Some of you probably already know that I suffer from a mild form of social anxiety. I don’t discuss it as a rule but the older I get the less I try to hide it. Over the years I’ve made decisions based on anxiety that I have regretted – There’ve been many times that I have wished for a “do-over”.
People I work with and people who belong to my business organizations would probably be surprised to know that I’m challenged by this. The reality is when I am in my professional capacity I am uberconfident and, for the most part, capable of overcoming my anxieties. Put me in a room full of people I do not know and ask me to speak to them I might have a bit of a challenge but with smaller more intimate groups of professionals who I have known for years I’m the most confident person in the room.
My supervisor asked me once what the one thing was I wanted to change about myself the most. I told her that I would like to be more like my work self in my home life. I would like to have more confidence, be assertive, be able to walk into a room and know that I belong there and that my input is not only respected but sought out. I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone that I always want to be the smartest or most knowledgeable person in the room it is who I am it is who I have always been. I know it can be annoying but the reality is in a lot of cases it is my suit of armor, my protection. It is what gives me the ability to walk into that room in the first place.
Even this blog has been a challenge for me. I’ve been writing for years but only began to share with the encouragement of my sister and my father who told me that I was a good writer and that I should share my works of fiction and nonfiction with others. I still lack the confidence in my ability to write effectively and constantly critique my own work. A writer I know, a published author, kindly offered to help me learn how to promote my blog to increase my readership. Many of her suggestions were doable but when it came down to it, it would’ve required self-promotion and I couldn’t bring myself to be that person. I mean I do want people to read my blog and I very much appreciate the feedback that I receive which is for the most part positive. I’ve had friends who provided me with some critique as well and I cherish that because I know it is not easy to provide negative feedback to someone and yet they do it because they respect me. It’s not necessarily a fear of rejection because that’s an oversimplification – it’s more a fear of not being recognized (?) No no that’s not quite it maybe a fear of being considered irrelevant. I’m still working through that and still trying to figure it out. I think I’m a good writer and I am compelled to write and right now that’s enough for me.
Having social anxiety is not something you can just “get over” as some people might assume or suggest. My friends tell me that I care too much what other people think and that is true – absolutely true – but it’s a symptom of my anxiety that I allow what others think to impact my action or reaction to certain things. Even sharing this right now is giving me a pit in my stomach. Im working on it though.
I have friends that over the years I have determined I chose because they are completely different for me. They are strong, confident, outgoing, fun, easy-going, loud and generally the center of attention wherever they go. On the one hand when I’m out with them it makes me extremely nervous but on the other hand I enjoy sitting back and watching and even participating when I feel safe enough. Sometimes I cringe at some of their antics but I also revel in it. To provide an example there is a restaurant that I frequent and one of the owners has developed a complete crush on one of these friends. Whenever I go there and he sees me he’s very kind and he always asks how I’m doing and of course he asks after her. I never seek him out I never mention that I know him and I never draw attention to myself when I’m there. If he sees me great if he doesn’t that’s fine too. Being with these women is fun and exciting and challenging and I can live vicariously through them enjoying their ability to leave some of their inhibitions behind and their complete self-confidence. I tell them that I envy them that ability and that I wish I could be more like them. Sometimes they try to push me to be more like them, in the most gentle way because they are incredibly loving people, but they also know me well enough to recognize when it’s time to stop pushing.
Social anxiety has such a large scope and everyone is different. An example would be my inability to take a compliment when given. This is in some ways a form of social anxiety in that i’m fearful of being judged for accepting the compliment too readily. As though I am saying “Well yes I know” if I accept the compliment without demurring. I’m not proud of myself for this and I am not happy that I struggle with it but it’s not super easy to overcome. I can’t just give my head a shake and change 50 years of shyness. I do work at it though and some times are better than others. Frankly sometimes I don’t even know how I’m going to respond until I’m actually there in the moment.
About 18 years ago I joined an online social group – a chat room – and they would have monthly gatherings. I’d been frequenting the chat room for quite some time but could not bring myself to attend one of the gatherings. Despite encouragement by many of the members who were very kind to me and very understanding I just couldn’t pull that trigger. My almost 11-year-old daughter is the reason I attended my first gathering. She knew that I wanted to meet some of these people face-to-face and she knew that I was struggling so she convinced me to attend a “party” one Saturday night. In an effort at good parenting I wanted to show her that I could do this because I wanted to instill self-confidence in my child (the things we do for our children). I pulled into the parking lot and sat in my car for a pretty long time and then as I was walking in I spotted a pay phone so I called ostensibly to “check in” on her. She said in her most parental tone “MOMMA hang up the phone and go inside”. I was caught – she knew exactly what the problem was so, out of excuses, I force myself to walk into a bar for the first time in my entire life by myself. Sadly I spent an hour walking around the place, I ordered a beer and I wandered aimlessly trying to look like I belonged there while the entire time trying to work up the nerve to approach the group. After an hour and one beer I left. It wasn’t until some months later that I actually attended a function and spoke to anyone.
As a child I was extraordinarily shy and it wasn’t until I began (Don’t judge) using drugs and alcohol that I was able to free myself from that shyness and to learn to socialize. As a young adult I recognized my dependence upon these “tools” and for the most part became a bit of a teetotaler. Don’t get me wrong I’m not an addict I just recognized that it was a path that I was not comfortable traversing. You’ve all seen the type, she’s a wallflower until she’s downed a couple of shots then she becomes life of the party. It’s all artifice and the aftereffects generally were self-deprecation, fear of rejection and sometimes embarrassment – Although I will admit being that person can be incredibly exhilarating.
This part of me wherein it does not define me, it is a large part of my psyche and as a result something that I struggle with on a regular basis. Until my 40s I didn’t even recognize it as a form of social anxiety. I would pretend I was sick to avoid attending functions. I would cancel plans at the last minute. I would opt out of events with lame excuses or in some cases no excuse at all. In the last ten years I have recognized and overcome many of these obstacles and don’t use excuses any longer. At the time however, I would invariably find an excuse to dodge home parties or hostess parties like Tupperware or Pampered Chef. I hated that I would do these things and I know that sometimes my friends became impatient with me but it’s just not that easy to overcome. Someone who hasn’t struggled with this probably could not understand how challenging it could be for someone like me to walk into a funeral home for example.
It’s not just a fear rejection although that’s a large component, it’s more a fear of drawing attention to oneself although that in itself is probably an oversimplification. I never want to be the center of attention I never want people to be looking at me as I enter a room. I want to quietly and surreptitiously enter the room and find a safe place. In many cases my safe place is surrounded by people that I already know like me. If I am walking into a place with strangers and I can’t find a safe place I sometimes cannot bring myself to cross the threshold. To be honest, there have been too many occasions to count where I have actually driven to the event and then turned around and left. Again, I’m not proud of this and I’m not even sure why I’m sharing it but I felt compelled.
Someone I respect and like very much passed away suddenly recently. I wanted to attend the memorial because I felt it was the right thing to do and because I wanted to mourn his passing with like-minded people. I didn’t go. I’m sad that I didn’t go. I am disappointed in myself for not forcing myself to attend. I like myself a little less right now because even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I could not do it. I know I have to forgive myself and I have to give it over because it happened , it sucks and it’s over; I will I’m time but I also need to hold onto a little bit of the feeling I have right now so the next time, and there will be a next time, maybe I will force myself to go. I struggle with this maybe not daily but often and sometimes I’m able to push it to the back of my head and forge ahead. I love to try new things, I love to explore new places and I crave new experiences so I have to push myself and I have to challenge myself to act outside my comfort zone. Ultimately, most of the time, when I do it pays off. I’ve developed new skills, I’ve met new people and made new friends, I’ve enjoyed fun exotic foods and I’ve lived a good life so the risk is worth the effort. It just takes that first step over the threshold.
Oddly going places by myself where I can be invisible like botanical gardens or public places are rarely a problem for me. There I am not expected to be anything to anyone and I’m just a face in the crowd. Sometimes I feel the safest in places like these. Art festivals, public parks, museums etc. I can walk around and observe the displays and watch the people and enjoy myself knowing that no one cares who I am or what I may or may not be able to contribute. I can hide behind a book, or my camera or my sketch pad and be an outside observer and this gives a cloak of invisibility that allows me safe access. It’s why many of my adventures are solitary, not because I don’t enjoy the company of others but instead because I thrive in the anonymity of being that observer.
I have learned to be patient with myself when my anxiety chooses for me and I ask that my friends be patient with me as well and try to understand that my reticence is not a reflection of them or the event itself but of my own limitations and fears. Just like you wouldn’t force someone with a fear of heights to ride in a hot air balloon, be encouraging but try not to judge, don’t stop asking me to attend events but try to understand if I can’t make all of them and be cognizant, not only of my social anxiety, but of others who may struggle with this as well. As I’ve said many times before I am a work in progress. Just recognizing this trait in myself and not allowing it to define me is a big step in the right direction.