Earlier in the series, I talked about our body’s well-designed automatic response to stress. Recall that within milliseconds of detecting a threat, everything from the head to the heart to the extremities rapidly changes to accommodate a perceived predator.
Nowadays, this system is commonly turned on in social situations. Work meetings, dinner parties, or crucial conversations with loved ones can activate the body’s stress response on a dime, and before we know it, heat rushes to the face, the neck constricts, and sweat beads begin to drip from our armpits. We are ready to engage.
Maybe you know about this?
Habits of mind run deep in social situations, whether we’re inclined to think someone will reject an idea or question, and therefore, don’t bother contributing. Or, we fear being looked at a certain way, so we avoid a situation or person altogether. We might even think we should smile and nod and say yes to everything in order to be liked by everyone.
At the end of the day, we are social beings. We care, sometimes desperately, about what others think. We learn from a very young age to seek approval — even for something as menial as cleaning our dinner plate – and we tend to carry this worldview into adulthood.
About ten years ago, I started my Masters in Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (MAPP). I was ecstatic at the opportunity to co-mingle with the world’s leading researchers on the science of happiness. I was also scared out of my mind.
It humors me to say that I felt like an absolute mess on the inside during most of the onsite meetings. You want to know what else? No one knew it except me. If I had a dollar for all the minutes I sat in the classroom stewing over how to turn a so-so question into something brilliant and profound, I would have made back all of my student loan money.
Even though I’ve noticed marked improvements since MAPP in my tendency to seek social approval, I don’t always live like this, caught as I sometimes am in over-trying to get others’ attention or craving validation.
So here’s what I do when I notice this old tendency rearing its head. Unsurprisingly, I stop what I’m doing, and bring my attention into the body, dropping below the whirling mind that’s fixated on a perceived social threat. Then, I take a few long, slow breaths to allow the nervous system to settle.
After a few minutes of feeling the sway of breath through the body, I transition into a compassion meditation. The purpose of compassion meditation is to offer friendliness and care toward ourselves and others in the midst of something difficult. I silently say the following phrases to myself.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be healthy in body and mind.
May I live with ease and in peace.
May I be happy.
I also include others, such as a mentor or trusted advisor, a dear friend, someone going through something difficult, and often the person(s) who triggered the anxiety.
Years ago, this practice sounded woo-woo to me, but I’m glad that didn’t stop me from trying it. It’s become a go-to for restoring balance and ease in social endeavors. And the science confirms that a dramatic mind-body shift occurs when we turn to compassion in the midst of difficulty. Do you know what that means? We are much more able to effectively navigate said heart-pumping situation.
There’s something very freeing about expanding our focus outward when we’re hurting. We come to see that all beings struggle, all of us have similar fears and anxieties, all of us have been clumsy in social situations, and also, all of us have hopes and dreams. We are more alike than unalike – and when we see this, the world seems less threatening.
Have you ever been anxious in a social situation – or leading up to one? Silly question, right. What are your thoughts on the compassion meditation?