Attacking my shame

I’m rather shy, which is funny, since I have a site like this. Trust me, it’s atypical for me. But, my struggles are something a bit beyond normal shyness. There’s some serious avoidance issues, even some social phobia wrapped up in there. Sometimes, things that are not a big deal to most people can be quite uncomfortable to me. I can have a near panic attack (or maybe it really is one) at the grocery store. I feel like, I have to set my groceries down and run home, otherwise I’m going to get horribly sick. Fortuatenly, it’s not nearly as bad as some legendary tales of social phobia I have read, it’s not like the world starts “spinning” around me. It’s more like, “oh wow, I’m gonna be sick”. I know it’s in my head, too. If I can distract myself, it goes away.

I also struggle sometimes with feeling embarassed over the most ridiculous of things. For instance, once at work I was in the office kitchen making tea. The tea bags were plastic wrapped in packs of five, and I was having the hardest time unwrapping the plastic. I almost gave up, because I had this gnawing feeling of “Man, I’d be so embarassed if somebody walked in and saw I couldn’t open this wrapper. I’d better hurry up and figure this out before somebody comes in. That would be awful!”. Yeah. Over some tea bags.

It’s hard for me to return things to stores. Usually if it’s big ticket, that’s enough motivation. But smaller items, say, the wrong sandwich at a sub shop, it’s tough, yes, beyond just mild embarassement. If I can’t find something in the store, it’s very difficult for me to ask a salesperson for help.

The good news is, I’m getting better with these troubles. Still, there’s great room to grow. One area I think I can attack with some ease is dealing with shame over little things. I ran across an idea in an Albert Ellis book the other day, that while not new to me, was motivational. He referred to growing up and practicing shame attacking excercises designed to squish his irrational fears. He’d visit an office building, get on the elevator, and ask the operator (hey, he’s an old guy) where the nearest mens restroom was. “Floor 4? OK, let me off there”. Use the restroom, get back on the elevator, smile at the operator, and leave the building. From there, he would move on to practices that he perceived as more risky. Maybe tell the clerk at the grocery store “Hi, I just got out of a mental institution!” or walk an invisible dog in public. Nothing ever illegal, dangerous, or things that a normal person would feel hurt or offended by. Just things that made him more uncomfortable than he felt was reasonable.

This got me to thinking, can I benefit from this at all? I’d heard the idea before, but the exampleas were often so outrageous, I felt nowhere nearly as motivated. Once I heard a nice story of a man purposely seeking out rejection from 75 women in a mall. No thanks. Perhaps though, I can start smaller. Baby steps, right?

For tonight, I’ve come up with what I consider an uncomfortable, though doable, exercise. My plan is to buy some fast food somewhere on the way home and ask for something I know there is no way they have. I have to go inside, the drive thru doesn’t count. I think it’s going to be Taco Bell, and I’ll ask for tofu and/or smart grounds. I’m sure they have neither. I will overly contemplate their response, maybe offer some resistance, and perhaps even purposely hold the line up a little longer than I should (not like wow-he’s-a-jerk long, just a little). I’ll see how that goes.

—Apr 27, 2005