Step 4-A: How Dream Work Reduces Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety has caused many of to give up, at least to some degree, on our dreams for a better life. Or we may never have dared to dream at all. Surely, many of us have concluded, social anxiety has built walls so wide and so high that there is no way around or over them. Perhaps we still dream but less so than we once did. We may still think that some limited progress is possible but that ultimately we will have to settle for much less than what we had once hoped for in life. In the early stages of social anxiety we may have had fuller dreams for ourselves; but as the syndrome beat us down year after year, we may have dreamed less often and on an ever smaller scale. Over time, our sense of possibilities diminished as unrelenting social anxiety eroded our hope.
As the result many of us feel that cherished dreams for a better life are of the impossible variety. Others haven’t completely given up— but still perpetually defer their dreams— putting off despair by banking on the notion that if they just hang on and keep doing what they have always done, that someday social anxiety will wear off through everyday living. Only then will their dreams come true, so no need to dream that much until the day of liberation from anxiety comes. Until then, holding on tightly to a constricted life is seen as the solution. Others are determined seekers, trying one self-help approach after another; or one therapist after another; so far with limited results. Nevertheless they may also defer the business of actually dreaming until the hurdle of social anxiety is finally leapt. “After we overcome our social fears— then we’ll start dreaming in detail of a new life in earnest,” they think, never knowing that despite their sincere efforts, that they’ve got the cart trying to pull the horse.
What many of us don’t know yet is that the practice of healthy dreaming is actually a key part of the process of healing fear: that engaging in dream-work helps to build our faith; opens our minds to new possibilities and allows us to use our creativity as an ally. And that faith, being the opposite of fear, means that having full and detailed dreams for our lives— in some cases for the first time in years— actually helps us to heal our anxiety.
The fact that we dream so little is not our fault. It is just a part of the natural process of fear constricting the mind. Less obvious than the fears that make us miserable every day, yet insidious nevertheless, this is the hidden face of social anxiety— only made visible when we start noticing what we don’t think about just as well as we recognize what we do think about.
Naturally we are all painfully aware of the fears that are right in front of us every day; at work, at school, in our social lives or in the family. These fears are obvious because they distress us so much. But we are often much less aware how far fear has gone to shut down our imaginations. We no longer think about doing many things because we are sure, due to our anxiety, that they are just not possible. We edit entire aspects of our needs, our wants and desires out of our lives in the process: As life becomes constricted we begin to forget our options. They no longer even enter our thoughts. We may even begin to forget who we are in the process.
So in one way or another we cease to imagine the life that we really wanted, and instead find ourselves living a life that is almost completely alien to our wishes and our potential. We hang on to jobs that we dislike because of the fears that advancement would trigger. Or we lose or avoid employment for the same reasons. We may tolerate friendships that drain our energies or bore us, or we may even accept relationships that subject us to abuse because we believe that this is the best that a socially anxious person can possibly hope for. Romance may fall into the same unsatisfying patterns, or may seem a distant fantasy rather than an attainable reality. Unaware that our imagination has become a casualty of our social anxiety, we may spend much painful effort trying to make our limited lives work rather than creating new options.
As social anxiety tightens its grip on our lives, we may begin to forget that the seeds of healing fear lie in the very act of imagining a larger and better life. Especially one that is close to our hearts; that utilizes our favorite talents and abilities; that involves doing the things that deep down we always wanted to do, that engages our loves and even our passions: A life that is reflective of who we truly are.
This because the healthiest of our dreams come from our true selves; and the problem is that, as we turn away from allowing ourselves to dream, our inner voice is stifled and even stilled. We may, as the result, no longer know what we want. Life defined by the limits of social anxiety becomes a life of emotional and spiritual poverty that puts us out of touch with our desires. For many this poverty may also be economic. Some of us even believe that we deserve this. Surely this is our just desert for failure. Heaping on self-criticism only serves to deepen this conviction. As abandonment of our dreams and the harsh chatter of derision silence our inner voices we wither, like a plant deprived of water.
The solution is to allow the life-giving water of our dreams to flow again. To let them nourish our roots and strengthen our interior voice which is after all the voice of our souls wishing to declare a fuller birth of our lives into this world. Some even believe that this is the voice of the universe whispering through our spirits, calling us to service each in our own unique way in this life. In any case, each of us was born with our own fingerprints, our own special potential and abilities; our own special something that we have to offer the world, that no one else can offer in exactly the same way. This is also the source of a healthy personal power, a power without cruelty or enmity towards others. As our inner voice strengthens and our dreams for our lives grow more vivid and detailed, our social anxiety gradually weakens. This is especially true if we take steps, even small and halting, into a life of our dreams.
“But how can we do this?” Some may ask. How can we dream dreams that help to heal our spirits and how then can we walk the walk that brings these dreams into reality? Since control is the enemy of the socially anxious, the answer begins here: The first three steps of the 12 Steps of Social Anxiety Anonymous show the way. Taken together, they orient us towards surrender and faith. These help us to start clearing the patterns of control from our personalities. Thus not only directly reducing social anxiety, but also allowing us to gradually let go of perceptual control: the control that works by shutting out options, and to becoming gently receptive to dreaming authentic, detailed and healthy dreams about the lives that we really want.
It may be easier to do this if one takes dream-work as a single step, separate from taking any other action. This can take the pressure off, allowing us to dream without the fear of taking further actions influencing us. When we dream with no immediate expectation or pressure of having to do anything else, we often dream more effectively. Since there is no pressure to take any immediate steps, our minds are more relaxed and our inner voice can speak more freely. Pressure is never the way to go with social anxiety anyway. Pressure after all is just another word for control which we try to remove from our lives at all levels. Better to go easily and gently.
We often receive our dreams in pieces, a little at a time. Visions of our better life may come to us at odd hours: late at night, at work, on the bus or while shopping, in the shower or while mowing the lawn. We learn to expect the unexpected and to take time out to receive whatever is coming in. When little flickers of dreams appear, we try to allow them room to run and bloom into greater detail. Taking time for dreams when they arise allows for them to manifest more fully in our minds, and eventually in our lives. For this reason it can be helpful to carry a journal at all times, in order to jot down parts of our vision as they come to us.
Then, when we are ready and on no one else’s timetable, we can construct the whole picture of the life we really want. This work is done in earnest when we do a formal Step 4-A.
But first a foundation for good dreaming is to write a ‘purpose statement’ for ourselves—
“What is my purpose in life?” Is perhaps the single most important question that we will ever ask ourselves, but this is not just beneficial to our spirits: It has a direct and positive effect on our social anxiety as well:
What gives meaning to our lives? What is it that we want to bring to the world while we are here? And what would that mean in terms of the career we choose, the person that we marry, or the children that we raise? What is our purpose in terms of recreation or travel? We try to ask this question for each category of our life.
While asking these questions we make a concerted effort to leave social anxiety out of the equation. The questions are instead framed like this: “If I had no social anxiety, what would my purpose be?” We allow a full run of our imaginations in this context. We let ourselves dream of our purpose as if the social anxiety problem were already solved. And since the pressure of taking any actions is off, our imaginations are free to roam.
Rather than imagining how to get more around the edges of our social fears, we allow the fullest of imaginings— a clear image of a life without the limits of social fear. Such dreaming, at its essence, is an act of faith. We dream beyond the certainty of our fears by reaching beyond them with our imaginations. We draw for this on the childhood habit of pretending. We pretend, for a moment, that there is no social anxiety in our lives, and that we truly could have what we wanted. And then we allow ourselves to picture in greater detail what this anxiety-free life would look like. Simply put, we dare to dream.
We should also ask the following questions— does our newfound purpose come from our true selves? Is it tied to what we really love to do? Does it include serving ourselves as well as others (self love balanced with love of others)? We need to take special care not to build a sense of purpose out of feelings of shame, indebtedness or guilt. Our purpose should come not from what we feel we should do but rather what we want to do. A healthy purpose should be tied to our hearts and things that we enjoy doing rather than some kind of penance or self-sacrifice.
This does not mean that we abandon adult obligations— especially to children or other dependent loved ones who are not seriously abusive. But it does mean that we try to rebuild our lives more in line with our real passions along the way; A life that grows out of self love as well as love of others.
Following our hearts more closely in work and education will usually benefit everybody anyway, so long as we proceed in a responsible manner. Taking career changes or additional education in stages can make sure that we don’t take a vow of unreasonable poverty in the process. Balance of course is the key. Part of self love is meeting our economic needs as well as our need for rest, recreation, friendship and intimate partnership along the way. Not every dream can be realized overnight. Often we find that merely getting on the path towards our dreams creates an immediate feeling of relief and buoyancy not to mention energizing us and weakening our anxiety as well. At other times our anxiety may put up a fight in response, at which point we find that a return to the first Three Steps and continued reliance on SPA support groups can be a great help, if not immediately then eventually, if we gently persist. Flexibility and openness to revising our dreams, not according to our anxiety but in continued dialogue with our hearts may also be a part of the process.
Once we have developed a sense of purpose we can proceed to flesh out the complete portrait of our dreams. Here we remind ourselves again to take the pressure off and dream only, with no expectation of taking any immediate actions other than writing down our visions of a better life.
When taking Step 4-A, we write out these visions in great detail for each category of our lives, such as: Work, income, education, recreation and travel. Or dating, romance, long-term relationships and marriage. It helps to describe in all five senses what each area will look like. What are the colors, the smells, the sounds and the textures? And we take extra-special care to write out dreams that includes our feelings. If we desire to teach we describe ourselves enjoying delivering a lecture to a class. Or we may describe ourselves feeling content and loved in a healthy new relationship or a revitalized old one. We can’t always count on the love of others but we can imagine loving ourselves along the way as we undertake the journey of finding or building healthier relationships. Emotions should never be neglected when doing dream-work. We can imagine ourselves working happily at a new hobby, cuddling next to a loving partner, laughing with new friends, or experiencing the excitement of a long avoided vacation.
Our dreams should not only be about the social aspect of our lives, but all aspects. A fuller life in one area will often reduce our overall anxiety. For example, those of us who love writing have often discovered that allowing ourselves more time for this cherished yet very solitary hobby also experienced a reduction of social anxiety as the result. Simply put, we become less anxious the more we live the lives that we really want, since every aspect of ourselves is connected to every other. The more we do what we love, so long as it is healthy, the more we relax and the more that fear falls away.
High expectations should be avoided however. Rather than setting up control issues about how things will absolutely turn out with our dreams, we let go of any results of our dreaming. Instead, we simply allow ourselves to imagine in detail how we would like our lives to be. Out of this process we may eventually take actions, but even then we gently keep the focus on the process of getting there rather than holding tightly to outcomes. We don’t grab onto our new visions, we just gently receive them; and then we work at letting go again as we gradually take steps towards them. “Easy does it.” is an old 12 Step slogan that comes in handy here.
Since visions are better received than forced or contrived, we do our best to gently prepare ourselves for accepting them rather than hammering them out. We may do this by talking about our dreams for our lives in the groups. Sharing helps to gently reinforce our new visions and further break the spell of impossibility that has haunted us for years. We may share about the acceptability of dreaming, since we may not have thought it was right or realistic previously to imagine such things. Does the imagine of doing what we really want trigger misplaced feelings of shame? Do we feel undeserving? These things may be discussed to good effect. We can also share about our beliefs and how we are working to change them— defining what we specifically feel to be impossible and how we are trying to reach beyond that with our imaginations. All of this helps to prepare the way.
Balance of course is always the key: We take care not to dream at the expense of doing the footwork in the rest of the SPA program. Attending to the patient work of ongoing study and practice of the 12 Steps, attending groups on a regular basis, letting other group members into our lives and developing healthy relationships in recovery are all critical aspects of making progress with our social anxiety and are essential to our journey towards our dreams.
We do our best to leave room for our higher power in the process, approaching our dreams with gentle receptivity. We also come to realize that even lives without social anxiety are not unlimited. Not every dream was meant to come true, and higher power may at times have surprises for us; providing joys and adventures that we were not able to even imagine. Nevertheless the lives of the socially anxious tend to be starved of sufficient dreaming, and equally starved of steps towards those dreams. We can’t always control or anticipate the outcome, but our lives are much fuller and the garden of our lives begins to flourish again when we allow the process of imagining back in.
Completion of Step 4-A sets the stage for a thorough although gentle effort in completing Step 4-B. While 4-A tells us where we want to go, Step 4-B helps to clear away the emotional blockages that have long kept us from realizing our dreams. Sharing Step 4-A and Step 4-B with a Sponsor or other respected and wise person who has experienced significant progress in overcoming social fears as well as significant experience in working the 12 Steps should follow soon afterwards. This sharing is the essence of Step 5 and is described elsewhere in our literature.