Review of How to Be Yourself by Ellen Hendriksen
I assume that anyone picking up the book How to Be Yourself might be living with social anxiety, shyness, or just the inability to be themselves. Unlike the quote from Susan Cain on the cover, I’m not sure this book truly applies to introverts, unless they happen to also be shy or socially anxious.
As Dr. Hendriksen writes, you don’t need to change your personality to find how to be yourself—rather, you should let your true personality shine through by leaving behind your anxiety. Meaning that a non-anxious introvert would have no need for this book, because they are already themselves.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way… I was so happy to see a book written about social anxiety for a mainstream audience! We need more of these types of books to bring attention to a problem that doesn’t get talked about very much. Even “Quiet” by Susan Cain doesn’t touch the subject.
So, I’m just going to jump into the main thoughts that I had while reading this book, because that’s very much like how the book is written. Though it’s organized into sections and chapters, each with a main focus, this isn’t a self-help book or a workbook like you might be used to.
Rather, Dr. Hendriksen is telling a story about social anxiety, that incorporates many anecdotes from her own life, those of her patients, and from popular culture. That keeps it interesting and makes it relatable.
The downside is that if you read the book from start to finish without taking any notes, you might forget what you were supposed to do by the end. I hope to help you a bit with this review.
Discussion of the Brain
Forgive me for getting technical right away, but I’m going in order through the book with my thoughts. This section might be more of a question for the author, so you can skip it if brain anatomy doesn’t interest you.
In the section on the origins of social anxiety, Dr. Hendriksen discusses how the prefrontal cortex in the brain of those with social anxiety doesn’t work as quickly to extinguish fear as those without social anxiety.
She argues, though, that we all have the same brain structures, it’s just that some work better than others:
p. 65: “A socially anxious brain, physiologically, is exactly the same as a non-socially anxious brain. The architecture is all there. You have the capacity; it just takes some practice to strengthen the ability that’s already innately there. CBT activates brain networks that are already present. And just like a commitment to working out strengthens the body, a commitment to practicing thinking and acting differently strengthens the brain.”
So, she’s saying that CBT helps to strengthen your brain’s response to fear.
Two things came to my mind as I read this.
1. Is it that the amygdala gets silenced more quickly in people without anxiety, or that it doesn’t scream as loudly in the first place?
2. In another article I wrote on performance anxiety, the research showed that disengaging the prefrontal cortex was key to entering “flow state,” which is the optimal state for performers.
So, I wonder how performers can use their prefrontal cortex to control fear, but at the same time disengage it so that they can enter flow state and perform at their best?
At times this book was a bit “study-heavy,” meaning that there were a lot of studies being described at some points, almost making it too academic, even though it was all treated in a story fashion. I did quite enjoy the stories with a surprise ending such as the one about “Moe” (I won’t give it away).
Her humor is helpful too, as it keeps things from getting too serious. Case in point: I laughed out loud at her footnote on p. 13 (again I won’t spoil it for you).
A drawback I found at times was that it felt as though the author was saying that this is easy, and it should be easy for you to learn how to be yourself—perhaps because of the lighthearted tone.
I belong to a Facebook support group for social anxiety with over 25,000 members, many of whom don’t leave their house, don’t work, and don’t interact with anyone.
So, I don’t think I would suggest this book to those of you with severe anxiety. Rather, it’s aimed at people with mild to moderate anxiety as the main audience.
New to Me
What did I love? I learned some new stuff from this book. For example:
- The opposite of social anxiety is not confidence, it’s psychopathy (p. 67)
- Social anxiety is not fear of people, it’s fear of what she calls “The Reveal”—a fear that whatever you are trying to hide will be revealed to everyone. I’ve actually read this theory before, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it proposed outside of an academic paper
- We can use Mad Libs to figure out what we fear will be revealed (check it out, they are cool!)
(Curious to hear Ellen Hendriksen speak more on this topic? Watch the video below).
My Axe to Grind with CBT
As much as I know cognitive-behavioral therapy is evidence-based and I promote it myself, the usual issue I have with CBT came up for me in this book.
So, as Dr. Hendriksen writes in the book, part of figuring out how to be yourself is learning to “Replace” your thoughts with better ones by asking yourself questions such as “What is the likelihood of that actually happening,” or “How could I cope?”
I have a fundamental question in this regard:
In the case of social anxiety, if your fear is that you will freak out and panic in a social or performance situation, and it happens every time you are in that situation, then the odds of it happening are very high.
So the answer to the first question isn’t very helpful.
Next, the question “How could I cope” seems like kind of a strange question, because you are NOT coping with this panic and anxiety, and that’s what’s brought you to therapy or seeking help.
CBT seems to gloss over this part of the problem. It IS likely to happen, and I DON’T know how to cope.
It seems like the aim of CBT is to convince us first that what we fear isn’t likely to happen, and second, that if it does we can handle it.
How is that helpful in the case of social anxiety, if it keeps happening and we can’t handle it? (Ok, rant done—note this is not a bone I am picking just about this book, it’s about CBT in general when applied to social anxiety).
Discussion of Mindfulness
The book goes on to include the concept of Embrace, which involves self-compassion, seeing your thoughts as a movie, mindfulness, and breathing, faking it until you make it, creating structure to feel more comfortable (e.g., taking on a role at a party, etc).
Then things get interesting.
If you read nothing else, I recommend reading from p. 149 onward. In particular, the sections on safety behaviors, perfectionism, and social skills.
Just a few sneak peeks:
- Whenever you feel like you need to be perfect in a conversation, dial it back to 50%. Try to only be 50% competent at the conversation. This takes off the pressure.
- When joining a social circle, say hi within the first 3 seconds so you don’t seem like you are hovering awkwardly.
- Use body language to show others that you are about to speak (standing up straighter, taking in a breath).
- You will most easily make friends and learn how to be yourself with people you see a lot, not necessarily those you have something in common with.
- Disclose things about yourself to get to know others and find out how to be yourself.
- Show people you like them (seems obvious? Maybe not so much).
To summarize, it might have been helpful to have bullet points at the end of each chapter listing the main takeaways. But then, this isn’t that type of book. It’s entertainment while learning how to be yourself along the way.
Bottom line: I enjoyed this book and recommend it as an entertaining read that teaches you some things about social anxiety and how to be yourself. I definitely think you should add it to your social anxiety library.
Interested in learning more about How to Be Yourself? You can find more reviews of the book here on Amazon.
Have you read this book? I’d love it if you left a comment with your reaction.