Practise mindfulness in social situations

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

So you’ve been learning easy mindfulness skills for some time, and have practised a little each day. Now you want to extend your skills to practise mindfulness in social situations. Learn how mindfulness can help you untangle why you sometimes react strongly to people you don’t even know. 

Mindfulness in social situations

So far you’ve practised mindfulness in fairly quiet places to make it easier. Now you want to extend your practise into ordinary situations. Not just quiet places with the best conditions. Eventually, you’ll want to use these skills in social situations. For example, at work, in groups, or with family and friends.

(And of course, you’ll need to take into account any restrictions you may be under for COVID-19.)

Here’s a quick reminder of some key points that will be helpful.

1 Observe neutrally

The aim at first is simply to notice and observe others without interacting with them. Focus on maintaining an neutral observer stance. For best results, start with people you don’t know. 

2 Don’t expect too much to start with

Focussing takes more effort when there’s movement and noise. Accept it’ll take time to get used to these new factors. Accept what happens as simply being what happens.

No judgments. Let any critical comments that your brain tries to send you simply float away, without buying into them. 

3 Mindfulness gets easier with practice

You’re aiming to master these skills over time. Being patient will help. Mastery takes as long as it takes. 

Resist the urge to go for the quick fix or the instant solution. You’re laying the foundation for a life-long practice. Be prepared to accept what happens as simply what happens. Let go of any desire to change the process. 

Remain in the background

Don’t observe family, friends, or people you know well at this stage. Go where you don’t know most people. That way you can be more objective about what you notice when you practise mindfulness in social situations. 

Change where you practise

Begin with slightly noisier places than you are used to.

Sit in a quiet mall or café.
Sit on a bench outside a library or college.
Do your gym circuit as usual.

1 Imagine you’re making a documentary

You’re behind the camera, filming. You’re not involved with the people in any way. You’re just an interested observer.

2 Mindfully notice people drifting by or socialising

If you’re sitting, hold a book or phone to glance down at now and again. Be discreet: you don’t want be obvious when observing others.

Don’t focus too long on one person. Don’t hold eye contact with passers-by for more than 1-2 seconds.

3 Focus attention for 30 seconds on:

Different people’s facial expressions.
Different types of body language and posture.
Different ways of walking: shuffling, striding, swaggering, skulking.

The emotions various people appear to be showing. 
What you are saying to yourself about them.

What body sensations or emotions you are feeling.
Whether you feel bored, amused, tense, nervous, alarmed.
Whether you have an urge to step in or escape from any situation.

4 What is your brain telling you might happen?

Tune into the messages that your brain is sending you. Are you worrying about something that might happen? 

Is this likely to happen?
What is most likely to happen?
What is least likely to happen?
What does actually happen?

Compare what does happen with what you predicted would happen.

Practise mindfulness in social situations as often as you can in quiet public places.

Move on to slightly busier places

Sit near various groups of people without being intrusive. Maintain your neutral stance. Simply be interested in what is playing out before you. You are merely observing.

You have no stake in what is going on.

1 Focus discreetly on various groups

Notice how the people within the group interact with each other. 

Who tends to speak the most? The least? The loudest? Who seems impatient, caring, happy, sad, reasonable, annoyed, worried?

Notice the different postures of various people. Notice how friends in groups talk to and look at each other. And notice how people react when they meet someone they know.

Notice parents speaking to children; are they angry, patient, bored, dismissive? Notice how much eye contact they give their children.

Notice how the children react. Are they content, or do they try to get more attention? How do parents react when their kids want more attention?

2 What thoughts or emotions do you notice?

What thoughts or emotions arise as you watch these interactions?

Do you notice any body sensations?
Do any thoughts or images flicker across your mind?
What emotions arise in response to these thoughts or images?

3 Be interested in your reactions

Be interested in your reactions. Allow them to be there, while doing nothing to change them. You may choose to consider these later when you’ve left the scene.

You could write some reactions down if you wish. Keep them in the form of “I notice I am feeling/thinking that …”

Don’t try to interpret them or work out what is causing them. Simply notice them, and how intense they feel. Then let them go past you. 

4 Remain the observer behind the camera

Maintain the stance of the observer behind the camera. You are not there to judge what others are doing or their appearance. You are only there to notice facts about their behaviour or appearance.

So rather than saying to yourself, “He’s a loudmouth and should shut up,” say to yourself, “He has a loud voice and tends to talk more than the others in the group. I notice other people find it hard to say what they want.”

Notice whether you can observe without your emotions intruding. Practise until you can view what happens in these situations neutrally. 

A camera has no thoughts or emotions, and simply records what actually happens without making any judgments. See if you can let your thoughts and emotions sit to one side, so you don’t make judgments either. 

Notice if different emotions come up

Notice neutrally any other emotions that come up. Be interested in these emotions, especially if they seem out of place for the situation.

Ask yourself:

How can you be affected emotionally by people with whom you have no connection?

Is something in this situation reminding you of someone or something from your past?

Can you see any connection with the emotions you’re feeling now to someone or something you’ve known before? 

1 Linking the past to the present

Perhaps the way someone is talking, or they way they look, reminds you of a person you’ve known. If that person was unpleasant or mean to you, then you may be also remembering your previous emotions.

Note that these ideas are only theories. You’ll never really know for sure.

But you may discover some reasons why you react so strongly to people or situations that you don’t even know. They have nothing to do with you, but some aspect of them reminds you of something from the past. You may not be fully aware of the similarity, because you’ve picked it up subconsciously. 

If you have these sorts of reactions often, you may never have understood why till now.

Learning to be more aware of what’s going on can help you decide how to manage these reactions in future. 

2 Notice automatic reactions 

For example, you may notice you get really tense and annoyed when you observe women the same age and appearance as your mother. 

Perhaps your own mother has a strong personality. You still feel you have to stand up to her, in order to maintain your own identity.

Now when you see these other women, you react as if they’re bossy and interfering. You suddenly feel as if you need to protect yourself, and act super-confident to stop them railroading you into doing things you don’t want to do. 

The trouble is, they’re not your mother. They’re probably have completely different personalities to your mother. They probably wouldn’t dream of coercing you to do anything. So your reactions may seem rather strange to them. 

3 Notice automatic assumptions 

If you observe your thoughts and feelings mindfully, you may notice the snap judgments you made about these women without even knowing them. 

You may be assuming that if someone looks like your mother, she’ll act like her. Although you have no evidence that this is true, you may be acting as if it is true. 

So if an older woman annoys you in future, use mindful observation. Firstly notice your feelings and thoughts about her. Then work out if she has in fact done something to annoy you.

Be honest with yourself. Is your annoyance really more about the relationship with your mother than with this woman?

Either way, let the feelings of annoyance subside. Focus mindfully on a more helpful activity.

4 Notice your reactions to other strangers

Over time, continue to notice your reactions as you use mindfulness in social situations. You may notice strong emotions arising with different strangers. Again, take note of these reactions with interest.

Do they point to difficult situations you’ve had with others who resemble these people in some way? Use this information to reflect on reactions you may have in the present.

Awareness is the first step to mastery

Awareness of your thoughts and feelings is a first step to achieving mastery of yourself.

Allow mindfulness to guide you on the path to greater self-knowledge.

Using mindfulness in social situations can help clarify reactions you have in the present that may relate to the past.

In addition, mindfulness of your own reactions can help greatly in coping with social anxiety.

So make sure you first practise mindfulness in social situations in which you don’t know anyone first. Then you’ll be able to transfer these skills to trickier situations where you know more people and particularly family members

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