How Shame Attacking Exercises Can Conquer Social Anxiety

For most of us, shame is simply the uncomfortable sensation that accompanies our social mishaps. For others, namely those with social anxiety disorder (also: SAD), shame is much more than that.

Not only do socially anxious people tend to experience shame more intensely than others, but also is their threshold to experience it much lower. Which means that they experience a whole lot more of it than the average person.

Experiential Avoidance and Shame

But it does not stop here. Given the low threshold for shame and the high intensity of the emotion when it arises, people with SAD experience fear of the emotion itself.

This fear naturally motivates the affected person to avoid the feared stimulus, in this case the emotion of shame. Psychologists refer to this as experiential avoidance, which is linked to a wide range of psychological difficulties.

A person afraid of experiencing shame is likely to avoid situations and behaviors which may cause it to arise.

A young girl sitting, looking afraid, ashamed, and worried.

This strategy may provide short-term relief, but it becomes problematic on the long run, as the person enters a self-reinforcing anxiety loop.

To break this pattern, a different behavioral strategy is needed.

Shame Attacking Exercises

One way of achieving this is to deliberately seek embarrassment repeatedly. By exposing yourself to the feared experience often and long enough, your mind and body will grow accustomed to the stimulus.

This process is also referred to as habituation, leading to less intense physiological reactions in response to the same experience.

What is more, repeated exposure to the emotion of shame is going to lead to changes on a cognitive level. Knowing that you have passed through this experience many times and that you have been able to handle it quite well is going to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts.

A man with goggles is looking funny and weird.

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, coined the term shame attacking exercises when he proposed that people who struggle with dysfunctional shame should seek repeated exposure to the feelings and sensations of embarrassment.

More recently, these exercises have also been referred to as comfort zone challenges – by the popular Comfort Zone Crusher movement a couple of years ago – and social mishap exposures – in the more recent research literature.

Whatever their name, they all refer to the same principle: You can reduce your fear of embarrassing yourself, and you can reduce the intensity of the shame you experience through these exercises.

How to Carry Out Shame Attacking Exercises?

Albert Ellis liked to give the example of walking around in public with a banana on a leash – talking to it, petting it, treating it like your dog.

The most famous comfort zone challenge was to lay down at a public place, such as a pedestrian zone for a minute or so, or to walk at a crowded place and try to get high fives from as many people as possible.

Two young men giving high fives and looking happy.

In a research paper from 2013, the authors suggest walking backwards slowly at a crowded place for three minutes, or to ask three people in the subway if they can spare $20, among many other examples (Fang, Sawyer, Asnaani, & Hofmann).

The possibilities are endless. With a bit of creativity, you can surely come up with your own exercises.

To get you started, we have put together a list of comfort zone challenges. Have a look at them and see which of these social mishap exposures would work for you.

List of Shame Attacking Exercises

  1. Let a handful of change drop on a crosswalk and take your time to pick up every coin.
  2. Ask three people if you can lick their ice cream.
  3. Ride your bike through the city and sing out loud.
  4. Film yourself in public as if you were a very important influencer.
  5. Tell three people you find attractive that you find them attractive.
  6. Recite a poem on the subway platform.
  7. Dance at a public place.
  8. Buy an item you find embarrassing, then cancel the purchase saying you do not have enough money.
  9. Do five pushups in public.
  10. Walk into a store and call a friend’s name loud as if you were looking for her or him.
A man with beard and glasses is wearing a swim aid looking funny and awkward.

Once again, these are just examples. You can feel free to adjust these exercises however you see fit, and you can come up with completely new ones. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section below.

Conclusion

  • Avoiding situations in which you may be embarrassed is harmful on the long run, as this maintains and amplifies your fear.
  • Voluntarily seeking exposure to the feelings of embarrassment and shame can significantly reduce your social anxiety.
  • Identify your specific triggers for feelings of embarrassment and design exposure exercises to address them.
  • Expose yourself to the situation long enough for the initial shame and fear response to subside (usually about 90 seconds).
  • Do these exercises repeatedly for habituation to occur (less intense physiological reactions to the same stimulus).

Fang, A., Sawyer, A. T., Asnaani, A., & Hofmann, S. (2013). Social Mishap Exposures for Social Anxiety Disorder: An Important Treatment Ingredient. Cognitive and behavioral practice, 20(2), 213–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpra.2012.05.003

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