What Are Safety Behaviours and How Can They Fuel Our Anxiety ?

One of my favourite quotes is:

“A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”

John A. Shedd

Confidence is a funny old thing it actually comes when we do the thing that we fear.  It’s so easy to think that everybody else is born with a load of confidence and somehow, it’s missed us out. Some people seem to have oodles of it, but for the rest of us confidence is something that we can grow with practice.

Many years back, when I first started coaching, I was nervous. Clients would leave me telephone messages outlining what they wanted to discuss. Returning their calls, I would be a little anxious about speaking to them. I had a stream of thoughts along the lines of:
“Am I good enough? Why on earth are they going to listen to me? What do I know? What if I don’t know what they are talking about?”

I would follow this up with the following safety behaviours.

  1. I would over-prepare for the conversation. I might read everything I could on the subject as I didn’t want to get caught out.
  2. I would say to myself “I don’t feel like making this call right now I will do it later when I feel like it” pretending to myself that I would do a better job when the confident me revealed itself.

Over-preparing was for me never ending. I would have so many notes on my desk that I worried I might forget the stuff I prepared, rather than listen to what the client said which was the point of the call. All that did was fuel my anxiety.

I was never going to feel like making that call. I was always going to feel uncomfortable. So, I  needed to accept that it would be challenging to make the initial calls but avoiding them until I felt better was never ever going to happen. I just needed to do it and get the practice.

The 2 behaviours above that I have outlined, are classic safety behaviours. When we are anxious, we change our behaviour in order to feel less anxious.

Safety behaviours are helpful in the short term because they make us feel a little better and because they seem to give us help, we carry on using them again and again, thinking that they are a good thing. But over the longer term what we are actually doing is strengthening the anxiety. This is neuroplasticity, when we use a safety behaviour we are reinforcing one of the pathways in our brain by saying  “yes there is definitely something to be scared of ” Our use of safety behaviours is reinforcing our fear and the anxiety snow balls.

When we are able to understand this, and recognise the safety behaviours, we can start to dismantle them one by one and move towards handling the thing that we fear.

For each anxious issue there will be a load of safety behaviours. I encourage clients to work them out, to be like a detective and understand what might be stopping them from doing stuff. To list them.

Take social anxiety, these are social situations where we can feel anxious. Here are some examples of types of safety behaviours we might employ.

  • Avoid going to the party in the first place
  • Helping at the party organising, serving drinks
  • Making excuse to leave early
  • Look for reassurance from our partner or others
  • Drink alcohol or take drugs to take the edge off
  • Scroll through phone to avoid speaking with people
  • Stand on the edge of the group and not say anything
  • Ask a lot of questions so the attention is not on us
  • Talk very quickly

So, what did I do ?
I stopped over-preparing for my calls.  I would pick up the phone whether I felt like it or not. I would trust in the teaching and learning that I had, and my ability to connect with people as a human beings. I just did it.

I admit it was pretty uncomfortable in the beginning. But as I have learned  “it’s a feeling not a fact.” I found like any skill the more I did it, the more I learnt. Armed with that feedback I could make changes to the template of the call. So here I am many years on and many hundreds of clients later. The anxious feeling was uncomfortable at the start, but it wasn’t dangerous, and the feeling gradually passed and was replaced by confidence.

This supports what I know to be key in cognitive behavioural therapy that we need to just do the behaviour, take the action and the feeling comes later.

Fiona’s Tip

So, confidence comes from doing something that feels uncomfortable and learning from the feedback that we get.

Fiona Worthington offers a number of psychological services at the Putney Clinic. If you are interested in finding out more, please check out her website  www.fionaworthington.uk.com

The following links also provide more detail on two of her specific treatments Hypnotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Coaching at the Putney Clinic.