Fighting the Gremlin | How I Overcame Social Anxiety

by | Jul 10, 2020

nicoa dunne
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“You’re not good enough. You don’t know what you’re doing. You better work harder,” I would often tell myself. Even when the people around me weren’t looking down on me or watching from over my shoulder, I repeated those words in my mind as if they were the truth. It made me work harder, thinking that if I didn’t work hard enough I wouldn’t get what I wanted or feel good about my life. It had to be just right, just so, and I was intensely working toward perfection in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I learned to call that voice the gremlin. The gremlin who was afraid to live life any other way. The gremlin took hold of my inner monologue and wreaked havoc on my thoughts, twisting and turning my self-perception into a deep pit that, even though I tried to ignore it, seemed almost impossible to escape. 

[Listen to the full podcast here]

Recently, I talked about the gremlin and how to control it on The Social Ninjas podcast with Kyle Mitchell and Jeremy Greene. I discussed my own corporate experience and the stress and anxiety that forced me to walk out of an executive position during the economic depression of 2008 with a stay at home husband and three kids 12 years old and under with no plan. I spoke a lot here in the context of anxiety, specifically to acknowledge that anxiety is a normal part of life, not evidence of brokenness. When dealing with anxiety, fear, and shame, I always strive to observe those thoughts from a further perspective. Attempting to see my world through Bruce Schneider’s philosophy of Energy Leadership(™) and the seven levels of energy is how I manage to shift my perceptions of life to empowerment rather than drowning in the fear and the anxiety that bubbles up. Reframing social anxiety is a lot like retraining your own muscle memory, like Kyle, Jeremy, and I all know from first-hand experience. 

When I was in college, before I learned how to deal with my gremlin, I developed an eating disorder. I’ve always been a skinny person, but at 5’6”, as an athlete I was required to maintain a weight limit that was way below the average for someone my size. My gremlin took hold of this requirement and made me believe I was alway too heavy, eating too much and not enough, and I suffered for it. I bought into the gremlin’s evil words about me, and that period of my life became controlled by the idea that I wasn’t living up to the image others had placed upon me and that I could never measure up.

While still working in the corporate world, my gremlin always took the form of consultants—younger people dressed in sleek, custom-fit suits who carried laptops and constantly preached to everyone else, “You aren’t working hard enough. You have so much documentation to do, and you’re already way behind schedule.” My gremlin spoke those same words to me, always on my shoulder, never satisfied with the work I was completing. “You can do more, Nicoa, you shouldn’t rest, get up, check your email, churn out more results!” it said.

This gremlin drove me to intense stress and anxiety, even to the point where I believed I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t, it was a panic attack.  But I realized that the only way to diffuse and unarm my gremlin was to treat it like a toddler, to validate it, hear it, see it, acknowledge it, ultimately to coach it. I had to step out of myself to a place where I could observe my own life and my gremlin, the nasty monster who believed I could never be good enough. And this approach allowed me to embrace my gremlin and step into a partnership without so that it understood what served me in the past was no longer going to serve me going forward.

Learn along with my story of how I came to the realization that changing the way I speak to myself—or the way I allow my gremlin to speak to me—was a massive, important step in walking away from my anxiety, fear, and shame.

Take a listen to the full podcast here.