People with Social Anxiety (SA) have an intense fear of being judged negatively, being criticized, or being embarrassed in public. These fears can have a profound negative affect on professional advancement. Here are examples of how two people with different types of SA fears were able to make changes that helped them achieve career success. NOTE: the identifying details of the individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.
Evan’s Fear of Interviews
Evan was 3 years out of college and working as an associate at management company. During his last review, his boss encouraged him to apply to some of the open Senior Associate positions at the firm. She assured him she would back him up with positive recommendations. Evan went to one interview and was not chosen for the position. He described the experience to his boss as “a disaster” and said he was too nervous to do any more interviewing. His boss suggested he find a cognitive behavioral therapist to help him with this challenge.
During his first therapy session, Evan described the details of his interview. He answered the very first question with a stutter and said something he did not plan to say. He believed he had made a major mistake, dwelled on that thought, and made more mistakes. He cut the interview short because he was not able to recover from the anxiety produced by his thoughts and believed he had failed.
We talked about how Evan’s fear of judgement became extremely intense before and during the interview process. He had a hypersensitivity to making any mistakes and went to the meeting believing anything other than a perfect performance would be a complete failure. We set the of goal of getting Evan comfortable enough to interview again and developed the following treatment plan:
- Practice. Evan did several mock interviews during therapy sessions and adjusted to some constructive criticism. We video-taped role-plays and Evan made some changes to his body language and mannerisms.
- Go in with the right attitude and remain positive. The practice sessions gave Evan the confidence to believe he could perform well during an interview.
- Stay in the present, do not let your thoughts wander to “what ifs.” Evan learned to keep his mind focused on the questions and stay in the moment.
- Speak slowly, take a pause to regroup if needed. Evan learned to tolerate silences.
- Have realistic expectations. It is normal to not have all the answers in an interview. Evan had a plan for how to respond to a question if he did not know the answer.
Evan was eventually able to interview for a new position and received the promotion. The change in his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors happened gradually over time, but he committed to the plan and was successful.
Maria’s Fear of Telephone Conversations
Maria was a Data Entry Specialist at a marketing company. She was offered and accepted a promotion to the Sales team. After 2 weeks, Maria was regretting her decision and started dreading her workday. In her new position, Maria spends most of her day making and receiving phone calls. She previously had little experience with professional phone calls and realized quickly that she had a surge of anxiety whenever her phone rang or she was preparing to make a call. She decided to find a counselor to help her feel better in her new position.
During our first session, Maria shared these thoughts and fears about phone calls:
- I am intruding on their time
- I can tell by their voice, they want to hang up.
- I don’t know what they are going to ask, I may sound stupid if I don’t know the answer.
- I hate the sound of my own voice, they must also hate it.
- Other associates in my office can hear me, and they think I am doing a horrible job.
- Once I start to feel anxious, I just spiral into a panic.
Maria was stuck in a cycle when she made a business call. She would immediately think the call was going poorly and her anxiety would grow to the point where she had to abruptly end the call.
We worked on the following areas during therapy sessions:
- Mindfulness Training. Maria learned to get out of her head and into the moment. By doing daily curiosity training exercises, she learned to pay attention to the present with interest, rather than judgment. She learned to focus on the subject and purpose of the call and block out thoughts about her performance.
- Learning Basic Telephoning Skills. We role-played several types of phone calls where Maria learned the techniques of beginning a call, identifying the purpose of a call, and ending a call. Knowing these basic skills improved Maria’s confidence and allowed her to start practice calls.
- Create an Exposure Fear Hierarchy and Practice Making Calls. Maria made a list of the types of phones calls she does for work. She ordered them from easiest to hardest and we worked through the list. The first calls were role plays, then she moved to making actual easy calls, and continued until she could make calls to actual clients in a large room of other associates.
The combination of mindfulness training, learning new skills, and exposure to fearful situations all worked together to help Maria gain success. She could calm her anxiety and see her worst fears did not come true. As she continued her exposure exercises, her fear started to disappear. She now understands she is not expected to be perfect every time, and knows how to recognize and congratulate her successes.
The treatment process for Evan’s fears of interviews and Maria’s fears of phone calls are noticeably similar. The first step in making positive changes is recognizing it is the fear of negative judgment that is creating the anxiety. Consistent focus on changing thoughts and beliefs
about a situation can create positive, lasting changes in your life.
About the author:
Holly Scott, MBA, MS, LPC is the founder of Uptown Dallas Counseling where she specializes in treating anxiety disorders. She serves on the board of the National Social Anxiety Center where she works with other therapists to broaden the quality and availability of Social Anxiety treatments. She is a Diplomate in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and has received extensive post-graduate training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy from The Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy, New York Institute of Cognitive Therapy, Icahn School of Medicine, and the National Cancer Institute.