One of the most effective practices for treating social anxiety, shyness, and other forms of social phobia is shame-attacking. It’s an idea with roots in Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy (now known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT), a highly effective treatment method for many classes of psychopathology. Shame-attacking exercises are part of a broader class of exercises encouraged by Ellis called PYA Interventions – “Push Your Ass.” Along with other methods, Ellis’ methods have been shown to be highly effective in treating social anxiety.
So, What Are They?
At the minimum, a shame-attacking exercise is simply an action which the actor believes will draw some form of social ridicule or public disapproval upon himself. Typical examples include loudly proclaiming the floor numbers as one travels in an elevator, singing in department stores, and wearing vibrant and mismatched clothes at the mall. Essentially, if you’re doing anything that Will Ferrell’s character would do in the movie Elf, you’re practicing a shame-attacking exercise.
But shame-attacking exercises don’t have to be so scary. Smaller examples, such as purposefully asking for the wrong bus stop and then remaining on the bus, or asking for a Big Mac at a fancy Italian restaurant, can be just as effective.
How the Hell Does That Work?
As creatures of evolution, we are in some sense bound by our biology. I have spoken before about the evolutionary nature of social anxiety. Interestingly, the same pathways that handle physical pain in our brain are also activated by social situations – we haven’t had much time in our evolutionary history to develop something better than the fight-or-flight response. Our thoughts are malleable, however, and REBT treatments take advantage of this fact. Or, according to Ellis in his Abstract in his 1989 paper Rational-emotive therapy:
When a highly charged emotional consequence (C) follows a significant activating event (A), A may seem to, but actually does not, cause C. Emotional consequences are largely created by B—the individual’s belief system.
According to Ellis and other REBT theorists, it is our thoughts and attitudes that create our emotional responses, not the events that activate them. We don’t typically talk this way. When we are angry, for example, we typically place the blame somewhere external – “You’re the reason I’m angry!” or “This traffic is really pissing me off!” – instead of considering that our beliefs act as a median between the two. There is nothing inherent to traffic that is anger inducing; it does not have a property within it that imbibes all human life with anguish. Typically, anger in traffic is caused by our own desires and beliefs: I need to get where I’m going on time, I’m more important than everyone else, etc.
In non-Western cultures where time is less rigorously scheduled, traffic typically doesn’t cause the same kind of stress. Since people do not have a belief that they must be punctual, they similarly have relatively little anxiety associated with how expeditiously they arrive at various locations.
So That Means I Should Make an Ass of Myself?
Well, yes, my hypothetical cynical reader who types exclusively in boldface, it does. Rational Emotive Therapy works under the assumption that if you change your beliefs, you change your feelings and behavior. Thus, if you can teach yourself through repeated action that there are very few negative consequences to acting in a manner you perceive as shameful, you can learn to distance your anxiety. To put it another way, you’re essentially desensitizing yourself to shameful social interactions. Your learning process is largely made possible through rewards and punishments, and as a human, perceived rewards and punishments. By practicing shame-attacking exercises and noting the lack of negative consequences, one can learn to no longer perceive that a punishment will follow an interaction.
But That Sounds Really Scary!
It’s called a “Push Your Ass” Intervention, not a “Sit on Your Ass with Some Cheetos and a Pepsi While Watching Mean Girls” Intervention. I know it sounds scary, but nothing worth doing ever came easy. That advice might sound like some cheesy motivational introduction from an 80s Jazzercise video, but it’s true.
Actually, let’s include that video here in the post too, because acting like this woman anywhere other than your living room would make a great shame-attacking exercise:
So find your boogie-body and shake those hips in your local Wal-Mart. I promise it won’t be as bad as you think.