How Can We Be Courageous Despite Feeling Socially Anxious?
There are many people telling us how to think and behave. Some just don’t matter. They are not our friends. We are uninterested in being their friends. We do not ask them for advice. And yet, sometimes we let these people infect us with dysfunctional thoughts and feelings. Inside us lies evolutionary mechanisms to worry about what other people think. What also resides inside us is everything we need to be courageous. We can train ourselves to be more discerning about who influences us. We can train ourselves to resist social pressures about what we are supposed to think and do. We can train ourselves to defend other people from unfair treatment by hostile crowds. Here lies some insights on how to get started…
The presence of other people influences much of our behavior. A subconscious program runs in the background of our brains that pushes us to perform two tasks. First, secure an invite into a desired group. Second, earn status points to maintain membership within the group. Displaying group allegiance is one strategy to earn status points. Tarnish a brand new $45,000 car with cheap bumper stickers so that others know your political loyalty. Lash out at someone who holds opposing views in public, where others can witness how you will fight and absorb cuts and bruises on their behalf. Displaying superior, specialized skills is another strategy to earn status points. A skateboarder attempting a difficult heelflip 720 to win the affection of a physically attractive observer and more importantly, the admiration of other skateboarders noticing the entire sequence. Over half of young adults engage in deceptive practices on social media to pretend that they are better than reality including buying followers, using software to manipulate their physical appearance, and removing pictures with insufficient likes. Playing the status game and being concerned about making a good impression often trumps other important values such as appreciating beauty, taking care of one’s physical health, treating others fairly, independence, and honesty. Think for a moment about what the world loses in terms of individuals reaching their potential because of the strong motivation to win approval, even by strangers. The problem with status concerns becomes obvious when someone resists the conformity pressures of the crowd.
It was in a courthouse, a dreamy landscape for anyone inclined toward snooping and eavesdropping. The bailiff reprimanded several defendants for sipping from a water bottle or keeping their hands tucked away in pants pockets. Others got away with the same behavior — especially when dressed in elegant suits or the tattooed, muscular police officer charged with reckless driving (the only guy whose hands you want to see because of the handgun in his belt). With a steady progression of citizens pleading for leniency, you start to become a super forecaster of who will succeed in getting a reduced sentence. Age. Race. Sex. Verbal fluency. Physical beauty. Hairstyle. Confident demeanor. As a psychologist who studies personality and motivation, I found the experience mesmerizing. What really grabbed my attention was when the crowd of bad drivers turned on one of their own.
He was a young man around 19 years old, sitting alone. When the judge called his name, he walked to the front of the courtroom. He moved awkwardly, unable to maintain the same stride length between steps. He stopped at the podium in a wrinkly gray Sublime t-shirt with mint green drawstring shorts. Standing upright, he lurched forward as if to give extra effort to the judge’s instructions.
The judge asked him to state one of three pleas: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The same options voiced repeatedly over the past 2.5 hours. The young man paused for a long 20 seconds of silence. It might not sound like a long time but this is a room of frustrated people clamoring for an end to their ordeal. The young man ignored the judge’s question and whimpered, “I’m just trying to get a deal for a lesser charge.” I’ll admit, I was impressed. He was unfiltered. He expressed exactly what I hoped to convey. I didn’t realize you could just blirt this point out. You could tell he was new to the criminal justice system and just seeking to understand the unwritten rules
The rest of the courtroom did not share my sense of respect and admiration for the young man. Strangers shook their head in dismay as if the young man spit on a bible. Others threw arms up toward the young man’s direction, as if they could compel him to speed up the proceedings. Others pestered him — “Come on!” “Say something already!” The judge showed no such impatience as he repeated the three available options, “Once again, you get to choose a plea — Guilty? Not guilty? Or no contest?” This soft-spoken young man stood for yet another 10 seconds before uttering, “Your honor…what does no contest mean?”
This is when the crowd lost their collective shit. “Come on bro!” “Just pick one!” “You’ve got to be kidding me?!?” The judge defined no contest, loud enough for all to hear. Which I was grateful for because honestly, I had the same question. Unlike him, being out of my element in court, I lacked the temerity to ask.
After the young man pleaded no contest, and the police officer presented his evidence, the judge dismissed every charge. Now usually at this juncture, people in a courtroom follow the adage, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” You fought the law son, won, get out while you can. But not this guy. In the same soft, curious tone he wondered, “Judge, what exactly do you mean, charges are dismissed?” Unaffected by the crowd, the young man waited for clarification. It was at this moment the muscular bailiff with fully inked forearms pointed at members of the crowd to be quiet, sit down, or face his wrath.
I think about this day in court often. In our rush to move from one task to the next, we often pay insufficient attention to human excellence. In this case, excellence arose in the form of an awkward young man who expressed the fortitude of a medieval knight in armor. Humility. Prudence. Social courage. Self-control. He traveled by himself. He was socially persecuted by strangers. And yet, he carried on. By deconstructing human excellence, we can learned about how to improve our own lives. This case is no different.
Lessons from a Young Man in Court
- Clarify the small number of people whose opinions really matters and minimize the rest. This young man never met the people scowling, yelling, and rejecting him. He will probably never see them again. Allow strangers to be dismayed by your actions. Even if those strangers are the numerical majority in the room. If you didn’t trust someone’s opinion before, why start now?
- Stop underestimating your ability to handle adversity. The costs of social persecution in a public setting feels real. I heard their slurs in the courtroom. I felt their wrath. I feared rising abuse. In truth, the threat was an illusion. The young man took the necessary time to think, ask relevant questions, and listen carefully to the answers provided. He won his case after pleading no contest. The strangers upset at his behavior will have zero impact on his life. My guess is the event produced positive consequences. Objective behavioral evidence now exists that he can handle social friction with nary a drop in performance. Even when they flustered him, he kept moving toward something far more valued than being liked —knowledge, better decision-making, and justice.
- Productive conflict begins with curious questions and getting alternative perspectives. To understand a problem, a system, or someone else’s perspective, overcome the hurdle of language. If this young man did not ask for definitions and instead guessed, he might have lost his court case and been financially punished. You cannot have a productive discussion when two parties start with different definitions. The higher the stakes, the more important it is to ask what a person means in hopes of understanding and working with them in a constructive manner.
Understand this: we are biologically wired to fear the negative judgments of other human beings. Feeling socially anxious, an early warning system of potential rejection, reminds us that our standing in a group is tenuous and perhaps we should curry approval from others by changing course. The skateboarder working to impress instead of playing his or her own game. The social media content creator inventing a fake persona in hopes of winning approval. Sounds good except sometimes this early warning system produces false alarms. Sometimes the group is wrong. Sometimes the lone individual is right. Too few of us resist conformity pressures and stand up against a crowd.
Know that everything required to resist the pull of problematic beliefs and behaviors rests inside you. Be inspired by witnessing a minority of one, knowing that you can do the same. Be the young man in the courtroom. It will be hard. Most meaningful endeavors are.
We will not win everyone’s approval. We never could. Faced with unjustified disapproval by insignificant people, choose effectiveness over likability. We will not reach the best solutions by mirroring what the crowd asks us to say and do. We must patiently and carefully interrogate ideas with an attitude of openness and humility. Social bravery is in high demand. Let’s reward it when we see it. Let’s increase the supply.
Whose opinion is influencing you when in truth, their views should have no bearing on what you feel, think, or do? Remind yourself that other people don’t always matter. There are people who you would never choose to spend time with or seek to befriend. Give extra weight to the people who you respect, appreciate, admire, and whose relationship matters. Time is a scare resource. Don’t waste it being concerning with the judgements of inconsequential characters.
How can you be a source of strength for someone who is unfairly crucified by a crowd? What perpetuates injustice is the silence and cowering of witnesses who know better. You become a courageous person by regularly choosing action over inaction. Welcome the opportunity to be a defender of the innocent.
Know someone with dormant courage? Or a model of social bravery?
Share these Provoked ideas with them!
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.