“I worried about whether people could see how uncomfortable I was and became conscientious of hiding any signs of my stress.”
This was Chris Rentfrow 10 years ago, struggling with social anxiety. These days he seems to be a completely different person, and next month he will be conquering another major milestone in his journey: public speaking.
You can hear Chris talk about his journey Wednesday night September 18 at 6:30pm at Creston Brewery’s Golden Age space (above the Brewery). Click here for the Facebook event.
Just to cover the necessary disclaimers: Chris is not my client and has agreed to have his story shared. I would never ask one of my patients to share their story—the nature of therapeutic work is such that a deep trust must be established between client and therapist. Even a thought of sharing that work could undermine trust in the relationship.
Meet Chris Rentfrow
“I love finding the most complete solution to a complex problem,” said Chris Rentfrow, a web developer at PremiumMedia360. “I went to school for finance and ended up in a purchasing job. It wasn’t a good fit. I found myself bored and that’s when I taught myself to code. I needed a bigger challenge. Writing the code and seeing the final execution gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Chris grew up in a small town in southern Michigan. He is the middle child of an accountant and electrician. “I have always been extremely hard on myself and overly critical of everything in my life, both big and small. It’s impossible to determine why this was, but I think it had something to do with the pressure of sports, academics, and maintaining a reputation as a ‘perfect person.’”
I sat down over a beer with Chris to hear more of his story. My plan in starting The Truism Center is two-fold. We help people heal and grow through counseling, and also foster connection in unique ways to bolster community mental health.
My side hustle is bartending at the airport. Several times this year Chris and his wife have flown out on vacation and sat in my section. We struck up a conversation that led to an email from Chris and more beer.
Chris remarked that our conversation never would have happened if he hadn’t made significant strides in therapy. He would have avoided it as the cost of possible embarrassment would have been higher than the benefit of connection. Something as trivial as knocking over his glass of water would have sent him spiraling, a feeling he feared and avoided at all costs.
“I had a very intense struggle with what I now know is social anxiety,” Chris explained. He describes a determination to power through and remembers thinking that it will just go away. “I would often come home and have to take a nap because all the energy I was using to hide my anxiety. I worried about whether people could see how uncomfortable I was and became conscientious of hiding any signs of my stress.”
Chris does not remember anyone talking about anxiety as he was growing up. “Looking back I had no idea that’s what I was struggling with. I only felt the symptoms and it was a mystery why they were happening to me. Sometime in High School I began to sweat, a lot! At first I just thought I had hyperhidrosis, a condition of excessive sweating. I knew something was wrong. I was embarrassed about it, I obsessed about it, hated it and felt that something was wrong with me. I told no one.”
Physical Symptoms of Shame
As I listened to Chris’ story, I couldn’t help but frame his struggle around the nasty thing called shame. Thanks to the work of Brene Brown many people have come to understand what shame is and how terrible it is to allow it to be part of your life. Simply put, shame is believing that there is something about you that you need to hide. The fear of anyone knowing is intense because you think that this thing that you’re hiding will cause every person in your life to reject you. It’s irrational but puts you on high alert and in survival mode.
“I felt my reputation was at stake. I wasn’t going to let this ruin me.”
For about six years Chris struggled privately. He recalls at one point, early in his college career cracking the door by telling his parents he was struggling, but only with some minor anxiety. His parents helped him find a therapist and he began therapy sessions. Unfortunately, Chris couldn’t quite disclose all of the ways in which his life was impacted by his social anxiety. He tried several therapists, each helping him a little more in a different way.
It wasn’t until he met with family friend and psychologist Jim Henry that he learned about Neuroplasticity and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). He believes that it was a combination of this discussion with Jim, seeing a variety of therapists, and ultimately taking the time to learn more about the brain that he saw that there may be a way out. He began to be challenged to look deeper into the thoughts behind the feelings.
The real breaking point came one night while laying in bed, overwhelmed by the thought of “living like this forever.”
“The weight and pressure had gotten to me and I gave up. I couldn’t hide it anymore I broke down and called my parents telling them the whole truth about how badly I was struggling.”
It felt like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. All those years of hiding and pretending were finally over. “Finally, I could be honest about it.”
What came next was unexpected. “I got really depressed. I was exhausted and somehow my body and brain just shut down. I was starting to process the years of pain and fully realize the situation.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety and Depression
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was just the right tool for Chris. Through the process of recognizing cognitive distortions and challenging them Chris began to change how he saw the world. Through the practice of behavior change Chris began to make new habits to replace old, counterproductive coping mechanisms.
“What I found was that it was not enough for me to just see a therapist every week. I had to work on things every day.”
Chris says he is lucky to have found the Social Anxiety Institute in Phoenix Arizona. They offer a 6 month course and curriculum similar to our own treatment plan that was very helpful. Psychologist and Director of the Social Anxiety Institute Dr. Thomas Richards says “Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.”
Take the social anxiety quiz today and learn more about the institute’s programs by clicking here.
“Every day I focus on my mental health. I read, listen to podcasts and do the exercises outlined for me. It’s like a daily workout routine for my mind. I thought I was stuck and would never improve. Over time, I began to challenge negative thoughts, slow down, and train myself to view things rationally instead of through the lens of my own anxious feelings.”
As I got up to leave the table with Chris, I got to see the progress he’s made firsthand. I bumped the table and my glass of water spilled everywhere. Old Chris might have frozen up, turned bright red and began sweating as the attention of the whole bar turned our way. Instead we just laughed it off.
Chris will be sharing his story, his thoughts and some of his key takeaways at a public event called Social Anxiety Night, sponsored by the The Truism Center. Whether you struggle with social anxiety or not, I invite you to join us in a safe and therapeutic setting. Who knows, it may be the first step towards a new you!
Social Anxiety Night is Thursday, September 18 at 6:30pm at Creston Brewery’s Golden Age space (above the Brewery). You can click here and join the Facebook event.
As a therapist, it’s paramount to establish a safe space for clients to explore their own thoughts. This is called metacognition (thinking about thinking). Without a designated safe space it can feel too dangerous to dig deeper. Without digging deeper, you can never understand how your thought habits are connected to the way you feel.
If you came face to face with a bear, your body would signal that you were in danger and fear would cause you to back away or run. Anyone might agree this is a fairly rational reaction. If you saw a butterfly and had the same panicked reaction, most would agree this is not a rational or helpful reaction.
You might laugh, but you’d be surprised how many people deal with “killer butterflies” everyday and don’t realize it. It might be as general as social situations or it as specific as a certain tone of voice that’s tied to a traumatic event.
If you are living a life responding to negative emotions and it’s holding you back from living the life you hope to live, consider taking the first step and seeking out a therapist.
At The Truism Center we say that therapy doesn’t have to last forever but the benefits will.