Dear Therapist:

After multiple failures at work, I finally realize that my feelings of being intimidated by people and being anxious to speak my mind has been something that has gotten in my way all of my life. I wind up staying in my corner and not engaging or communicating with the people I am supposed to. The issue is that someone presented me with a great job opportunity which I accepted and will start next week. I really don't want to blow another opportunity. I feel it is key to start off in a new situation with new people properly. Are there any quick tools you can give me to help me get off on the right foot?



When people are intimidated by others, we refer to this in various ways. We may say that it’s a symptom of social anxiety disorder, or we may view it as related to a more general anxiety. We speak of shyness or a fear of being judged. However, at the root of it there is usually a lack of self-esteem.

In my vernacular, self-esteem speaks to how people feel toward themselves based on their intrinsic qualities. Most of us have trouble basing our sense of self on our intrinsic qualities, so we tend to feel positively about ourselves based on external factors. These can include money, possessions, career and job description, level of education, and accomplishments. Although these are not the things that make us like others, we typically only know how to feel something toward ourselves on the basis of these.

Clearly, the ultimate goal is to slowly build a sense of self as based on true intrinsic qualities. When someone has low intrinsic self-esteem, external factors become increasingly important.  When we only know how to feel (positively or negatively) toward ourselves based on external factors (as is true for most of us), there are two basic ways in which people tend to develop a sense of self.

One method by which people build an externalized sense of self is to diversify their self-concept portfolio. When someone does this, they may good about themselves based on a number of factors, each of which has a similar level of importance. In this way, no single factor is prominent, so its loss would not be catastrophic. Because of this, the person is not in a constant state of anxiety about any particular factor being lost.

The other method by which people build an externalized sense of self is more problematic. Some people base their sense of self largely on one or two factors. This leads to a constant sense of fear of these being lost. For instance, if your sense of self is largely based on your job capabilities and what others think of you, it can be very difficult to put yourself out there for fear of feeling badly about yourself. Typically, this fear is consciously viewed as concern about what others will think, or fear of messing up. But when this is a self-esteem issue, realistically there is little or no danger of either concern coming to fruition.

You are likely not logically worried about the actual consequences of saying the wrong thing. Likewise, what others think likely doesn’t bother you on a conscious level. It is only emotionally that these things affect you. This is the reason that you are addressing your concerns to mental health professionals and not to a job coach. You are not looking for the right thing to say, but rather for the ability to say what you believe is right. You are not trying to get others to like what you have to say; you want to be able to say things without worrying about others’ reactions.

In the short term, you can try and use role reversal to better identify and reframe your thoughts and fears. Think of someone in the company whose opinion is important to you. Then imagine yourself in their position and this person in your position. Try and envision a feared scenario playing out, and consider how you feel about that person having said what they did. This may help give you some perspective on your fears and the degree to which they are based in reality.

Another direct strategy is to imagine a feared situation playing out step by step, and ask yourself what the worst-case scenario would be for each step. As you more clearly identify each specific concern, your conscious mind will likely automatically calculate the reality of the fear actually occurring, thereby reducing your anxiety.

As far as the long-term is concerned, identifying the intrinsic qualities that make you like someone else can help you to begin building your own true self-esteem. This is a process that requires time, and there are many facets to it. For the sake of this article, I will simply say that intrinsic qualities are those that exist for others regardless of their actions or accomplishments. They refer solely to the person’s way of thinking and/or feeling.

As with any cognitive process, practice is key. The more that these strategies are practiced, the more deeply ingrained they become. As this occurs, they begin to change our perspectives and our instinctive reactions.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317


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