I like to think I present as an outwardly normal person, but underneath that surface is an anxious mind that replays life’s embarrassments until the tape wears out.
Why do I keep calling that guy I’ve met multiple times by the wrong name? Will that editor I wanted to impress remember that awkward, vulnerable attempt at networking in excruciating detail, like I still do? Am I asking too many questions in this meeting? My laugh was anxious but it came out inappropriate, and now everyone must think I’m a jerk forever.
These are all negative thoughts that hound me long after the interaction ends — and they probably hound you too. It’s what makes networking so fraught: we’re often afraid we’ll screw up and make enemies instead of friends.
But all this worrying is taking up valuable real estate in my mind that I can be putting towards solutions, getting things done, and moving on with my awkward life.
I’m working on unlearning these bad impulses and here’s what I’ve learned on this journey towards being okay with my brain.
1. Let it go after 7 seconds
All of us have moments when we put our foot in our mouths and say or do something weird, awkward, or unnecessary in public.
What you should do next goes against the logic every anxious person feels.
Here it is: Instead of obsessing over every detail of this interaction forever, you must let that moment go.
Give yourself seven seconds to cringe and process that you’re a flawed human being like everyone else, and then release that embarrassment into the ether.
That’s the advice Leah Beckmann gave that spoke to my ever-worrying soul. “So you got weird at your office Christmas party,” she wrote for Jezebel. “Give it a full seven seconds, and release it. Yeah, you did make a weird noise with your mouth when you were alone with someone in the kitchen, and? Laugh about it to yourself for exactly seven seconds and then never think about it again. Anything longer is too long.”
Of course, this advice is for the everyday embarrassments of being human, not the really big screwups. For those, you should try to make amends or clarify, “it wasn’t my intention.” Most people will give you a break.
2. Use creative visualization to release negative worries
Letting things go is easier said than done.
One way to get good at it: Scheduling time in your day for mindfulness and reflection helps you become a person who lets things go easily, by allowing you to process ideas and anxieties in constructive ways.
Creative visualization is an Oprah-endorsed term for using your imagination to turn your most positive scenarios into reality. Set a goal, then create a mental image of exactly what your goal will look like.
The woman who literally wrote the book on creative visualization, Shakti Gawain, said that if we focus on this image when we’re relaxed on a regular basis it will become “an integrated part of your life” and “more of a reality for you.”
Or, if you have a worry, picture putting it into a bubble and releasing the bubble to the sky. Sound corny? Sure. But try it and see if you don’t feel a little lighter afterwards.
For us worrywarts, focusing on that mental image can mean creating a reality where we’re no longer worried, and a bit more free to think of other things.
3. Do something else
Sometimes, it’s when you try to stop thinking about something that it becomes harder than ever to forget it: the old “don’t think of the pink elephant” problem.
The solution: get your hands and mind occupied with something else, preferably something that requires focus and absorption. Switching tasks can help you stop wallowing and feeling sorry for yourself. Talk with your friends, go out for drinks and do whatever thing forces you to engage with the world around you, instead of your own self-flagellating thoughts.
For me, it’s usually exercise. I don’t enjoy yoga but I find the sweaty intent of holding a Warrior III Pose forces me to stay present in the moment. Other people find that a long walk, an intense run or even showering helps clear their minds.
And if nothing else, know that other people are just as awkward and anxious as you are, and that we are all on this embarrassing journey called life together.