How to Be Yourself

Quiet Revolution is thrilled to spread the word about Ellen Hendriksen’s new book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. The following excerpt is from Chapter 4, How Our Inner Critic Undermines Us. 

So how do we rewire to live with less anxiety? First, like a debater studying both sides of an issue, let’s invest in listening to our antagonist and get to know the critical voice in our head. That voice may be soft or loud, but it exists for every single person on this earth; we’re all human, and for better or worse, we always will be. I have the critical voice, too. And though my social anxiety is a faint echo of its former self, I still have moments when that voice re-ignites like a trick birthday candle.

I’ll give you a recent example. My four-year-old attends a cooperative preschool. Every family has a co-op job, and ours is food shopping. So every few weeks, my partner, Nicolas, or I plows through the grocery store, clearing out the stocks of sunflower butter and string cheese for a horde of hungry preschoolers.

For lots of people, grocery shopping squarely presses their social anxiety button. There’s the sense of being in the way, worry that people are evaluating the contents of our carts, or reluctance to chat up the cashier. For me, grocery shopping doesn’t typically trigger any anxiety since videographers seldom jump out from behind the seedless grapes. So when I signed up for the food committee I didn’t think anything of it.

However, the first time I found myself in the grocery store with the co-op’s five-page shopping list, I realized I would need two carts, which in retrospect made sense for a week’s worth of twice-a-day snacks for fifty children. I wheeled the first cart around the store, loading it to the brim, and then dropped it off at Customer Service while I set out with the second.

But when I looked at what remained on the list and realized my new cart would contain nothing but ten gallons of milk, forty bananas, and thirty apples, I felt that old sensation start to rise. As I maneuvered the cart over to the dairy section, I got stuck in my own head. I couldn’t help but imagine what other people would think: Well, she sure has a limited diet, Just buy a cow, lady, or, A little thirsty, are we?

One by one, I hefted ten gallons into the cart, then pushed my considerably heavier load over to the produce section and topped it off with forty bananas. I don’t think I’d ever bought forty of anything before. Finally, as I was self-consciously bagging thirty apples, imagining the obnoxious things people might say, a man approached me. “Nice apples,” he intoned. I startled. In a flash, my adrenaline jolted—it was The Reveal.

But when I looked up, I saw an old friend grinning back at me. I can guess what my face looked like because his expression quickly changed to alarmed and chastened. “Sorry I scared you,” he said.

“No, no, it was totally me,” I said truthfully. “I was in my own world.” Pleasant small talk ensued, and he said nothing about the contents of the cart. I don’t think he even noticed.

To be stuck in your own world of possible judgments, or stuck  in your own head judging yourself, is not fun. For me, it kept me from being where I actually was—in the produce section of a busy grocery store on a Sunday afternoon—and instead put me in a self-generated world of judgment that wasn’t even real. It kept me from looking around at the good people of the grocery store—young couples debating coffee brands, dads with toddlers, white-haired women sniffing melons—and realizing that not one of them was eyeballing me or my cart.

After my friend rolled his cart away, I felt a resolve come over me. I decided to look at people, not put my head down. I looked at every single person as I push-pulled my two overflowing carts to the checkout stand. Some people were looking at labels, some at the food on the shelves. And yes, some looked back at me. But no one said a word. Even if they had, what would be so bad? I’m not weird, I’m doing my co-op job, which just happens to involve a lot of milk and bananas. Exactly zero people raised an eyebrow at my carts. And even if they had, I could handle it.

That day at the grocery store, I took home a lot more than bananas. I took home a little booster shot reminding me of what it took years to learn: my anxiety is not credible. Seldom does anyone actually say, “Wow, you sure seem uncomfortable. You’re weird and don’t deserve to be here.” Or, “That’s it. You’ve paused in conversation one too many times—we’re all going to turn our backs on you now.” Or in my case, “Ma’am, is there a problem? The volume of milk in your cart clearly indicates you’re a freak.” Even if someone did, everyone within earshot would internally roll their eyes at the accuser. It would be the accuser who was unreasonable, not me. And if someone actually said to me, “You only eat milk and bananas! Wow, you have problems!” I could wave it off as the grumblings of a judgmental curmudgeon. I might even smile and offer them a banana.

From How to Be Yourself by Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.