Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: The End of Social Anxiety by Edward Cottrill (Illuminatus)

I am not the biggest fan of classical self-help books, and I only have to refer to a well-known title such as Tony Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within to demonstrate why. First of all, a lot of those books are tomes. You could probably substitute your dumbbells with them. But filling hundreds of pages is not so easy, which is why you will find page after page full of jargon, hackneyed phrases with a kernel of truth and lengthy attempts to sell you seminars, often with greatly exaggerated claims. Reading those books almost makes you think that used car salesmen are pleasant to be around in comparison.

On the other hand, The End of Social Anxiety is presented in a down-to-earth tone. If you are looking for another story along the lines of “I used to sleep in my car --- and now I live in a castle”, you will therefore be disappointed. However, if your motivation is to get help for some very specific problems, all related to social anxiety to varying degrees, then please read on.

I have known Edward as “Corvette” for many years now. He used to be one of the most prominent contributors to the seduction forum mASF, but he eventually left to set up his own Internet presence at Personal Power Meditation and now calls himself “Illuminatus”. He had a similar motivation to me, namely to look for a venue in which he could express his views and experiences without being attacked by narrow-minded people who felt threatened by someone who undermined their view of the world. One of his projects was to use meditation as a tool for overcoming certain psychological problems. It has worked for him, and now he is sharing his success story.

But if you read “success story” and want to roll your eyes in reflex, you should take it easy, because The End of Social Anxiety focuses on tried-and-true methods for overcoming social anxiety. It won’t promise you the world, and Edward doesn’t claim that he will magically transform you into a superhuman being either. I found it particularly refreshing that there was not even a trace of sensationalist language in the book. Instead, he writes very clearly, and if you have read other books in the self-help area, you may wonder why he doesn’t “motivate” you more strongly. Hopefully, though, you will quickly realize that this is by design, and that it will be good for you as it will keep you from forming unrealistic expectations, therefore potentially making you more content as well:

The point here is that life goes on, and what bored you before will probably still bore you, and what made you happy before will still make you happy, but the difference is that you aren’t getting any unnecessary suffering from being out in public, or having thoughts all the time about your social anxiety and how to deal with it. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders. The message here is, if you do make images of your future life without social anxiety, make them as realistic as possible. Simply not feeling fear is a great place to start.

In order to help you get rid of social anxiety, Edward tells his story to help you relate to typical problems you may face. It also helps you to put some of the exercises into context. So, even if you are not an especially anxious person, the book also deals with aspects you may very well be familiar with although you may view yourself as a confident person. Or wouldn’t you want to have fewer distracting thoughts in addition to feeling a bit happier? I thought so.

Two parts stuck out to me. In one, Edward analyses “overlays”, which could also be called flash images. The example he uses is rather drastic, but you are surely familiar with having sudden thoughts that deal with how you should have acted in a certain situation, or what you want to do some time in the future. A simple example is you caving in to some inane wish of your partner. You really don’t want to, but you do it just because you want her to stop throwing a childish tantrum. But later on, you think back and paint a picture in your mind about how you should have resisted that urge to give in. This is an example of an “overlay”, and I am sure that most of you have overlays popping into your mind on a pretty regular basis.

Of course, overlays can be very distracting and emotionally consuming. Edward then describes a method to overcome them that shares some similarities with my experiences from meditation. In fact, I managed to get rid of overlays, which I more broadly refer to as “distracting thoughts”, through years of meditation, and the mental process I have used is close to the one described in this book.

Another high point was the description of how to get rid of negative feelings by simply focusing on them and allowing yourself to experience them without resistance. As a practical application, Edward even tells you how to use this skill to get rid of pain much quicker. Again, this is something I am very familiar with as well. As is described in the book, by making use of the example of a cold shower, it is often the case that the mere thoughts surrounding an action determine your reaction to it, and if you learn to control your thoughts, you will realize that what you perceive as a negative experience, which you naturally seek to avoid, may not be so bad after all. Of course, you don’t have to go as far as Edward and take a cold shower every day to hammer home this point. It is not mentioned in the book in particular, but the problem of procrastination is deeply related as well, where the focus is too much on avoiding potentially negative emotions. This applies to the student who has to work on a term paper the same way as it applies to the office worker who has wanted to ask his boss for a salary rise for half a year now.

Those were just two examples, but they have hopefully whet your appetite. The book also has a very good culmination in a chapter on happiness, which analyses a key problem of Western civilization, namely the motive of delayed gratification. This keeps you in a loop of constant discontent, always wanting the next shiny thing, which will make you happy for a while, but then you have go out again to shop for a new pair of shoes, a dress, or a smart phone. As a consequence, this might affect your whole life as it could make you hold on to a job you don’t enjoy much, just because it is well paid. But all is good in the end, because after toiling away for decades, you will finally be able to enjoy retirement. Of course, you can already see what is wrong with this kind of reasoning, and what the path to happiness might consist of instead.

Overall, I have greatly enjoyed The End of Social Anxiety. If you feel uncomfortable in social situations and want to change this, I would definitely recommend this book. Admittedly, social anxiety is none of my personal concerns, at least not any more. However, I did recognize some of the issues I had in Edward’s descriptions, and the method I used to overcome them was similar to the techniques he recommends. The effects were the same, though. Thus, I can attest to their effectiveness.

The End of Social Anxiety is available as a PDF. It is also available for Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader.

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