The wrong equation of social fear
My girlfriend really likes to tell this story about me. Other people find it entertaining. So I thought I should share it.
It’s about our deepest fear: social rejection and how it is actually not important in real life.
The story: what happened
Several years ago I had just started doing CrossFit. I was not very good. I was coming from several years of endurance running. My legs were huge and strong. My upper body was weak and practically devoid of muscles. I was like a pathetic T-Rex with huge legs and puny arms. And with love handles.
The place where I was doing Crossfit was not friendly. They had an elitist attitude. If you were good, you got into the inner circle. If you were not good, you were mostly ignored. The coaches gave you minimal, insufficient instruction and treated you with barely veiled contempt.
I was in the second category. I had little strength and abysmal form. Each class was a challenge to avoid feeling embarrassed by my poor performance.
In the past few weeks I had started feeling a little more confident. I rocked a couple of workouts because they were leg and cardio-heavy. I was getting a tiny bit of validation for it. This was an additional reason to avoid anything that might trigger social rejection.
On a Wednesday evening my girlfriend and I decided to go to Crossfit although we had not planned it. I was at work but she was working from home. She offered to bring me clothes for the workout directly at the gym.
We met at the gym. She opened her backpack to give me the clothes, only to realize she had forgotten my workout clothes at home.
I had nothing to wear except my stiff office clothes. If it were a friendlier place, maybe I would have thought to ask the box if they had any extra shorts lying around. But I did not. The only choices I saw were to go home without doing the workout or do it in my ugly underwear. The pants and formal shirt were too stiff to do CrossFit.
You know what I chose. In my head, the benefit of doing the workout outweighed the embarrassment of going out in my underwear. It helped that I was already late for class so I did not have time to think. It also helped that I had decided years ago that I don’t want to care what other people think. This was a clear situation where I had to prove this decision to myself.
How was it?
In a word: awful.
The moment I walked in the CrossFit room, I regretted my decision. People stared. The coach looked at me funny. I think he was debating in his head whether to throw me out.
But it was too late to back out. I grinded my teeth and pretended nothing was out of the ordinary.
The more I pretended, the more natural it seemed in my head. My girlfriend says it did not look any less weird. She felt social rejection just because I was talking with her while doing the workout in my underwear. She ignored me for most of the class because of this.
The class finished after an hour. I changed back into street clothes and went on with my life.
My girlfriend tells this story to people now. She says she admires how I can not care about what other people think and follow my goals.
The lesson: social fear is maladaptive
If I had followed my emotions, I would have not done the workout. I would have regretted this decision.
We fear social invalidation because it used to be a deadly risk. Our ancestors could only survive in tribes or bands. A hundred thousand years ago a lone human had zero chances of survival. Ensuring they belonged to the tribe kept our ancestors alive. Now this does not apply anymore. But the need to belong remains. It’s deeply buried in our unconscious model of the world.
It’s not enough to decide not to fear social rejection. You need to teach your unconscious it’s harmless. How do you do that? By exposing yourself to rejection. When nothing bad happens, your unconscious learns.
My CrossFit experience was one such lesson. It takes multiple exposures to start changing the unconscious model. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
It feels really scary, but it’s more scary how unfree you are if you live your life avoiding social rejection.