How I Conquered Social Anxiety by Assuming Positive Intent
When social anxiety becomes overwhelming or even debilitating, one strategy for conquering it can be to always assume positive intent.
Did you know: only 4 percent of the universe is visible? The other 96 percent is a mystery scientists call “dark matter” and “dark energy.” This is significant; humanity goes to great lengths to understand the nature of the physical universe, yet even with advanced technology, the majority remains unseen, unknown.
This obscure nature of the cosmos is a metaphor for our subjective universe. Most of us have an inherent desire to just know, to observe, to see what is there to see. But the vast majority of our lives are mysterious — as much as our egos would like to tell us they have all the answers.
People are mysterious in their own way, too. We never know what other people really think. We never know why they do the things they do or why events unfold as they unfold.
And without active self-inquiry, we don’t even know ourselves as well as we might think.
The analytical mind’s ties to social anxiety
This is a potential problem. The analytical part of your psyche always seeks to know, to understand. If allowed to roam free, it will attempt to make meaning of empty space and fill gaps in knowledge with assumptions.
When applied to social anxiety, your overactive analytical mind will attempt to explain people’s behavior or “true” thoughts and feelings.
It’s a double-edged sword. Because life is 96 percent mystery, there’s a broad spectrum of assumption in our understanding of it.
Consequently, the standard of our tool for understanding — the mind — becomes essential to our quality of life.
Filling the gaps is irresistible for the ego, which always attempts to self-authenticate by exploring its environment to make sense of its identity.
This is a process which affects all of us to various degrees, but the task is to ensure the process is skillful, not unskillful.
How I eased my social anxiety
When I suffered from social anxiety, my mind assumed the worst. This affected my thoughts in any given moment.
They don’t like me, I’ve upset this person, that person is judging me.
I was also plagued by ruminations after social interactions.
I made a fool of myself
Most debilitating was the latter, ruminations triggered by assumptions. A short-circuit in my analytic brain attempted to find meaning based on little evidence. This fuelled my anxiety and made it worse. In turn, I then felt more anxious about future social events!
It’s not an exaggeration to say at times, my life was unbearable due to the assumptions I was making.
The mantra that changed my life
During therapy around that time, I came across a short-but-sweet, life-enhancing motto:
Always Assume Positive Intent
I discussed this with my therapist and we both agreed how beneficial this approach was.
The key to Always Assuming Positive Intent is to understand that, with so much unknown, there’s a huge, blank canvas to project assumptions.
And, with a little imagination we can drastically alter those assumptions, and get them working in our favor.
Don’t ignore the 4 percent
The key with this technique isn’t to delude ourselves or absolve responsibility from hard truths. When the observable 4 percent of the universe presents itself, we have to see it as it is.
That’s not to say we practice believing in these assumptions. It’s crucial to maintain a mindful approach, and acknowledge that assumptions are just thoughts, and not truth.
However, this mantra’s greatest utility is alleviating tension when the mind wonders and worries.
Always Assuming Positive Intent is a doorway to compassion
Compassion is a catalyst to seeking to understand from a place of love, not judging from a place of fear.
Always Assuming Positive Intent is a cognitive tool to counteract the moments when we assume the worst. It has its roots in Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which challenges unhelpful thoughts, and rationalizes them.
This approach is best complemented with acceptance of the unknown. It’s to be held lightly; mini-narratives created consciously and loosely, a buffer to fill space skilfully, a moulding of clay.
How to Always Assume Positive Intent
Practically there are two ways to apply Assuming Positive Intent.
The first is an internal application; to change the thoughts we have.
When noticing we are assuming the worst in any given situation, we can play with the assumption and ask ourselves:
What would the best possible assumption be?
This can be as outrageous as we want it to be! After all, we’re moulding the conceptual clay, without mistaking it for truth.
That person who blanked you this morning? They caught your eye, thought you were attractive, and felt self-conscious.
Your partner’s angry at you for not replying? They’ve missed you lately and want to feel intimacy and connection.
A recent study by Queen’s University Belfast discovered that people with grandiose narcissistic traits are generally happier and less stressed. I can’t help but think this is because, with a heightened sense of self-importance, narcissistic people always assume positive intent in any given situation. After all, why wouldn’t they?
Inquiring to understand
The second application is in action.
As conscious beings, we have the gift of being able to inquire. Like the Hubble Telescope peering deep into space seeking to understand what’s out there, we can peer into the souls of others by seeking to understand what they think, feel, or believe.
It’s not easy, but it is a trait that greatly benefits all relationships.
If finding yourself in conflict, or even just questioning why someone is acting in a specific way, seek to understand by opening up a conversation from a place of sincerity. By assuming positive intent, you’re more likely to master emotions and remain balanced throughout the conversation.
Transforming your universe
What are the bigger benefits of Always Assuming Positive Intent? When it becomes second-nature, the benefit for our lives is significant.
Many of us are familiar with paranoia. But we’re less familiar with pronoia — the opposite perception; a feeling that the universe is conspiring to help you.
Assuming Positive Intent is a mini-step in the direction of pronoia, a technique to get the vast unknown working in your favor, to re-balance and re-align, to stare into space and see support in the sparkle of the stars.