Episode 14: Overcoming Social Anxiety with James Woodworth
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Episode 14: Overcoming Social Anxiety with James Woodworth
On this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with James Woodworth, who is going to share with us his program for not only overcoming shyness and insecurity but learning how to genuinely thrive in life.
I have the pleasure of speaking with James Woodworth. He’s a licensed Thrive consultant, who’s going to share with us his Thrive Program in which he helps men in particular gain greater social confidence, self-esteem and overall fulfillment in life. Welcome to the show, James. It’s a pleasure having you here.
Thanks very much, Lisa. It’s a great honor to be here. Thank you very much for inviting me.
I thought we’d start by having you tell our audience a little bit about your own journey. I understand you’ve had your own journey with overcoming shyness and how you were able to boost your self-confidence.
My personal journey of transformation has been fascinating for me personally. I’m an introvert. I’m proud to say that I’m an introvert. That’s not a problem at all, but for many years I suffered terribly from crippling social anxiety. I’m a recovering shy guy. I suffered terribly from shyness throughout my childhood, through my youth and my early adulthood. I struggled at school due to social fear, to talk to girls and to make friends. The interesting thing is I struggled at school not because I wasn’t bright. I knew that I could cope with educationally. In fact, I’ve always enjoyed learning. I struggled because of social fear. It was that inability to be able to cope with social pressure and not be able to speak in front of others. Not being able to read out loud, having to do with an equation or a math problem in front of others was an absolute nightmare. I would absolutely go to pieces.
I remember for example during one exam. It was a mock exam for English. I handed in a blank sheet of paper because I literally sat there throughout the whole of the examination. My brain froze and I couldn’t write a word. That was quite normal for me. Also, I had one of those epiphanies when I was in my late twenties. One of those 3:00 in the morning moments when you wake up and you’re like, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.” That epiphany, that a-ha moment for me was the realization that I wanted to be a teacher. Which is absolutely crazy when you think of how much I struggled at school. Of course, in deciding to be a teacher, I also knew that I didn’t want to teach a subject as such. Although I did, I was a teacher for 25 years and I taught art and design for most of that time. What I wanted to teach were self-esteem and self-belief. I wanted to be the teacher that I wish I’d had when I was at school. I wanted to work with shy kids. I wanted to work with those kids that have no belief in themselves, to teach them that actually, they could overcome their social fear. That’s where it started for me.
James, out of curiosity, when you were struggling as you were, did anyone try to help you?
No. My experience was I’d be asked to perform a task, let’s say it was to do a math problem and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’d stumble over my words. I’d blush and that’s it. The teacher would lose patience with me, tell me that I was stupid and ordered me to the back of the class, to sit next to the other kids that have been labeled as being inadequate. That was the way schooling was back in the day. I didn’t get any help whatsoever. The problem with that is I retreated into my own little private world. When I say that I enjoyed learning, I didn’t want to learn what the teachers wanted me to learn. I wanted to learn the kind of things that interested me. I absorbed myself in this private world of fantasy.If you've got a pulse, you've got a limiting belief. Click To Tweet
I used to go to the library every week and come home with these massive, great books, full of pictures about the Italian Renaissance. I was always reading and always studying. I was learning and developing, but not in a way that the school wants me to do so. I was very aware of the fact that I appeared to be very different and I didn’t fit in well. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be like everybody else. It was quite painful in many respects.
Not only did you not get any help, it seems, but you got the label of being stupid.
I knew I wasn’t and that’s important. I didn’t buy into that. I would have found it hard to articulate that at the time, but I knew I wasn’t stupid. I knew that actually what the problem was fear. When I decided to become a teacher, I thought, “Kids like me need a supportive culture, a supportive mentor. Somebody who’s on their side.”
It seems like you cope with the way many introverts do by creating such a rich inner life.
That is the way I live my life. I love being a coach. I love working with people, doing group work, doing presentations, public speaking and all that kind of stuff. I love all of that, but I do enjoy solitude and spending time on my own as well.
James, who would be an ideal client for you? What issues or symptoms would they be experiencing?
I’m particularly interested in working with shy, introverted, professional men, aged between 30 and 50. I’m interested in working with people who lack social confidence. They know they’ve got a lot to offer, but they’re not able to step up and take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to them due to social fear. I’m interested in working with people who have fear of doing presentations, maybe they have difficulty with authority figures. They can’t stand up for themselves in the workplace. Maybe they would avoid asking for a pay rise or going for a job interview. Those are the kinds of people that I’d like to work with. Most of my clients are people that have tried to get help in the past. They might have tried therapy or counseling. They’ve probably read loads of self-help books. They might’ve had hypnotherapy or tried various things like that. For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to find the key to unlock the solutions for social anxiety. Those are the people that I’m particularly interested in working with.
In your work, you have a Thrive Program. It seems like you were looking to work with people who have a lot more to offer. It’s almost like their minds are standing in their way.
We all have limiting beliefs and if you’ve got a pulse, you’ve got a limiting belief. We’ve all got them. We’ve all got a tremendous amount of potential. I don’t think we truly know what we’re truly capable of achieving. It’s phenomenal what human beings can do, even the opportunity to thrive. That’s what my program is about. It’s about teaching people to thrive in life. Although I work with socially anxious men, in particular, my program isn’t about overcoming symptoms, like overcoming social anxiety. It’s about teaching people to thrive because when you’re thriving in life, you’re not socially anxious. You don’t have limiting beliefs. You don’t have that punitive self-talk. You don’t have that inner critique that’s constantly telling you off and telling you that you’re not good enough. You don’t have that kind of mindset because you’re thriving.
Can you give us a little deeper understanding of what it means to thrive? Is it the absence of those negative thoughts, that self-critic or is there more to thriving?
No, it’s partly about getting rid of the limiting beliefs, but it’s as importantly about building empowering beliefs. It’s about building the resources, the skills, the attitude and the mindset of somebody who’s thriving. We all have certain needs and those needs must be met. A plant, for example, has certain needs. It needs sunshine, rain, shelter and nourishing soil. Without those elements, the plant would struggle to survive. It would struggle to grow in a healthy, sustainable manner. I would say that it’s very similar to us too. We also have certain needs and those needs must be met. The need for certainty and comfort, for variety, for significance, love and connection for example. I would also argue that we can’t afford to rely on the environment or other people for the satisfaction of those needs. That’s an inner job. That’s an inside job. That’s something that we need to be able to develop for ourselves.
The ability to meet our needs through taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions, to setting goals and committing and being relentless in the achievements of those goals. People who are thriving have very particular characteristics. They’re very optimistic. They’re positive and goal-orientated. They’re grateful, they’re appreciative for what they’ve got. They’ve got a great perspective. They’re very good at managing their thinking, which means they don’t suffer from low moods or extreme anxiety. They cope well with failure. They don’t see failure as a bad experience at all. It’s an important learning experience. They’re mentally quite robust.
Thriving is more than simply being resilient. Resilience is a great skill to have. Thriving people are resilient. Resilience is more often than not described as the ability to bounce back from adversity. I would say that thriving is staying on your feet during adversity. Thriving people are constantly bouncing back from challenging events because they’re not knocked back by them. They absorb the pressure of life and that gives them a very robust attitude, which means that they’re not fearful. They’re not scared. They’ve got this can-do attitude, “Bring it on. I can deal with this.”
A very deep sense of security.
Based on self-belief and knowing that you’ve got the skills and the resources to cope.
I know you have a very in-depth Thrive Program. I was hoping you could give our readers an understanding of all that’s involved in that.Thriving people are constantly bouncing back from challenging events because they're not knocked back by them. Click To Tweet
The Thrive Program is not therapy. It’s not counseling. We take a coaching and mentoring approach to help people to thrive in life. It’s an evidence-based, psychological training program. It consists of eight modules completed over eight weeks. Each of the modules introduces the clients to a very specific psychological skill and how to master it. What the client learns can be implemented immediately. It’s practical psychology. You can use it straight away in your life to start seeing some great results. It’s a very structured program. We also put quite a lot of emphasis on independent study. A client would see me once a week for 90 minutes, for example, either individually or in a group.
It’s also the work that they do in between sessions, which is really important because self-coaching and accountability coachings are very important parts of the program. One of the reasons why we want the program to be completed within eight weeks is because we want our clients to be able to thrive as quickly as possible. I do keep in contact with my clients once they’ve completed the program. They have catch up sessions with me. I enjoy tracking their progress and knowing that six months, a year down the line that they are thriving. It’s a structured practical program.
Can you describe the eight modules to us at least briefly?
Each module introduces the clients to a different psychological skill or concept. We start off by looking at beliefs and cognition. The importance of beliefs. Beliefs run right through the whole program. We’re particularly keen to introduce people to the idea of having an internal locus of control. This notion that we are fundamentally responsible for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We’re not the victim of circumstance. We are the creators of our own destiny. It’s very much about encouraging people to understand and develop empowering beliefs. We look at self-esteem, social confidence, self-acceptance and the importance of having unconditional positive self-regard. We look at language. That includes self-talk, but also the language that we use to describe our experiences, not just to ourselves but to other people. We look at coping strategies, how to deal with blips. We finish the program by recapping on everything that we’ve done. We’re setting the clients up so they can continue to thrive post-program.
One of the words you had mentioned was accountability. One of the trickiest things is when someone’s so overcome with fear is helping them keep taking constructive action in spite of that fear. How does your program set up that you’re actually able to help people continue to make progress in spite of the fear?
That’s partly to do with taking responsibility, but also understanding their sense of internality. That nothing in the external world can make us think or feel anything. Work isn’t stressful, but it can appear stressful for somebody who thinks about it in that way. Public speaking isn’t scary, but it can appear scary to somebody who believes that it is. One of the things that our clients learn early on is that there’s nothing out there in the external world that could make them think or feel anything. Taking personal responsibility and realizing that you are the architect for your thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s the beliefs that we have about the event which causes us to feel stress or anxiety. The importance of choice and how we come to make good decisions. It’s all about empowering people to realize that they actually have choices available to them, that they can make good decisions and that they have the ability to develop the skills or the resources to deal with whatever life throws at them.
It’s getting back to that internal locus of control, which is related to optimism.
It’s believing that you can make things happen.
Emphasizing that and taking personal responsibility to the nth degree here, that no matter what the situation, you’re responsible for how you’re thinking about it, how you’re interpreting it. Change that interpretation, change the way you’re thinking about it and you change the emotion.
Change the emotion, you change your behavior and you change your actions. Your actions reinforce the thoughts and the beliefs that you’ve had in the first place. Fearful thoughts create fearful feelings, which leads to unhelpful, unbeneficial behaviors such as avoidance and seeking safety. Those avoidance behaviors reinforce the original limiting beliefs that you had in the first place. The process starts with beliefs and cognition because behavioral change for us doesn’t start actually with behavior. It starts with changing what you think and what you believe. Empowering thoughts, empowering beliefs create empowering feelings. Feelings of optimism and excitement which then leads somebody to feel motivated to take positive, constructive, bold action. When you take action and you get results, then those results reinforce the empowering beliefs you had in the first place. We teach our clients quite early on to recognize the original pattern, the original thinking loop, which kept them stuck where they are. When they break that pattern, when they break that thinking loop, replace it with one which is more helpful and more beneficial, then they get different results.
That anxiety cycle, the best link to go after is changing the thought.
I would say it always starts with what you think and what you believe, not actually with the behavior itself.
Can you give us some examples of clients you’ve worked with that have benefited from your Thrive Program?
I was talking to a client of mine called George. George will be graduating from university this year, hopefully with a first. He is at one of the best universities in the world. When George contacted me, he was in quite a bad way because of the anxiety that he was experiencing. He wasn’t able to leave his house. He wasn’t attending lectures. He was in serious danger of being asked to leave the university because of his poor attendance, his poor performance. He’d done absolutely brilliantly at college before going to the university, which is why he got into this excellent university because his previous educational experience was outstanding. When he contacted me, he was in a bad way, but he did brilliantly on the course.
In the big beginning of the course, he had no confidence in himself whatsoever. He had no faith in himself and he couldn’t back himself at all. He adapted to the program brilliantly and is doing well. I’m very pleased to say that he’s on course to actually get a first, which is absolutely amazing. Somebody else I was talking to is Alex. Alex is visually impaired. He’s also a tennis player. He’s registered blind, but he teaches and plays tennis. He teaches tennis to visually impaired and blind people. His anxiety was so extreme that he couldn’t leave his apartment and wasn’t able to work. He’s doing fantastically well. He’s back at work, he’s coaching and he’s taking part in tournaments.
He’s got himself a new job. He’s also about to become an ambassador for our program because he’s doing so well. He hopefully will be doing some work with some of the benefactors of the charity that he works for. I was thinking also of Chris. Chris went through the program a few years ago. He’s working as an engineer and doing phenomenally well. When he first came to see me, his personal life was a complete car crash. He wasn’t able to socialize. He was seriously concerned about his future. I had a catch up with him. We met up for coffee and he’s doing wonderfully well. The program has been massively successful for lots of people.Thriving isn't about being perfect, it's about being real. It's not about being strong, it's about being authentic. Click To Tweet
Are you able to give us some concrete examples of some of the techniques you use with these men to help them make such success?
One of the things I would certainly be focused on is getting them to recognize the beliefs that they have, that limiting belief on how that might be captured, like in their language or the self-talk. Some of my clients might describe their experiences as being awful, intolerable and unbearable. I can’t stand it. It’s the worst-case scenario. When they learn to challenge that way of thinking, perhaps rephrase their experiences by saying something like, “This isn’t very pleasant, but it’s not intolerable. I’m not welcoming this experience, but I can deal with it.” Those shifts and how they actually explained their experiences to themselves can be massively important.
Also from a self-esteem perspective, they’re not used to talking themselves up. They will learn to use empowering self-talk, where they’re processing positive experiences. They’re recognizing the things that are going well in their lives. They train themselves to notice what’s going well rather than the things that might be stacked up against them. Processing positive experiences, recognizing good experiences that they’re having on a daily basis and actually realize that the quality of their life is a lot better than they realized.
When you’re tracking the work of helping these individuals become more aware of their thought process is the first key. Is that something that you walk them through? Do they do journaling? Do they do mindfulness exercises? For some of our audience and maybe the concept of becoming more aware of what you’re thinking may actually be a foreign concept to them.
We don’t encourage exercises like mindfulness as such, but certainly journaling is very important, writing down their experiences. Writing exercises where they’re writing down positive experiences. It was a little bit like the idea of reminiscences. Everybody knows that when they go on holiday, they will take photographs. They know that when they come home, the chances are they won’t remember most of that holiday, but they want to. They want to remember their experiences, so they take photographs of what they want to remember. That becomes their memory of that place. Through journaling and recording their experiences on a daily basis, our clients learn to remember what’s gone well, as opposed to the things that went against them. Expressing gratitude on a daily basis works well. They’re not necessarily aware of the fact that what they’ve actually got in their lives is what they need to live a full and satisfying life.
Once they become more aware of how their beliefs might be contributing to their anxiety, do you also help them along with more constructive ways of thinking?
The whole program is about learning to develop a more constructive pattern of thinking. It’s all about your thoughts and beliefs. In a sense, our thoughts or other words or pictures, we’re rather thinking in words or we are thinking in pictures. When it comes to words, we’re either making statements or asking questions. Another very constructive exercise is the clients learn asking good questions. They learn to make good statements. An unhelpful question would be, “Why am I so anxious?” It’s not a very helpful question because it leads to an unhelpful answer like, “Maybe it’s because you’re so useless,” or something like that. They learn to ask good questions like, “What can I do to get myself out of this situation? Who can help me? What would be a good option for me at the moment?” Good questions lead to good answers and that completely changes their mental landscape. Also, when it comes to pictures, imagining, visualizing the outcome that you want, not worrying about what you might fear. Focusing on what you want, not what you fear might happen. Mentally rehearsing success, talking yourself in an empowering way.
I use the concept of constructive thinking all the time in my work. I actually wrote a book Constructive Thinking: How to Grow Beyond Your Mind, which is right along with what I think you’re describing. I tell people the reason I use the term constructive thinking is that your mind is supposed to be a tool to help you manifest your ideal life. The thought pattern when you’re talking about constructive way of thinking, the only question I tell my clients is, “Is it helping your cause?”
“Is it helpful or not?” I’ve had the thought that I’m completely hopeless at doing presentations. Is that helpful? Is that useful? No, it’s not. At the end of the day, that’s only a thought. If I was to say to myself, “I am hopeless at giving presentations,” I’m making that it’s not a statement of fact and it’s not. It’s the belief. We can say to ourselves, “I’m having the thought now,” you recognize that it is a thought. It’s not a statement of fact. It’s not part of my identity. It’s not who I am. It’s a thought that I have about myself. Is this helpful? No, it’s not. I’m not going to entertain that thought anymore. I’m not going to focus on it. I’m not going to take it seriously. It’s just a thought. It was not a very helpful one at that. I could replace that with something more beneficial like, “Maybe I’m not the greatest professional speaker in the world, but I can learn to be.”
Merely labeling it for what it is, a thought, there’s that thought that you might not be good at public speaking. It shows that it’s a thought rather than this fact that’s carved in stone.
I think one of the great characteristics of being internal is that you take responsibility for what you think. It doesn’t matter what thoughts I’m having, even if they’re unhelpful or unbeneficial, even if they are negative and uncomfortable. I’m creating those thoughts. This isn’t happening to me. I’m not making it. This anxiety that I’m feeling, this is not happening to me. I’m creating it. Even if our clients are feeling anxious, the very fact that they know that they created the anxiety is empowering because they have ownership of that feeling. This is my feeling. I’ve created it. If I’ve created that, I can change it, which is what I’m going to do. I don’t want it.
Our clients realize that thriving isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being real. It’s not about being strong, it’s about being authentic. It’s not about feeling happy, wonderful and optimistic all of the time. Our clients know that they can feel whatever they want to feel. Take ownership for those feelings and realize that they’re yours and you’ve created them. They’re yours to do what you wish to. I think that’s important because people might think about doing the Thrive program is about getting to that stage, where you’re feeling absolutely blissful all the time. It’s not, it’s about being real. It’s about being human and being okay with that.
Being human, being okay with that, but learning how to take conscious control of your mind.
Your thoughts, they’re yours. Take ownership of them. What we do with our clients is a very in-depth assessment. It’s not a rigorous psychometric assessment. It’s a tool to give us a bit of an insight into their mindset. What I found with the vast majority of clients that I’ll take through the program, over 99% of them have all had an external locus. They all start the program with this belief that their symptoms are happening to them, that they are the victims of circumstance, “I am aware that I am. It is the way that it is. There’s not a lot I can do about it.” They’re starting with that kind of a belief.
When that’s challenged and they realize that they’re not the victims of circumstance, they start to think, “It never occurred to me that I actually own my experiences, that I can choose to think differently, even though I might’ve had a challenging childhood, even though I might have had traumatic experiences in the past. That’s in the past. It’s over and done with. I can choose to think differently if I wish to.” These realizations are completely new to them. Once they get that, they start to make rapid progress because they start to feel empowered. My life is for me to create for me. I can see that now because you can demonstrate it to them. You can demonstrate the thought that a lot is going on in our mind is something that we create.
One of the things I was thinking of when you were talking about the school system, ironically was never taught how to think constructively.We all have certain needs and those needs must be met, such as the need for love, connection, belonging, and approval. Click To Tweet
It’s terribly sad, isn’t it? When you think of how empowering the research is around constructive thinking, the benefits of being emotionally intelligent and most of the things. All the research that’s coming out of positive psychology and the best of cognitive therapy, I think it’s terribly sad that we’re not teaching young people how to use their minds better because that’s the key to being successful. It’s about understanding your mind and getting your mind working for you and not against you. In the UK where I live, for example, there’s a huge amount of information being shared through the press about how much stress and anxiety is being experienced by our young people. Their inability to handle the stress and pressure of social media, not being able to cope with examination, pressure and relationship issues.
It’s terribly sad because if they were thriving, they wouldn’t have an issue with this. For example, thriving children don’t give into social pressure. They don’t do things they don’t want to do. They wouldn’t get involved in criminality or gang culture because they’ll say, “No, I’m not doing it,” because they wouldn’t have that strong need to belong to or be connected to. The way I see, if you’re a young person and you don’t believe you belong at home or you don’t belong at school, then you can end up belonging in a gang. Somebody somewhere is going to come forward and help you meet your need for belonging, but it might not be in a healthy or beneficial way. Thriving children understand that. They don’t have a strong need to belong because they feel confident within themselves. They can make their own decisions.
They have a healthier sense of self.
They don’t give into social pressure, for example. They’d be able to cope with the examination stress. They wouldn’t need to have a million friends on Facebook. They know that’s nonsense. They’re not going to be interested in that. You’re absolutely right. We should be teaching people how to think straight.
I compliment you on creating the Thrive Program. The men and other people learn how to think constructively so they can overcome that shyness, they can develop the self-confidence to thrive in life.
The coaching world is doing some wonderful work with people right around the globe. Coaching and mentoring, it’s all about educating people to be able to develop robust psychology. It’s interesting because of the way things are working at the moment, I think that we’re moving away from the medical model. Even if we all work with people with extreme anxiety or mental health issues, I can see it at the time when coaching and mentoring becomes a legitimate way of helping those sorts of people, with all sorts of different problems. It’s all about education, working on people’s beliefs and thinking.
It’s education about how the mind actually works, more constructive models for how to think. Empowering people to say, “No, you can take ownership of your mind and then ultimately of how your life ends up looking here.” It’s wonderful work that you’re doing, James. Thank you so much for sharing the ins and outs of your Thrive program. Do you have a final word of wisdom or advice for our audience?
Thanks very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure. My little takeaway would be related to what I was saying about needs. We all have certain needs and those needs must be met, such as the need for love, connection, belonging and approval. It could also be argued that not only do we have a strong need for approval, for example but that our greatest fear, as a result, is our fear of rejection. One of the reasons why people can be socially anxious, social anxiety is basically the fear of rejection, but we wouldn’t fear rejection if we didn’t need approval as much as perhaps we do. I would say that it’s good to want approval, but it’s good to want a connection. It’s good to want to belong but to need it, to demand it is problematic. You don’t need to be accepted. You need to know who you are and what your values are, to know that you’re living, honoring your purpose, your values and to know what the deepest level that you’re more than good enough just as you are.
It’s that unconditional positive regard. What would be the best way for our audience to contact you? Do you do coaching both in person and over the internet?
I’m based in Cambridge in the UK. I do see clients on a one-to-one basis, face to face in the clinic where I work in Cambridge, but I do global business. Most of my clients, I see over Zoom or Skype. It doesn’t matter where the client lives. It doesn’t matter whereabouts in the world they are. As long as they can get to a computer, I can help them.
Do you have a website, James?
JamesWoodworth.com is my website’s address, so you can contact me there. There’s a contact form and you can get directly in contact with me. I’d love to hear from people and I’d love to be able to teach them to thrive.
James also has a profile on The Coaching Connector, which is www.TheCoachingConnector.com. Please be sure to check out his profile there as well. Thank you so much, James. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom and the many benefits you’re providing people through your Thrive Program.
It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks very much for inviting me.
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- James Woodworth
- Thrive Program
- Constructive Thinking: How to Grow Beyond Your Mind
About James Woodworth
James Woodworth is a licensed Thrive consultant. He uses the Thrive training program to help men overcome their shyness and build great social confidence and truly thrive, both at home and at work.
- Lentino, L.M. (2014). Constructive thinking how to grow beyond your mind. Sudbury, MA: Grow Beyond Your Mind.