Dan Munro Explores how being honest reduces anxiety
Secrets are like a physical weight.
I used to keep a lot of secrets.
I told myself that I was an honest person, because I didn’t deliberately tell malicious lies. In reality, however, most of my truth was hidden beneath my social mask, like the mass of an iceberg below the surface.
I hid opinions that would cause conflict. I hid emotions that would provoke judgment. I hid pain that would invite pity. I pretended everything was OK and that life didn’t bother me, especially when it really did.
I did all this to avoid rejection and derision. I was terrified of being found out and humiliated for the weak and pathetic thing I believed myself to be. I didn’t want anyone to discover that under my mask I wasn’t good enough.
And, as a direct result of this secret-keeping, I experienced low-level chronic anxiety for most of my life. I woke up with it every morning. It peaked before and during any social event. I turned to humour, alcohol and sarcasm to protect myself.
THE BURDEN OF DISHONESTY
When you hide things about yourself, your mind carries this information like a heavy burden. When you interact with others, your mind is forced to make lightning-quick calculations on how you must moderate what you say, to keep the secrets safe.
The more secrets you have; the slower and more painful this process is.
Picture a computer with too many applications open at the same time. This is your brain on anxiety. Before you can speak, your brain must open and review every secret-withholding application that you have, to check that you’re not about to sabotage your security.
The social mask must be protected at all costs. The mask is made of secrets.
Secrets about your perceived weaknesses, your embarrassing memories, your awkward uncertainties, your failures and weirdness. The mask must successfully block anyone from seeing these things.
You can feel this security-checking process as it occurs. It’s that anxious feeling that grows when you’re in the company of strangers, or attractive people, or high-status people – whomever represents a “risky” social environment.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Your mind races in “high-risk” social situations, carefully designing and redesigning the rules limiting how accurately you can express yourself. Your brain weighs your secrets, relative to the audience, and dictates your required dishonesty for the present situation.
Your brain sees that attractive person and goes, “OK, you are allowed to talk about things you’ve done well and activities you enjoy, but no talk of dark emotions, no insecurities or neediness, and no confused or awkward silences. Those are the rules to protect yourself today. Ready? No mistakes, OK? Now go for it!”
Exhausting, isn’t it? It’s only reasonable to feel anxious in the face of such an impossibly complicated task.
Social anxiety is born of social shame. It’s the feeling of worry that comes from imagining what will happen if people know the dark truth about you. Anxiety comes from believing there’s something wrong with you.
You believe that if people saw you for what you truly are – insecure, anxious, uncertain, miserable (a.k.a. a normal human being) – they will reject you, laugh at you, spread rumours about you, and otherwise ruin your potential to connect with others.
Yet, where does this belief come from? Why are you so sure that letting people see who you are will end in pain for you?
Maybe you were bullied. Maybe you had critical, unsupportive parents. Maybe you just watch too many unrealistic movies. Maybe you’ve come to believe, in a bizarre reverse-entitlement, that you’re different from all the others – “special” in your freak-ness.
YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF
The critical thing to understand is that no matter how this shame started, it’s currently perpetuated by your dishonesty today. The shame cannot continue without your present-day secrets.
You are the one who hides your true feelings of anger, stress and attraction. You are the one who chooses to hide those confrontational opinions and ideas. You are the one who won’t reveal those embarrassing stories about your past.
You are the one who doesn’t let people in. You shame yourself. Nobody else is even given the opportunity to contribute to your shame.
You feel anxious because you have decided to keep these things secret. By making your truth inappropriate to share, you tell yourself that there’s something wrong with you.
Then you worry that others will find out.
It’s the act of hiding that makes these things “wrong” in the first place! Before you decided to keep these things secret, they were neutral. Neither right nor wrong, just true. Now, with all this secrecy, they become taboo.
OTHER PEOPLE REJECTING YOU IS FINE
Sure, other people might judge or dislike you if they were to see your true colours, but this would simply mean they are judgmental and probably not worth spending time with. You can survive this.
People have been judging and disliking you your entire life, yet here you are, totally alive. There are over 7 billion people on the planet completely ignoring you right now, yet you experience no harm from this.
It’s YOU who rejects you – it happens inside your own mind, without any participation from others.
When you choose not to share something true about yourself, you reject who you are. This is where the “I’m not good enough” story is created – you wrote it yourself. Those feelings of loneliness have nothing to do with other people, they are all from you being nasty to yourself about things that are true.
MAKING A CHANGE
Imagine if you didn’t believe anything was wrong with you. Imagine if it was OK to be a flawed human being.
When I finally came to realize that I do this damage to myself – that my social anxiety was caused by me rejecting myself – I knew the change had to come from within me.
I knew I could never rely on others to treat me well, because humans are notoriously unpredictable and have a tendency to be critical. I also knew that my mask didn’t increase my quality of life, and prevented people getting close to me.
I had to stop rejecting me. I had to stop creating my own loneliness. I had to stop manufacturing chronic anxiety. But how?
By letting go of my secrets.
At first, I started small. When someone would ask me how my day was going, I stopped saying things like “Fine,” and started telling people how I really felt. I let people see when I was stressed, tired, even depressed. I let them know if I had a tough week, as well as talking about the good times.
Then, encouraged by the responses I received from a few kind people, I built up to bigger things. I started telling people when I was attracted to them. I shared secrets with people I didn’t totally trust. I admitted my weaknesses to my team at work.
Something incredible began to happen. Actually, two things:
First, the weight began to lift. I had originally predicted that revealing these secrets would give me more anxiety – I thought that people would use this information against me. But the truth was, once I revealed this stuff, no-one could use it against me. If I was shameless about something, I was invincible to it. It was an incredibly free feeling.
Secondly, people started to connect with me in a way I’d never experienced before. When I opened up, many others reciprocated and related to me. We found common ground in our insecurities, fears and weaknesses. I discovered that true connection happens in the darkness, not in the light.
My fear that people would abandon me was aggravated by hiding who I was, because I couldn’t create real, meaningful connections while I was being fake. Once I let people in, the connections were more secure and believable – I could finally relax in social situations.
Put it this way; when someone has seen all your darkness and bullshit and yet STILL likes you, you don’t need to worry about them leaving, compared with someone who only likes you for your mask and performance.
Start small, with people you already feel safe with. Then build up slowly until you’re sharing unsafe things with unsafe people.
Keep this in mind at all times: no secret can harm you unless you want it to be secret.
Dan Munro is a Confidence Coach and Director of The Brojo, New Zealands premier self-development community. He specializes in helping Nice Guys and People Pleasers discover confidence through integrity and authentic living.