Thinking Brain throws at us. The goal is to practice looking AT our thoughts, not FROM our thoughts. And then challenge the thoughts.
If you found this article helpful, I encourage you to take a look at the Self Help section. I try to keep it updated with practical and useful strategies to overcome social anxiety.