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 their threshold for experiencing it is also much lower.
This means that they experience it much more frequently and much more intensely than the average person.
Experiential Avoidance and Shame
As we explain in detail in our complete guide to social phobia, SAD is marked by an intense fear of being negatively evaluated, judged, or rejected in social settings (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
This fear is usually accompanied by avoidance of social situations that cause high levels of psychological distress and might lead to these concerns becoming reality.
Socially anxious people usually try their best to adhere to social norms and generate a desired impression on others. If they fail in these attempts, feelings of shame tend to be the result.
For most people, some form of embarrassment after a minor social mishap is a normal experience and they can get on with their lives fairly quickly.
However, people with SAD typically regard manifestations of shame around others as a proof of their social awkwardness and insecurity.
This means that people with social phobia are easily embarrassed by feelings of shame, which quickly turns into a vicious cycle, with shame leading to more shame, and so on.
As feelings of embarrassment represent a reason for concern for them, people with SAD often develop a fear of the very emotion of shame itself.
In other words: Many socially anxious people are especially afraid of experiencing shame, and they often experience it much more frequently and intensely than the average person.
Naturally, people with social phobia are highly motivated to avoid feelings of shame and embarrassment and try their best to prevent them from arising.
Psychologists refer to this as experiential avoidance, which is linked to a wide range of psychological difficulties (Chawla & Ostafin, 2007).
This strategy may provide short-term relief, but it comes at a high cost, as the person enters a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety.
To break this pattern, a different behavioral strategy is needed.
Social Mishap Training, or: Shame Attacking Exercises
One way to achieve this is by deliberately seeking out feelings of embarrassment, and to to this repeatedly.
By exposing yourself to the feared stimulus often and long enough, your mind and body will grow accustomed to it.
This means that repeated exposure to the emotion of shame can decrease the intensity of the feelings of embarrassment and diminish the fear of them.
Psychologists have coined the terms habituation and extinction learning, two main principles believed to be among the driving forces of traditional exposure therapy.
Habituation simply means that your brain gets used to a stimulus, such as the sensation of shame.
If you experience it repeatedly for a prolonged period, your brain will start responding to it with decreased intensity.
Extinction learning refers to your brain’s ability to unlearn a fear it has previously acquired through experience.
If you endure feelings of shame and embarrassment repeatedly, for an extended period, but nothing noticeably bad happens, your brain adapts as it learns that these feelings do not lead to catastrophic consequences.
As a result, you remain calmer in situations that previously may have caused you to feel threatened and ashamed.
In addition, repeated exposure to the emotion of shame will lead to changes at the cognitive level.
Knowing that you have been through this experience many times and that you were able to handle it quite well will reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts related to it.
Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, coined the term shame attacking exercises when he proposed that people struggling 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 of a few years ago – and social mishap exposures – in the more recent research literature.
Whatever they are called, they all refer to the same principle: you can reduce your fear of shame, and you can reduce its intensity through these exercises.
How to Carry Out Shame Attacking Exercises?
Albert Ellis liked to set 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 lie down in a public place, such as a pedestrian zone for a minute or so, or walk in a crowded place and try to get high fives from as many people as possible.
In a 2013 research paper, the authors suggest walking backwards slowly in a crowded place for three minutes, or asking three people on the subway if they can spare $20, among many other examples (Fang, Sawyer, Asnaani, & Hofmann).
By now, you may have gotten the idea behind these exercises.
You think of social situations that are likely to make you feel awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassed, you choose a time and a place, and then you create and expose yourself to these situations repeatedly.
Important for the success of these exercises is that you expose yourself to the feared situation long enough for your initial emotional response (fear, shame and embarrassment) to subside at least a little.
This is usually the case after about sixty to ninety seconds, but it may even be sooner than that.
Also, for these exercises to really have a noticeable effect, you need to repeat them several times.
Usually, you would carry out one or several social mishaps and then repeat them again after a couple of days.
This repetition is important as it allows your brain to actually produce the changes mentioned above.
Of course, most people with SAD find this approach highly threatening.
By experiencing the exact scenarios they normally try to avoid, socially anxious people often find that the consequences of social mishaps and feelings of shame are not as negative, long-lasting, and irreversible as they previously thought.
If you are up to the task, the first step is to come up with the right situations for your specific case, as not everyone struggles with the same scenarios.
To get you started, we’ve put together a list of shame attacking exercises. Take a look at them and see which of these social mishaps could work for you.
List of Shame Attacking Exercises
- Let a handful of change drop on a crosswalk and take your time to pick up every coin.
- Ask three people if you can lick their ice cream.
- Ride your bike through the city and sing out loud.
- Film yourself in public as if you were a very important influencer.
- Tell three people you find attractive that you find them attractive.
- Recite a poem on the subway platform.
- Dance at a public place.
- Buy an item you find embarrassing, then cancel the purchase saying you do not have enough money.
- Do five pushups in public.
- Walk into a store and call a friend’s name loud as if you were looking for her or him.
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.
We would love to read about your ideas and experiences in the comments section below.
If this approach seems a bit much for you, don’t worry. Most people with SAD shy away from these exercises because they can seem very threatening.
To discover alternative options to decrease your social anxiety, click here to be taken to our eBook, which gives you a complete overview of the 17 treatment options for SAD that have been proven effective.
- Avoiding situations where you may feel embarrassed is detrimental in the long run, as this maintains and amplifies your fear.
- Voluntarily seeking exposure to 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 so that habituation occurs (less intense physiological reactions to the same stimulus).