In my quest to hunt my afflictions and bring them to the light, I am very much stuck on how much social anxiety has affected my life. Social anxiety can snuff out so many flames, that you’re only left with a few smoldering ashes. And if all you have are ashes, then job-seeking becomes difficult, everyday interactions are excruciatingly painful tasks, and dream-seeking remains confined to quiet wishes. But I would argue that social anxiety’s worst effect is the quashing of that feeling of connection.
Connection is a basic human need. If every human is an island, then every island needs a “bridge” that leads to others. I think that, as we grow, our need for connection grows. Of course we need those bridges as children in our developmental years. Children need those bridges with their first connections, their parents/guardians. Later, children will feel the need to make bridges leading to friends. These connections foster a sense of belonging and allow the brain to realize that trying to make more connections is a safe and rewarding activity. And if you have a lot of connections that reinforce your self-esteem and confidence with love and companionship, then it’s likely you will have a base to land back on if you face rejection.
But for the one who is wracked with social anxiety, there may be very few bridges. Even if there are bridges, it’s likely that some or all the bridges are rickety and worn. Any bridge could collapse at any time. If I say something wrong, someone may leave me. They may abandon me. Maybe I’ll accidentally hurt someone’s feelings or say something so silly that my connections may abandon me because they think I’m dumb. Basically, I sense that connection is tragically conditional. And ultimately, I’m struggling with this nightmarish image that I will be the one to burn my bridges.
And then . . . I’m just an island.
This is why social anxiety is so painful–it directly prevents us from feeling what we so desperately need to feel. The nature of the illness is such that we prevent ourselves from getting what we truly need. We might even convince ourselves that our lack of connection (or a perceived weakness of one or more connections) makes us emotionally and socially abnormal. We might convince ourselves that cutting connections is just part of our character, an internal flaw we really can’t fix.
I remember several family outings and parties where I was kinda off to the side observing the events take place. Right before my eyes, life was being lived. Connections between others were being reinforced with laughter, good-natured teasing, story-telling, and miscellaneous commentary. The talking seemed so natural. It seemed so effortless. My family made it look so good that I wanted to join. But I kept hitting this forcefield. It was like a bubble that killed any chance I had to connect.
Looking back, I realize that connection can happen in many ways. But for most of us, it starts with conversation. Social anxiety throws a wrench into the formula of connection. How can we connect if the primary way we connect is disrupted? If avoidance and succumbing to anxiety-induced mutism were the primary ways humans connected, well, we’d be just fine! But that’s not so. Realistically, we have to talk in order to start connecting.
And so, we break down. Anything multiplied by zero will always be zero. Zero ability to talk multiplied by a chance to connect leaves the sufferer with zero feelings of connection. If we suffer zero instances of successful connection, we then become discouraged and begin to question our worth on this earth. In the most serious cases, we begin to wonder if we were meant for life to begin with. It might feel that, since we can’t connect, our very lives were experiments gone wrong.
Yeah, it leads to some pretty dark thoughts.
Connection requires a risk we don’t want to take. The longer we remain disconnected, the harder it is to walk past our self-imposed boundaries. We become islands without bridges to other islands. Or maybe we’re not aware of the bridges we have. Maybe we’re so scared of losing bridges that we do nothing and hope those bridges remain.
Reality is often the best teacher. I’ve lost contact with many people. I have under 100 friends on Facebook, but I might as well be a stranger to many of them. I mean, I could start a conversation, but it would feel so random. I’ve been so quiet and now I talk? Where do I even start? How do we build that bridge again? Reality has taught me some hard lessons. If you choose to go silent, you should expect a reciprocal response. Nobody wants to keep trying to chat up a friend who simply refuses to answer.
I know the pain of wanting to somehow shed my fear and connect, but not being able to make the move. I know the pain of wishing I could just speak up and say anything that would bring me closer but only being able to stay put. I know the frustration of only being able to watch with envy as others nourish their own connections while I watch like a bird on a power line. Untouchable and far enough away to stay safe. If someone should try to connect with me, habits of fear take over and I extinguish the very thing I sought in the first place. That is the contradictory nature of social anxiety.
Needless to say, it sucks.
I think many people with social anxiety issues question whether they want connection in the first place. I mean, it does feel much more comfortable to remain an island with no bridges. If you have no friends or connections at all, then you can’t possibly let anyone down. Like moths to a lantern, we tend to float toward the comfort separating ourselves from everyone because, even if we’re lonely, we at least avoid anxiety.
But rest assured, you want connection. Even if your brain is telling you it’s too risky, you know that you really want it. Even if you feel too afraid as someone tries to connect, it doesn’t mean that you don’t want connection. You want it so badly that you fear it. It’s like an old snow globe. You value and treasure it, but you’re scared to touch it because you don’t want to drop it and watch it shatter. You value the idea of a connection so much, that you’ll do anything to use it as sparingly as possible because your belief is that you will find a way to mess it up.
The answer to this fear rests in vulnerability. Being able to open up to somebody you trust is key in facing these problems. Is there someone you can trust? Have you ever confided anything in anyone before? Look for the people you are connected to. Find the strongest bridge. Discern who your confidant(s) could be. Remember, you never have to reveal anything to anybody who seems unsafe or ill-equipped to handle what you may say. But if you look closely, maybe there’s a bridge connecting to an island that would welcome you.
And in turn, you may welcome someone to your island. Vulnerability only works if it’s two-way. Your confidant should be able to confide in you as well. And in this manner, you have a connection. You have something that you’ve sought for a long time. I feel weird suggesting therapy when I’m too much of a chicken to use it, myself, but ultimately, this may be what you need if you can’t find an acceptable confidant.
An inability to feel connected is a type of starvation. We may have food to eat, but we could still be starved for some attention, someone to just listen. We should also be angry at social anxiety disorder for depriving us of that feeling of connection everyone deserves. In addition, this disorder does more than just deprive of us of receiving connection. It deprives us of giving connection too. How many times have you just wanted to say something nice or encouraging, but the words died before they left your lips? It’s so frustrating.
You fear that if you wear your heart on your sleeve, people will find you annoying. But when you’re quiet and avoidant, you feel shame for showing nothing. In that sense, you can’t win. But you must realize that you’re dealing with a false dichotomy. Life is hardly ever 0% or 100%. Life is filled with shades of gray and is rarely ever black and white. And maybe it’ll help to remind yourself that you can make mistakes and still be okay. You can say something silly and still be okay. As far as I know, no one has died from a joke that didn’t land or a statement that didn’t make sense to others.
I want to make it known that it took me over twenty years before I found someone I could truly be vulnerable with. And we don’t even live in the same country, nor have we met in person. What I’m saying is that there are no rules about who you choose to be vulnerable with. You can try to make a serious connection with anyone who means a lot to you. That could be a neighbor, a friend, a parent, a grandparent, or maybe even that gamer dude with a long name and several Steam achievements.
Having someone in your corner can help you feel encouraged to face the world and maybe make some more connections. But don’t shame yourself over how long it takes. Don’t shame yourself if you have to cut connections that harm you. Take your time and don’t force anything. Also, be aware that making a connection will most likely happen in an unexpected way–something you’d have never expected or predicted.
Even with social anxiety, it is not impossible to make a connection. I believe you can do it.