When I was a child, I had a hard time in preschool. What I felt was a type of separation anxiety. In other words, my house was a refuge and a safe space that I needed. So, when I had to go to my preschool, I was separated from my safe space. This led to crying. And of course, what can you expect from a child who doesn’t feel comfortable? I would cry and some adult would try to comfort me.
A naturally curious child may experience anxiety at first, but typically, it ebbs and flows based on experience. A lot of kids, maybe most, eventually come to find safety in new or novel experiences. Eventually, situations that were once a little daunting become normal. And what I think is that children who explore what’s new (leaving the safety net, so to speak) often find their exploration rewarded by learning a new skill or social function that, on the whole, is healthy for development. With each new place, person, or experience a child encounters, the child’s brain will say, “Hey, that wasn’t bad at all! We can keep doing this!”
Looking back, I wasn’t a curious kid. I was fine being at home. Preschool was a weird place to me. I couldn’t see that anyone was on my side. I didn’t really venture out or take chances. Why? Because it was survival. My survival instinct was flight. I knew I couldn’t fight my situation. Tears didn’t take me back home. Freezing also wasn’t helpful for me, because why would I want to remain stuck at preschool? The only way to survive was avoid, stay quiet, and remain unassuming. You don’t ever verbalize these as a child, nor do you consciously realize that you’re stripping your brain of the necessary rewards that come with expanding one’s boundaries. If you go on too long never feeling rewarded for venturing out, then you’re convinced that taking a chance on anything is too much of a risk.
I don’t think it took long for my mental patterns to set in. At some point, I internalized my strategy without having the words for it. It was just how I operated. I couldn’t have changed my mode of operation any more than I could have changed the color of my skin. So, when I wasn’t crying to go back home where it was safe, I just remained quiet. When these habits set in so young, it’s hard to break them as an adult. I still struggle with this method of flight even today.
I believe that this is the root of my social anxiety. Perhaps, I even have social anxiety disorder. The reason I start with this particular mental illness is because it still remains one of the most consistent problems I face. In fact, maybe a lot of my problems would have never surfaced without these disorderly symptoms.
I want to point out one important thing. My social anxiety has, for the most part, been pretty selective as to when it wants to activate. This has been true for as long as I can remember. For instance, when I was home, I felt fine. I was introverted, but not shy at home. But as soon you put me in preschool, I would revert to my defensiveness, my first roots of social anxiety.
And this anxiety slipped through the cracks. As far as I know, I don’t remember one adult suggesting or advising assistance. Granted, I grew up in the ’90s. I don’t think social anxiety was understood quite like it is now. My parents knew that I wasn’t a social butterfly. But I’m not sure they ever thought it was the type of thing that could cause long-term issues. I suspect the reason is because I was happy at home. And for my parents, that was proof that all I suffered was simply shyness.
But I need to make it absolutely clear that shyness and social anxiety are not one in the same. Shyness is no doubt a part of social anxiety, but shyness can also exist as a character trait. Some people are naturally not egregious, but that doesn’t mean they have social anxiety. In fact, shyness can be seen as something good. People often associate shyness with humility, and we tend to like humble people. But shyness can be misunderstood, too.
When people mistake shyness for the mental disorder that is Social Anxiety Disorder, they say things like, “You need to get out of your shell” or “Just talk to them!” The people who suffer from SAD realize that, yes, at the core, they do need to break out of their boundaries. But people who callously tell them to simply do what goes heavily against their most valued instinct fail to provide the right environment for success.
Once again, and I know my parents meant well, but they told me I needed to exit my shell. They wanted to encourage me, but they didn’t realize what they were up against. I can’t blame them for not knowing that the dragon they were facing couldn’t be killed by just winging it. No, social anxiety requires a plan that’s more complex than “Just do it!”
The reason why social anxiety is such a huge problem is because it is a mental illness that does more than simply instill anxiety. Social Anxiety Disorder deprives its sufferers of life, itself. In fact, people may make huge life decisions based on how anxiety informs them. They may give up on education, career, or even relationships because the anxiety of trying is too much. This creates a cycle of shame in which the one suffering can’t possibly win. They receive too much anxiety when they want to do something that scares them. But then they suffer shame when they can’t do “what normal people do all the time.” Like I said, there’s no way to win.
An important phone call is skipped because talking on the phone causes way too much anxiety. Someone may refuse to participate in school due to social anxiety, causing lackluster grades and a lack of academic understanding. Hell, even the idea of asking for help at critical times is a massive task for someone with SAD. I could see a situation where someone with social anxiety would literally suffer a heart attack in silence just so they wouldn’t make a scene.
People with SAD typically fear too much attention. They fear looking dumb. They fear how their own voices sound. They fear being embarrassed or being ridiculed. They fear talking on the phone or even in text form. Video chats? Nope. Not a fan. Meeting someone on a one-on-one basis? Nope. Group interviews? Hell no! Social functions that many may see as normal become excruciating experiences for those with social anxiety.
We fear family, friends, and strangers alike. We hyper-examine every social interaction that has happened and relive the embarrassments painfully in our heads. We are so critical of ourselves, that there is no room for self-compassion. And because the anxiety and the shame are so pervasive, we spend years avoiding life. We put everything important to the side in the name of feeling comfortable. And can you blame us? Anxiety isn’t fun. But imagine feeling the anxiety almost every day. Imagine not being able to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Imagine not even being able to shop. Imagine feeling like a waste of space because you feel like you’ve not achieved even half the success and social milestones of your peers. Imagine the loneliness of having no friends. This is reality for a lot of people.
Because I was so uncomfortable, I opted out of talking. I opted out of showing my true self or presenting my opinion. I opted out of disagreeing or debating because it was much easier to just go along with whatever someone else said. Part of that is people-pleasing, but that’s for another post. I even skipped some college classes because it was too much.
Social anxiety also breeds avoidance behaviors. Being able to escape the spotlight was a skill we learned quick. The logic is, Quiet = Safe. Because if you talk, you have a chance of saying something stupid or accidentally offensive. The less people know about you, the less chance they have to pick you apart and destroy you. Of course, being quiet is a liability too. If you’re the quiet one, then you’re not much safer. People love pointing out the quiet ones and putting them on the spot. Trust me, I know.
Awareness is important. I first learned of social anxiety disorder as a college student who feared talking to my professor. I just . . . I needed to know I wasn’t a broken person, that I wasn’t the only one suffering this pain of anxiety. It was swallowing me and I was getting miserable. I looked up the symptom that was plaguing me the most at the time, which was “I’m afraid to talk to my professor.” One thing led to another, and I discovered the Wikipedia article of social anxiety disorder. And so much of what I read made sense.
It’s surreal when you read a list of symptoms or a synopsis of a mental illness and see yourself between the lines. It was like this webpage was describing me. For the first time, I felt at least some validation. Like, it felt that I wasn’t a complete wreck. It felt like I had something legitimately wrong.
Because here’s the thing. If you don’t discover your affliction is a mental illness, then you’re next natural assumption is that your mental illness is your character. Had I not discovered social anxiety disorder way back then, I might have lived with the idea that issues were inherent to my character. Instead, social anxiety disorder lives outside who you are. Like any other mental illness, it is not you. And that’s really important to remember.
My job in retail these days has forced me to confront my social anxiety. And I will say that “exposure therapy” does help you create social calluses. However, I’m not giving it too much credit. I do think that haphazardly putting yourself in a constant flurry of what makes you truly uncomfortable can actually do more harm than good. I realized that being forced to talk to customers and dealing with very uncomfortable encounters or situations both helped me to live with more courage and also hurt my confidence and self-esteem. It just depended on the situation.
I think gradually exposing yourself to anxiety-inducing situations will eventually numb you to the point where you can handle those situations better. I don’t know if the anxiety ever fully goes away, but you do realize it’s not as strong and you get over it more quickly. However, I do think exposure therapy is best done amping up the social difficulty at a gradual level. If you take on too much for too long without some structure, then exposure might only hurt you. It takes a balance.
Today, I know that social anxiety still affects me. I don’t like talking on the phone. When I know I need to make a call, I stress over it and try to delay it. In addition, I still try to keep my head down and avoid as much interaction as possible. At the grocery store, I want to rush in and rush out. It’s like survival just to do some of the most mundane things.
I know it sounds discouraging, but you can get better. In my case, it was life and some exposure to my fears that helped to build my social muscles. I’m nearing 30 years, so trust me when I say life will teach you a lot of lessons. I do think, to some extent, the things you’re insecure about as you age begin not to matter as much. And you can enjoy life a lot more that way. I know that I’ve somewhat conquered a part of my social anxiety. And even if I do bring attention to myself in some way, I can handle it, for the most part.
The attitude I try to harbor is simply this: “Do I like/want/feel it? Nothing else matters.”
Maybe I decide to wear a jacket I like to a restaurant. But my social anxiety will say, “That jacket is really bright and fruity. Are you sure you want to wear it? A beige jacket will keep the eyes off you.” What you have to do is train your mind to say, Regarding this jacket, though, what do I want to do? Maybe you feel insecure about ordering a big meal when you feel hungry while what everyone else orders is lighter fare. Again, But what do I feel like eating?
The problem with social anxiety is that deprives you of an experience you want. When social anxiety threatens to derail you, it’s because you have a worry that what you want is wrong in some capacity. We’ve been trained to believe that what we want is wrong and that conforming to our image of normal is “acceptable.”
Like it or not, sometimes people will give us shit for the things we do when we choose to ignore what anxiety tells us to do. For a long time, I had no real answer to that bitter part of my affliction. The thing is, people will criticize us for things we do that harm no one. It seems unfair, right? I have learned to put on the armor of not giving a shit in certain situations where I feel strongest.
Because when you live as long as I have, you realize something important: If someone can thoughtlessly criticize you with no repercussions, then just as easily, you have the right to dismiss and discard what they say just as thoughtlessly–and without repercussions. You can mimic your critic’s attitude to combat the weight of their cruel or pesky opinions. When you realize this superpower, anxiety begins to lose its hold and you realize life is much better when you do what you truly want to do.
And it feels damn good when you realize that, at most, the only thing people can do is talk. Blah, blah, blah. Fuck all that noise. I’m going to live my life. I’m going to live. I’m going to do what I set out to do no matter what anyone says. When you realize this, you become much more free. Your confidence soars. Your anxiety lessens. And somehow, the music sounds better, the colors are clearer, and life just becomes much more vivid.
One thing I want to add is that it’s okay to feel angry about your social anxiety. You have every right to be. That anger is useful because it reminds you that your own brain’s mental patterns are committing an injustice against you. Namely, it’s stripping away your right to truly live. I think that would make anyone angry. Feel that anger, accept it, and then redirect it to combat the negative thoughts.
You can be stronger. I know that I’ve become stronger. Social anxiety is still there and it still affects me, but I am stronger than before. It does not have the hold it had before. And when you realize that life is exactly what you make it, you begin to question yourself.
“Why am I letting social anxiety win every time?”
If you have this affliction, you have my compassion. I’m sorry it’s hurting you and taking away aspects of your life. I hope that this post helps you. At the very least, I hope you know I commiserate. And hey, maybe each day, we can get a tiny bit better. Social anxiety sucks, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.