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Sep 28, 2020

Social anxiety has been one of our most popular topics. It seems like lots of people get anxious in social situations. and a great many have even greater difficulties talking to strangers and people they might be interested in dating.

When I was in private practice, social anxiety, and “singleness,” were exceptionally common. In fact, 60% of my patients were single—they’d been divorced and didn’t know how to get back into the dating scene, or, they’d never developed romantic relationships in the first place. So today, we offer more tips and help for people who are afflicted with social anxiety.

Rhonda and I are very proud and excited to be joined today by a brilliant colleague and expert on social anxiety, Dr. Jacob Towery. Dr. Towery is a Stanford-trained pediatric psychiatrist, and was a student of mine when he was a psychiatric resident, He practices in Palo Alto and helps teach our weekly Tuesday TEAM therapy training group at Stanford.

Today (the day we recorded this podcast) was Jacob’s 41st birthday, so Rhonda and I sang a rousing Happy Birthday for Jacob at the start of the podcast! He kindly tolerated our fairly awful but heartfelt rendition of that classic song. Perhaps you could think of it as our own (fairly mild) Shame-Attacking Exercise.

As we begin today’s podcast, Rhonda reads a sad but moving email from Davide, who desperately wants to open up and connect with people on a deeper level, but says “these things scare me like hell.” In his email below, he describes his struggles and lists his negative thoughts about talking to people he doesn’t know. He is especially afraid of Self-Disclosure—telling people that he struggles with social anxiety.

To his credit, Davide has made significant progress, has worked hard on challenging many of his negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs, and already has a girlfriend! But he wants to take his progress and growth to a new level.

Here’s the email I received from Davide:

Hi David!

There is no month that I don't listen to your podcast and take some notes. Yes, you can read my email and use my real name as you like!

I really think that your methodology is a breakthrough in self-help and coping with emotions.

Also, the new technique of positive reframing is very helpful. When I started using it for myself at the beginning of every daily mood log I really noticed a faster improvement. I completely agree with your vision that it would be better if there weren't schools of psychotherapy but tools that work.

Your books and works have really changed my life for better and I'm looking forward your next book Feeling Great! In these two years I have done many Daily Mood Log, I have also done every day for a month the Smile and Hello Practice and I got a girlfriend for the first time in my life!

I'm still not very good at breaking my negative thoughts though. I often end up with a lengthy, verbose and not so effective positive thought. Sometimes it seems that I understand rationally that a negative thought isn't true, but I don't feel better.

Also, my social anxiety is reduced, but not gone. I still have a lot of social anxiety when I'm around people. I understand the Spotlight Fallacy and Brushfire Fallacy at the intellectual level and I'm definitely improved a little, but still today I can't remember a single good conversation with a person that I don’t know and I'm not very comfortable with. I tried to use the Five Secrets but I can't think of anything good to say in real conversations.

I want to do some shame-attacking exercises and also disclosure to random people on the street about my social anxiety, but these things scare me like hell and I don't have the courage to do these exercises. I know that these will help, but I feel really really scared and so far, I haven’t mustered up enough courage.

I want to leave home (I'm in Italy) for work in another country in Europe next year, but for me social anxiety is a really huge obstacle. This makes me feel a little sad because I see my social anxiety like a prison.

These are some of my anxiety thoughts at the idea of disclosure to random people on the street that I want to go to work abroad but I'm too shy and suffer from social anxiety:

    1. I will not be able to say what I want to say because of anxiety. I will stumble in words and an inconclusive thing will come out.
    2. The other person will think that I'm completely crazy and I will frighten him/her with my behavior. I should never scare other people with my behavior.
    3. In the future I will remember all the things that I said wrong and I will beat myself up over and over again.
    4. I will waste the other person’s time when I try to talk to them. I should never waste anyone’s time.
    5. If I stop a woman, she will think I'm crazy creepy guy who wants to sexually assault her and I will scare her.
    6. The other person won't stop to talk to me and will just go their way, pretending I didn't exist.

Sorry for this lengthy email. When I read your response I exploded with joy and I decided to write a lot of things.

Thank you, Davide

Jacob begins with a personal story of his romantic adventure with a woman he’d just met at a Hot Springs. After talking for a while, some good chemistry seemed to develop, so Jacob asked, “Would you like a kiss?” Jacob immediately backed off when she seemed reluctant. Although he felt slightly rejected, they continued to talk and enjoy each other. Then things suddenly took a surprising and exciting turn in the opposite direction!

Jacob emphasizes the value and importance of asking for what you want, and recommends getting “enthusiastic verbal consent” before touching. that’s because non-verbal consent can easily be misinterpreted by both people. In contrast, enthusiastic verbal consent is respectful and empowering toward both people. It leads to less mind-reading and a greater chance of being on the same page with the person you are interested in.  Rhonda acknowledges Jacob's tremendous respect for the person he is dating with his emphasis on "enthusiastic verbal consent."

Jacob, Rhonda and David also talked about the Burns Rule: People NEVER want what they CAN get, and ONLY want what they CAN’T get,” and how you can use this rule to your advantage if you avoid being pushy or needy. Jacob used the Burns Rule skillfully, and if you listen to the podcast, you will hear the surprising conclusion!

We also discussed the power of playfulness, taking risks, and sometimes being silly. In my experience (DB), people struggling with social anxiety are sometimes way too serious, and this can turn people off, particularly if you want to date. I can speak to that from personal experience, as I struggled with five different kinds of social anxiety when I was a young man!

With Jacob’s leadership, we illustrated a number of techniques that might be helpful to Davide, and perhaps to you as well, including:

  1. The “Consensual Compliment.” This is a safe, non-threatening way of approaching strangers, especially people you might want to get to know better or even date. Essentially, you ask a stranger if they’d be open to receiving a compliment. Jacob and Rhonda demonstrate this technique with role-playing, and explain what to do if the person seems negative or ambivalent, or if the person says yes. I suspect that Jacob created this awesome method.
  2. Talk Show Host. This is a great, non-threatening way to make conversation with any stranger in any circumstances. David and Rhonda illustrate it in a role-play.
  3. Shame Attacking Exercises. You do something bizarre in public to make a fool of yourself, so you can overcome your fears of looking foolish. Dr. Towery is one of the world’s most creative and funny teachers of this techniques, and I recounted one of his incredible Shame-Attacking Exercises in the Macy’s Department Store near Stanford.
  4. Smile and Hello Practice. You force yourself to smile and hello to ten strangers each day.
  5. Rejection Practice. Instead of trying to get a date, you try to collect as many rejections as possible, so you can get over your fear of being rejected. I (DB) once skipped medical school classes for two weeks and did rejection practice all day long every day with a young friend, Jeff Evans (aka Spyder). We both had a 100% rejection rate, but it helped us get over our fears.

The late psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis, also emphasized the value of the rejection practice he did in New York when we was a young man. He asked 200 women in a row for a date in one week. They all said no, except for one, but she didn’t show up for the date!

But he said this helped me overcome his fears as well, and he ended up with an incredibly rich dating life and even ended up writing an advice column in a men’s magazine for several years.

Jacob said that he's experienced many rejections as well, and agrees on the importance of overcoming this fear!

  1. Externalization of Voices. You talk back to your Negative Thoughts. Jacob, Rhonda, and David illustrate this powerful method, using the seven Negative Thoughts in Davide’s email.

Jacob strongly recommended several other resources, including podcast 197 with Dr. Matthew May as well as several of David’s FB Live videos on flirting, featuring Dr. Angela Krumm (part 1) and (part 2)and Kyle Jones. My book, Intimate Connections, is a bit dated now, but the wisdom and techniques in this book will be invaluable for anyone in the dating scene. Lots of people have told me that they started dating and got married after a long period of loneliness because of that book!

Jacob has recently published a book on depression for adolescents and teenagers called “The Antidepressant Book,” which is available on Amazon. If you have or know of a young person who is struggling with depression, this book might be a great gift for him or her!

My own new book Feeling Great, was released September 15, and is also available on Amazon (see the link below.) It features all the new TEAM therapy techniques, and is geared for therapists as well as the general public.

If you would like to contact Dr. Towery, feel free to visit his website is .

Rhonda and David