Learn from Sherlock Holmes how to manage social anxiety. His observational skills help us move from a self-referential to an objective view of the world.
Making New Friends and Social Anxiety:
Currently students are settling in to new schools, colleges and universities around the world. It’s a huge period of upheaval and affects not only students, but their families and friends. I am working with a number of students who are looking at how to make new friends when they don’t feel confident and can be socially anxious.
What is Social Anxiety:
Often we hear about extreme examples of social anxiety, people who cannot leave the house any more or like Raj in the ‘Big Bang Theory’, who become tongue-tied in front of women.
But social anxiety affects most people at some point or another – it just takes a particular set of circumstances to bring it about. What is social anxiety? Social anxiety is very common and can come and go depending on our circumstances, or it can be something we experience as a constant in our life.
The ‘Real’ Sherlock Holmes:
So what has Sherlock Holmes to do with overcoming social anxiety? Essentially the method involves our observational skills. Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on his real-life medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell (The ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes). Dr Bell was extraordinary for his ability to ‘read’ his patients. He could for instance, tell where they lived from the type of mud on their shoes, what their profession was by the callouses on their hands and a number of other facts and information based on the ‘clues’ that they carried on them, in the stains on their clothes, the way that they walked or the articles that they brought, into the consulting room. He was an adept at observation and his abilities impressed Conan Doyle deeply.
Sherlock Holmes and managing Social Anxiety:
Sherlock Holmes has a fundamental trait that we can all learn from:
Sherlock Holmes notices EVERYTHING!
In order to use this method we must also learn to notice everything. We learn to notice the outside world and direct our awareness away from ourselves. This is absolutely radical for someone experiencing social anxiety. They may feel like their awareness is heightened and that they do in fact notice everything – other peoples looks, body language and even perhaps, what they may be thinking based on their behaviour – but central to this whole process is a preoccupation with self. A basis of insecurity means that the world is seen through a lens of self-reference and we become the central point for events. We interpret events based on our beliefs about ourselves – this certainly would not do for the clear-sighted Sherlock Holmes.
In order for him to succeed he needed to see the world as it is – without reference to his own feelings and beliefs. This method involves a shift of awareness outwards and towards the world and others.
A Case Study on How To Use The Method:
Recently I worked with a young man who was extremely socially anxious. Having been bullied at school, he now struggled to leave the house and actively avoided meeting other people. As we started to work on his social anxiety, we looked at how realistic his beliefs about himself and others were and we started to go out into the world to test these beliefs.
Our first trip in my car highlighted his thinking. Parking up in a quiet village was very demanding for him as he felt sure that anyone going past the car would notice him (not me) and judge him unfavourably. In fact, the first person to go past was a young mum with a baby in a pram and a toddler who, breaking free of her hand, ran forward towards a road where a car was pulling up. The mum managed to run ahead and safely grab her child. However, non of these circumstances seemed to register with my client, who remained convinced that the mum had not only noticed him, but had judged him critically.
Shifting Our Focus Outwards:
Shifting focus away from ourself takes practice. However, it is extremely liberating when we start to achieve it, particularly if we have spent many years self-consciously interpreting the world from our own perspective.
In the example, my client remained unaware that the mum in question would have had no capacity, let alone an interest, in noticing a young man sat nearby in a car. She was aware only of her baby, her child and the traffic. And my client could see this, but only when he was helped to see the larger situation. He needed help to understand that he is not the reference point for other peoples experience – even though his emotional state might lead him to feel this way.
Practicing the Sherlock Holmes Method:
This was a turning point for him. He would practice the Sherlock Holmes Methodology when we were out and about, learning to look at and notice details about other people:
“Who were they? What could he tell about them from their face and body language? What were their roles in life? Their job perhaps? What could he tell about them as a person from their clothes, their mannerisms and the way they engaged with other people?”
A milestone was reached one day when when my client and I passed two young men in the street. This was a high risk situation for my client due to the past bullying. I asked him what he had noticed about these two young men and he replied that one of them had ‘pulled a face’. However, he added, he realised that this was probably not a reaction to him, but because it was cold and the wind was blowing in this man’s eyes. This was huge progress! For the first time my client started to really consider the world more broadly and not to feel that all events were in some way related to him. More to the point, he was prepared to go out into the world and look – rather than hiding at home and maintaining old, outdated beliefs.
He learned that much of the world did not even notice him – and that when it did, it was fleeting, impersonal and largely unconscious. In fact, much of the world was doing what he did – simply being aware of itself.
Focus Outward, Not Inward:
Focusing outward and not inward helps us to not only to notice others, but to form a connection with others. In his classic book, Dale Carnegie the author of “How to win friends and influence people” gives us this central message:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” (Dale Carnegie “How to win friends and influence others”)
Using the method can be fun, especially by starting small and in low stress situations. Think Bourne Identity when Jason Bourne is aware that he knows how many people are in a room, all the exits and how far he can run at that altitude. Notice details and the big picture – notice the decor, how many people, what the floor is like, what the atmosphere is like. Then focus in on the people. How old are they? What are they wearing? What jewellery, clothing, shoes? What are they carrying? What can it tell us about them? Are they nervous? Are they confident? Are they comfortable? How do they carry themselves? What is their mood? What do their faces tell us about how they are feeling? The more the focus goes out the less our internal pressure will be about ourselves.
Using this method we can start to find a way into conversations. We can begin by asking questions, finding out about others – being interested. Often a combination of a statement about ourselves and an open question to others can work as an opening to a new conversation. There are always standard topics available to choose from: location, time, season, study topics and events.
“I’ve never been to London before. How are you finding navigating around?”
“I love the cold but my room isn’t too warm. How’s your accommodation?”
“I’m studying economics. What are you studying?”
“I’m in Mr Nash’s class, who do you have for history?”
“I’ve just seen there is a sky diving club. Have you joined anything yet?”
Often when we are anxious it feels impossible to speak about ourselves. We feel we have nothing to say and nothing to contribute. Noticing others and engaging in conversations based on open questions about them can enable us to cope with the difficulties we may have in speaking about ourselves.
Practice In Easy Stages:
This approach is useful if you find that your anxiety gets worse in some situations and you would like to focus your mind and develop your observational and conversational skills when this is happening.
▪ Do things in stages, build up gradually.
▪ Watch out for alcohol – it may feel like your best friend, loosening your tongue and making you the life and soul of the party, however, you might feel this isn’t who you actually want to be.
▪ Activities help! Meet people through clubs, sports, music, debating whatever – you don’t have to come up with topics of conversation – they are there in front of you, as you get on with the activity.
▪ If you’re feeling uncomfortable don’t think that this means things aren’t working – it may be that you have successfully pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone.
▪ Avoid Avoidance! The avoidance trap is the most problematic issue for social anxiety. It is possible to become extremely adept at rationalising why you now only go out at night to shop and why your teachers don’t really need to see you in person if you are handing in the work by email etc.
It is avoidance that maintains the belief that we cannot cope out there in the world. Having something to focus on while we test these beliefs and see the world from a different perspective can permanently improve our confidence and our life.