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Why I Named My Social Anxiety ‘Ursula’

Yes, I named my anxiety after the dark, evil sea witch who stole Ariel’s voice in “The Little Mermaid.”

Because that’s exactly what social anxiety does.

It takes over your body and controls your thoughts and behaviors to the point where you can’t speak or function. You become consumed by the blushing, sweating, shaking, light-headedness and panic of trying to find words when your mind is completely blank.

To the outside world, you look the same, but your body has become commandeered by a monster in disguise. A monster who uses your own desires against you to manipulate and torment you, ruin your relationships, and put you under a spell of self-sabotage so you can never actually get what you want.

I decided to “name” my anxiety after listening to an interview with Dr. Carol Dweck on, ‘The Science of Success” podcast. She suggested this technique for people who are stuck in a “fixed mindset.” By disassociating themselves from their recurring negative habits, they could adopt a more growth-focused mindset.

This gave me the idea to apply the same technique to my social anxiety. I did a little research and discovered it’s called cognitive diffusion, and from what I have read, has proven to be quite effective for people who struggle with anxiety.

The term cognitive diffusion means to separate your thoughts (or in this case, anxiety) from reality. One way to do that is by giving it its own identity so that when it appears, you recognize it as an external source, rather than as a part of who you are. Basically, by untethering yourself from the anxiety, you decrease its power over you.

I can’t speak for other people’s reasoning behind the name or identity they choose to assign to their anxiety. From the stories I’ve read, most people assign a name, but not a form. Personally, I found it helpful to assign my anxiety to a fictional character that I can actually see and hear in my mind — Ursula.

Do you think I get anxious when I watch “The Little Mermaid”? Of course not. Although I can see Ursula on the TV screen, I know she’s not real. She’s not actually in the room with me; I’m not in any real danger of turning into one of those poor, unfortunate souls. It’s just a movie that has been made up for kids.

The same is true of my anxiety. When I’m in a social situation, I can feel the presence of the anxiety inside me as plainly as I can see Ursula on the TV screen, but it’s just a fictional character in my mind. So instead of tethering the anxiety to me when I feel it taking over my body, I started tethering it to Ursula.

Then I give myself a reality check — do I see a large, eight-armed sea witch anywhere in the room with me? Nope. She’s not real. She’s nowhere around me. She’s just an illusion in my mind with no real power over me. I’m not in any more danger right now than I would be sitting at home watching “The Little Mermaid.”

Does this technique always work? If only!

During high-stress situations like public speaking, it’s hard to get the upper hand on her. It’s even worse when I’m unexpectedly put on the spot and she completely blindsides me. In those situations, where I’m expected to give an immediate response, there’s no time to disassociate myself from Ursula. I can’t tell my brain she’s not real because I’ve already been paralyzed by fear and lost my ability to function and reason. It’s the inability to anticipate what will happen next, the possibility of an unexpected turn of events and the lack of control over the situation that is so terrifying.

After all, I may have the power to control how I view myself, but I can’t control how others view me. I may be able to control my own words and actions, but I can’t control the words and actions of others that might impact me. This is why the most crucial part of dealing with my social anxiety, and also the most challenging, is realizing those people whose eyes are burning holes into my skin — the ones waiting for me to speak and participate — they aren’t Ursula either. They don’t want to cause me pain, or steal my voice, or sabotage my happiness. All they want to do is hear my voice and listen to what I have to say.

Once I’m able to make that distinction in the heat of the moment, Ursula will be powerless over me.

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Lead photo via The Little Mermaid Facebook page