Do you feel exhausted after spending time in groups of people? When someone invites you to go out or to a group activity, is there part of you that just wants to crawl under the blankets and be left alone?
But then... if you do socially isolate and avoid other people, you just feel lonely.
It's like you have a need that isn't being met when you're alone, but it's also not working when you spend time with others... what's up with that?
This is the situation Oliver was in, at the start of a 1-week growth experience we designed for him. Like many people, he felt like he couldn't show up as his real, authentic self, in group settings. He had a habit of being an entertainer and jokster in the group. And he was tired of it.
So, we designed a few exercises and challenges for him, to see if he could learn to outgrow these old habits.
Watch the video above to get the full context. In this article, I'll breifly describe the exercises we had Ollie do, in case you want to try something similar yourself.
Here are the exercises that made up the entire growth experience:
1) Self Acceptance Writing Exercise
I instructed Ollie to do a self acceptance writing exercise every day. This is an exercise we briefly showed in this video on introspective writing and one you can learn in detail in this introspective writing course.
In short, it goes like this: you start by writing out self acceptance statements like "I accept myself", "I accept myself, just as I am", "I love and accept myself, just as I am", etc. in an escalating manner.
You do this until you find inner resistance. When there's a voice in your head saying "that's not true!" or "I don't deserve to be accepted like that!", you've found resistance. You then spend some time examining this resistance in writing, by asking questions like:
- Why do I feel this resistance? What belief is behind this?
- Is this belief really true?
- Is this my own opinion or an opinion I picked up from someone else?
- Do I judge other people in this same way as well? Why or why not?
- What else could be true?
Purpose of the exercise: it was clear that there was some self acceptance component to Ollie's struggle. If you feel like you can't be authentic, it means there are things about you that you think you need to hide. In other words, things you don't accept in yourself or believe others wouldn't accept.
This exercise was meant to provide some basic processing. To make sure you are continually examining this part of your psyche and cleaning up some old beliefs and habits of mind.
2) Parts Work
The second exercise we did was based on parts work, inspired by a therapy method called Internal Family Systems.
The exercise steps are as follows:
- If you're not being the "real you" in social situations, who are you being? Who is the character, the persona, the part of you that comes out in these social settings?
- What does this part of you look like? Does it have a name?
- When you have a sense of who this part of you is and you have named it, write down some characteristics that come to mind. E.g. "This part of me does X, likes Y and hates Z..."
- Then, ask this part of you: "What do you want? What do you want me to know?"
- From here, allow yourself to have a conversation with this part of you and see where it leads.
Purpose of the exercise: although it initially feels strange, personifying unwanted behaviors as other parts of ourselves can bring a lot of clarity. When going through this process, you can usually uncover the purpose behind your unwanted behavior (e.g. it is a behavior you learnt in the past to survive, to fit in, to get rewarded...). You can start to see this part of yourself with more empathy. You can also more easily catch yourself shifting into an inauthentic mode, once you have personified your behavior like this.
3) Talk to Strangers
During this experiment, we also had Ollie go out to the city square and talk to strangers, on several days. Specifically for this experience, it was important to bring an aspect of authenticity into it. This was not about chatting up girls and getting numbers (that would be goal and performance oriented). It was not about making people like you. It was not about doing something socially outrageous or humiliating (this would be good for YouTube views, but probably less so for personal growth).
Instead, the challenge was: walk around and respond out of authentic curiosity. Don't try to entertain, charm or impress anyone. Simply follow your authentic impulses.
Purpose of the exercise: the main goal here was to "get the reps in". Talking to strangers in this way meant that Ollie could practice showing up authentically many times in a row. And he could get the experience of being accepted by strangers without having to be extra charming or do anything special, multiple times.
Of course, such an exercise also comes with rejections. It doesn't always go well and a negative reaction from a stranger you want to strike up a conversation with can sting. But it's also a valuable experience to see that this may hurt, but nothing bad really happens. It doesn't kill you when a stranger doesn't like you.
4) Self Acceptance Group Exercise
Continuing on the topic of self acceptance, we did an intense but powerful group exercise. Do this with a group of trusted friends:
- What would you rather not share with the people in this group? Think of everything that comes to mind. These are things you're ashamed of, want to hide or feel are unacceptable.
- Pick one of the things you wrote down and share it with the group.
- Everyone in the group takes turns to share. When they are speaking, everyone else listens without interrupting or commenting. Once the sharer is done, do a quick round of feedback, then move to the next sharer.
Purpose of the exercise: this exercise is about vulnerability and authenticity. When you share something that you would rather not share, you are being vulnerable and as such, you are being authentic. The exercise gives you the experience of sharing something truly personal, trusting others with it and being accepted nonetheless. And in turn, also being trusted with what other people have to share with you.
5) Comfortable in Silence
We went out to meet a group of friends for drinks and gave Ollie one simple rule to follow: listen along with the conversations happening, but don't say anything unless you are being directly addressed.
No one else in the group knew that we had given these instructions.
Purpose of the exercise: this is a great exercise if you feel like you "have to" act a certain way or show up in a certain way in social situations. By sitting and observing silently, you prove to yourself that you don't have to do anything at all. You'll find that people don't mind if you don't entertain them and in fact, as we saw in this experiment, no one even noticed that anything was different.
You may rationally know that you don't have to actively participate or people-please, but it's something else entirely to prove it to yourself with first hand experience, as you get in this exercise.
Improvisational theater can be full of life lessons and therapeutic benefit (as we learned from Ben Winter in this podcast episode). The improv exercise is the polar opposite of the previous one, about sitting in silence. It is about fully embracing that part of you that wants to perform and be seen and be the center of attention.
Purpose of the exercise: this exercise was designed to bring that "acting like someone else" behavior into sharp contrast. Here is what it's like to fully act like someone else. It can help you notice when you do it in other situations, in more subtle ways. Plus, there's a theme of acceptance here, too. It's okay to be silent and not participate socially. It's okay to go all out and put on a show. And as a consequence, it must also be okay to just be yourself.
7) The Final Challenge
As a final challenge, we gave Ollie the task of organizing a party at his place. We left this completely up to him. It was something he could do however he liked.
It represents the polar opposite of the behavior he wanted to unlearn which was isolating himself and avoiding social group situations. Here, he is creating the group event and inviting others to it.
Purpose of the exercise: the main purpose of this challenge was to provide an "anchor of proof" to the experience. We wanted to make sure that we weren't just doing some feel-good fluff that would make no real difference. This final challenge put Ollie in the active role. He overcame his own limitations and organized this event himself. It wasn't just us dragging him through some exercises, this was
As you can see from the video, the experiment went well and really changed Ollie's perspective. And more importantly, it also changed his behavior (in the way that he had wished for, on the outset).
You can see elements of our "habit design" concept in what we did here. At its core, this is about identifying a problem and then carefully designing a solution for it. To some degree, anyone can do this for themselves, but it helps hugely to have supportive people around you.
This, I believe, is one of the great benefits of building a strong community around yourself. In a strong community, people will have your back, not just passively, but actively. You need something? You're looking for growth? We will come together and make a growth experience happen for you.
I'm grateful that we got to do this and that Ollie offered himself up as a guinea pig. May there be many more such opportunities in the future.