Social Aversion Therapy: My Misery is Your Therapy

In my practice I often see clients with what I refer to as a “social aversion.” This isn’t a DSM-IV diagnosis and isn’t even necessarily a disorder. Rather it is a general sense of unease being with other, usually unfamiliar people due to feelings of inferiority or a sense of “being judged.” Clients who struggle with this are afraid they will do or say something stupid and everyone will ridicule them. I will sometimes refer to these thoughts and feelings as Reverse Narcissism. In other words, the person believes he is the center of attention, the object of everyone’s eye, but never in a positive way.

To help clients tackle this problem I encourage them to ask a few questions:
1) Is it factually accurate that people are focused on me?
2) If so, do they truly care all that much about what I’m saying or doing?
3) If they do care, for how long? In other words, will they remember something I’ve said or done, something foolish perhaps, in a few hours? How about a few days or weeks?
4) If these people who I’m not even all that close with do ultimately care so much about what I say or do, who the hell cares?

Ideally most clients come to recognize that, for the most part, people aren’t hyper-focused on them, that people are more focused on their own lives. And if a client does make a faux pas, rarely do people care for more than a short while. In other words, clients are discouraged from “catastrophizing” what is ultimately not a big deal.

To help emphasize this point I’ll have them draw upon their past. When clients have trouble generating examples from their own life in which they were embarrassed and nothing came of it, I ask them to think about seeing another person make a social gaffe. “Did you judge that person as inferior or think about the person’s actions for more than a short while?” To further drive this point home I’ll sometimes share with them a story from my own past. I don’t consider myself a mental giant in every area of life but this was one day that I brought my psychological “A Game”:


Years ago I drove out to Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding. I stayed in a hotel the night before and woke up late because I forgot to request a call from the front desk. Not a great way to start off the day. I put on my suit, which I hadn’t worn in about 3 years, only to realize that it was completely out of fashion (pleats were probably never popular). More importantly, however, the suit was much too big. Even the shoes were larger than before. This could have meant only one of two things:

1) Someone stole my suit and replaced it with another, larger one
2) I’m shrinking

Will anyone notice how stupid I look in this giant, out-dated clown suit? Probably, but I doubt this will consume anyone’s mental energy during the wedding.

I waddled like a penguin out to the car, only to have the car alarm refuse to engage, which forced me to open the door manually. This set off the alarm. Of course, the car wouldn’t start due to the technology, so I had to frantically press the button over and over until it finally worked.

Did anyone see me? A few people took a glance over at me pressing the button four million times but didn’t seem all that interested. People’s car alarms go off all the time.

I drove to the wedding, got lost, and arrived late.

Opening the door on the small church elicited a very high-pitched creaking sound, causing everyone to turn around and stare at me, including the bride, groom and priest whom were standing at the alter.
Okay, everyone is looking at me. Are they judging me? Maybe they think it’s rude of me to show up late, but it wasn’t my fault. Actually it is, but it’s not like I’m ruining this special day. Maybe my comical appearance will ease any tension!

I remembered my Catholic upbringing and dipped my hand into a small bowl at the back of the church and sat down. When the wedding photographer came over and started drinking from that same bowl I realized that I had blessed myself with her drinking water.

That was definitely poor form. If someone saw that they’d probably think, “who is the idiot in the gigantic suit sticking his fingers in everyone’s water?” People will probably have a laugh at my expense over this. I can deal with that.

After the ceremony and a slight trip over some concrete (due to my giant pant legs) on the way to the parking lot I got into my Toyota to drive to the reception. The newlyweds were in a very good financial situation and apparently so was everyone else there because the cheapest car there was a BMW.

I must look unbelievably stupid in my oversized Glad Bag and pretty dirty, albeit economical and sensible car. I wonder if they think I’m beneath them. I’ll probably never know for sure, but even if they do, who cares? I’m a good person who just dresses poorly and doesn’t visit a car wash all that often.

At the reception I proceeded to engage in more acts of social idiocy: I referred to the groom’s sister as his mother. I commented how great the chicken being served tasted (it was quail), then proceeded to ask for a second helping. I drank one glass of wine too many, causing my Rosacea to flair up, making my red skin even more pronounced against my jet black suit. Looking like a beet, I told the bride that “she could do better” and ultimately decided to simply remain in my chair for the remaining two hours of the party.

By the time the night ended I had sobered up and was able to reflect more intensely on the day’s events and others’ possible perceptions of me. I did many stupid things that day and the reality is that I never knew, nor ever will know, if people were focused on me. I also won’t know if they truly cared. If they did I’d have to guess that they didn’t spend all that much time thinking about me, especially as there were more important people to attend to that day. Could they have had a few good stories to tell their friends because of me? Perhaps. Did they think they were better than me because I had less money or acted stupidly? Maybe. But the ultimate question, the most important point, is “who cares?” If I refuse to care about what they think of my ill-advised wardrobe, lack of knowledge of Catholic/Photographic etiquette, inexpensive car and ignorance of fowl, then I’m a much happier person. If I don’t care what they think I can’t be upset.

See? If you think like that you can act like a complete jackass all the time without any concerns of social condemnation…just like me!

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22 Responses to “Social Aversion Therapy: My Misery is Your Therapy”

  1. Tam says:

    I don’t usually worry too much about what I’ll say or do, but I often obsess over what to wear to events. I’m not into clothes at all – basically my only concern when dressing for others is to be socially appropriate. But this means I don’t have a giant amount of different fantastic clothes.
    So basically, social events stress me out exactly in proportion to how much you have to dress up for them.
    But once I arrive at an event, I invariably discover that nobody cares what I am wearing. Christmas parties, funerals, other people’s weddings, and many other social events turn out to be not about my clothes. Who knew?

  2. Blank says:

    Ahaha, you appear to be completely socially inept in this article…and a wedding crasher as well. >_>

  3. Michelle says:

    I think this is one of the most interesting, and useful, posts you’ve done. I find myself in that situation (reverse narcissism) from time to time after making an embarrassing social gaffe. Next time I’ll try to remember that, in all likelihood, no one cares! What a liberating thought 🙂
    Thanks for writing!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dr. Rob,
    This was a great post. I am always worried at social events about what I do or say. I am always thinking that when I do something stupid everyone is going to notice and judge me. I also am that way about what clothes I wear. I never really thought about it the way you put it but it does help to think like that. Who cares what anyone else thinks about me and if they are watching they arent going remember it later. I am going to start not caring about it anymore. I mean, if someone like you can screw up and it not be a big deal then probably no one is even paying attention to me.

  5. Tracie says:

    Oh, I am so susceptible to this one. I still haven’t forgotten the time I went to the birthday part of my boyfriend’s friend’s girlfriend. This was the first time that many of these people had met me (they were acquaintances of the boyfriend, but not really friends). I proceeded to meet another tattooed biologist and get completely blotto within half an hour, then spend the night babbling about how the bartender loved me. (She had to finish the bottle of Stoli and poured my drink heavy. This, to me, was a sign of her true love.) I then slurred something about being “the mean one in th’ couple, cause I’m the girl”, remarked on the friend’s girlfriend’s tits, and napped in a bar stool.
    I’ve only seen both of them in passing since it happened, and they’re still nice to me, so I guess I didn’t make that much of an impression. Then again, I haven’t been out drinking with them since, and they’re now our neighbors. Awkward.

  6. Esther says:

    Thank you. You have made me feel a lot better about how I act in social situations. Having been homeschooled and virtually un-socialized before age 18 I simply don’t know how to act around people sometimes. To make matters worse I have a sense of humor which requires other people to make logical connections in order to “get” my jokes. I often hear a lot of crickets after I say something funny. At least, I thought it was funny. I tend to obsess over going into social situations because my parents used to talk incessantly about other people’s social ineptness — oh yes, and they always told me when I had said or done the wrong thing. Not that they’re any better than anyone else when it comes to embarrassing moments. I guess I think people are paying a lot of attention to what I say and do.
    I’ve been getting better about this. It takes a lot of work. I would add that if people are judging you for your embarrassing moments they might not make the best friends for you anyway. So, like you said, who cares?

  7. tashe says:

    Sometimes it’s very easy to lose track of “yeah, seriously, who the hell cares?” You’re also demonstrating here that at least as a consolation prize, you get a great story!! The photographer’s drinking bowl is definitely my favorite part. But really, why was she drinking out of a bowl anyway? You can hardly be blamed for coming along and blessing yourself from it. hee.

  8. Nate says:

    This is such a great post. I am in my first year of college and I feel like you were reading my mind when you wrote this. I struggle with this greatly, and it’s really hurting me socially. I will try to adopt a who cares attitude but I’m guessing it will take a long time for me to truly not care.

  9. batmanandme says:

    Wow, this is actually something I’ve been having a giant problem with this whole summer (summertime seems to wreak havoc on my mental stability). Rather than “reverse narcissism”, however, I named it “paranoid narcissism” for myself. Anyway, this was really helpful to hear–as summer ends, my social anxiety will probably be replaced with my typical fallwinterspring depression, but it’s something I’ll try to keep in mind.
    I think you’re awesome, Rob; as soon as I’m not so crazy anymore I intend on trying to heal some others’ crazy, too.

  10. Manuel says:

    I actually have that problem sometimes, but I do try telling myself exactly the points you have listed above and it does work mostly 🙂

  11. Z says:

    I guess it’s rather fitting you’re kind of working for Tucker Max.

  12. Maggy says:

    Do most people have this problem? Cuz I sure don’t. But this post did make for a fun read!! haha I’m always able to laugh at myself and I crack up when I hear other people talking about something really stupid that I did the other day. Or I’ll be the first to volunteer the information. Sometimes, you just have to learn that these embarassing situations never really are a big deal and they might even end up being a good laugh. Life is too precious to be worried about what the person next to you is thinking. Keep up the good work DocRob! I look forward to your next blog!!

  13. Yasmin says:

    Oh, god, I think this means that I am a narcissist…For example, I have already started looking for the perfect dress to impress people at a wedding back home that is still a month away…oh dear oh dear.

  14. James says:

    I sometimes go through that, and tell myself the same things (and I’ve done quite a few stupid things at a bar). It’s nice to know that even a shrink can do some stupid stuff after a little bit too much alcohol curses through your veins.

  15. PJ says:

    You describe it so well, but isn’t this Social Anxiety Disorder, which [i]is[/i] a DSM-IV diagnosis?

  16. Lola Boeys says:

    What if you DO care? What if the social situation involves networking or opportunities? What if what you THINK doesn’t seem to effect how sickly self-conscious you feel? What if, even though no one notices, you judge yourself to be a buffoon and a fuck up?
    It’s all easy to gloss over if you’re normal; but what if you’re a sweaty teeth-grinding nervous wreck?

  17. So what do you tell people that aren’t necessarily afraid of how others will perceive them, but DO get bored easily by all the small talk that seems so necessary in social situations?

  18. bajonista says:

    That was probably the first wedding party in the history of ever that they didn’t go to great pains to point out that the very tiny birds they were serving you were quail. What kind of self-respecting BMW driving rich person doesn’t enjoy pointing out that you’re eating ridiculously expensive (stringy and dry) fowl to the other people driving expensive cars?
    Rob, it was their fault they weren’t acting “New Money” enough to point that out to you.
    Making fun of rich people aside, the “who cares?” question rarely works for me when I’m in hysterics over something trivial. “I CARE!” is usually the answer followed by loud, painful sobs, which only makes me cry harder. Luckily this situation is becoming more rare for me the more time I put between myself and puberty.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, sounds like a mild form of social fobia. I have social fobia, and I’ve asked myself those questions many times. Still fobic. Hopefully therapy will help me fix this problem.

  20. […] discussed how I encourage clients to psychologically handle embarrassment here. Years ago I, like many people currently in therapy, would have wanted to crawl into the closest […]

  21. […] costs, but there’s not much I can do about that. He’s just jealous of my success. When you’ve blessed yourself with a wedding photographer’s drinking water and have had a child accuse you of being a […]

  22. This Article Is Mistaken says:

    This is Social Anxiety Disorder.
    It is a DSM diagnosis.
    What on earth made you think this was something different?
    It’s clear signs of anxiety, potentially at the level of a serious disorder.

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