I sit here typing this whilst watching Channel 4 and, as is normal, my mind is starting to wonder. I’m thinking about what time I should be going to the gym and whether I can be bothered to shower before I go (I know that’s gross but I know no one will be in the gym when I get there). I’m wondering what my options are for dinner – healthy balanced meal or a nice, fat-laden takeaway? I’m wondering whether I could fit in a quick chapter of Game of Thrones before I set off out (is half an hour enough time for me to read a 14-page chapter?). So, you know, what I like to think are pretty much normal thoughts.
Stuck in the future
At the same time, however, I’m thinking forward to tomorrow. I’m thinking about what the first thing I should say to my colleague is as I get to work. What can I tell her I’ve been up to the previous evening? How is she going to react? What possible response could I have to the numerous reactions she could have?
Now, I’m not just thinking about this fleetingly. I’m thinking about the exact words I can use in each scenario, down to the exact wording of the sentence, the exact tone in which each word is being said, and whether there are any possible improvements that can be made. I’m even thinking about my facial expression and any possible gesticulations that could compliment what I’m saying.
I’m visualising the sentences in my head, moving around words and re-jigging the structure and then playing the possible scenario through in my head. Will she be offended by anything I say? Is there anything in the sentence that might be misconstrued as meaning something else? I move words around again, re-jig the structure again – what does it sound like this time? If anything’s wrong, I start again.
This happens pretty much every single day of my life. I’ve had this kind of mental behavioural pattern for years and have always brushed it off as simply over-analysing and over-thinking things. It’s only since getting my CBT help that I’ve realised it’s a lot more than that.
Playing it safe
Rehearsing lines and scenarios like this is what is labelled a “safety behaviour”. It’s having some sort of ritual that is intended to help yourself through a situation and is often adopted by those with anxiety.
Delving into it a bit deeper, these safety behaviours often result from negative past experiences and these routines are developed as a means of avoiding a repeat scenario.
To use myself as an example, I think that I’ve developed the “rehearsing my lines” safety behaviour because of conversations in the past where something negative has happened. Thinking back now, I know there have been plenty of times where I have conversed with people and implied something I haven’t meant, often causing offence or just simply coming across as a bit random and awkward.
Again though, I’ve always thought of it as a good thing – I’m preparing myself for certain situations, just the same as someone might prepare lines for a job interview. Surely it’s better to go in prepared than completely unprepared right?
To my surprise, not really. You see, these behaviours are actually detrimental to us, especially to those with social anxiety or anxiety in general.
In terms of my own “rehearsal mode”, I know the time I take wondering about what to say next actually means that sometimes there are big awkward pauses in conversation. Sometimes it means I’m so pre-occupied with what I’m going to say next that I miss the fact that it’s my turn to speak in the conversation. It’s almost like I’m so focussed on myself and my own actions that I become completely oblivious to the outside world.
And what’s the result of all of this mental distraction? The opposite of what I’m intending to happen happens – there’s an awkward pause or the person across from me frowns. They take offence because they think I’m not listening to them, or I panic and blurt out the first thing on my mind (which often doesn’t make sense) because I’ve only just noticed that I should be saying something. I then get embarrassed and my face starts feeling hot as I begin to blush, reinforcing the incorrect notion that I should have been prepared.
So basically, everything I’m trying to avoid actually becomes more likely to happen. It’s a strange cycle that, even though I know it doesn’t help me, I fall into time and time again because I’m so used to thinking in this fashion. It’s like slipping on some old shoes rather than the new ones you’ve just bought at the shoe shop because that way you won’t have to piss about taking the new ones out of the box and lacing them up properly.
The moral of the story
So what’s the moral of this tale then? Go in unprepared and play it by ear? Probably. I guess it would end in a lot better a fashion. That way I could have a much more ‘real’ conversation with the people I see every day rather than them having to be spoken to by some guy reeling off lines.
Or maybe I should just be myself and say what I truly think as soon as it enters my mind?…
…But that sounds too close to letting people see my true self…
…And that sounds absolutely TERRIFYING.