QUIT: Letting My Social Anxiety Win

You’d never guess it from the loudmouthed sasspot I am on this blog, but I am broken socially.

Everyone gets nervous in certain social situations.  Meeting new people, going on an interview, speaking in front a large crowd…that’s normal.  But I’m not nervous only in normal situations.  I’m nervous around people I know and love quite well.  Nervous around friends (even my best friends).  Nervous around family.  Nervous around pretty much everyone except for my immediate family and my husband (who I know I don’t have to be nervous around because he’s already stuck with me for life, ha-ha!).

Clinically anxious, in other words.

This has screwed up more areas of my life than I care to think about.  It’s ruined more than a few friendships (not to mention the friendships that never were because of it).  Those people who have stuck around do so with full knowledge (and unfathomably generous acceptance) of the fact that I will probably “flake out” on plans on a semi-regular basis.  I honestly wonder sometimes what they must think when they schedule anything with me.  I picture large “???”s on their calendars next to any event that has my name attached to it.

The reasons why I’m like this are a Dr. Phil episode I don’t need to rehash in too much detail.  Suffice it to say that my middle school years were not the most welcoming (whose really were?), and this ingrained my brain with the equation “social situations = panic attack.”  My high school years were a surprisingly happy interlude, which turned me back into a normal person for a moment, but my college crazy years set me right back to recluse.  (Rapid swings in mood and personality don’t do much to enhance your social tendencies or group acceptance.  Go figure.)

The result?  Every social situation I face (be it a family reunion, dinner outing, or just coffee with a friend) launches me into a spiral of pre-event jitters so fierce that most of the time I just burrow down deep in my psychological wormhole and refuse to come out till it’s all over (preferably without me in attendance).

The completely ridiculous thing is, I am always fine once I get there.  But getting there rarely happens, because it’s such a struggle.

What do I have to be so afraid of?


Anatomy of a Phobia

Here’s how it always goes down:

A few hours before “the event” (whatever that event may be), the nerves will kick into overdrive.  “What ifs” spin through my head at a frantic clip:  What if I have nothing to talk about?  What if I start talking but everyone is horribly bored?  What if I say something stupid?  What if everyone is talking to everyone but me, and I’m stuck standing in a corner by myself trying to look like I don’t mind, when really I want to melt into the floor or run away?

What if, what if, what if…?

The nervousness leads to fear, which leads to petrification, which leads to excuses:  I have so much else to do.  I’d much rather stay home and have a relaxing night.  It’s been a long week.  I deserve a break.  Maybe I’m not feeling so well after all.  (I’m usually not, after all the anxiety.)

I start to resent the fact that my presence is being summoned in spite of the obvious torture it always puts me through.  I start to hate the demand on my time and the incursion on my otherwise idyllically peaceful life.  (I completely, of course, overlook the fact that I am always fine once I get there.)

It’s unreasonable.  It’s irrational.  And, I have to admit, it’s incredibly unattractive.  I don’t like the person I am like this.  In fact, I despise her.  But I’ve been letting her run the show for so long because I  don’t know how to outrun her.

Until now.  Because now, after decades of being held hostage by my own irrational fears, I am finally, 110% Fed. Up.  I’m through with letting my own neuroses eff up myself and my life.  And I’ve finally realized what I need to do about it.


Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

I wrote a post a while back about letting yourself sit in your negative feelings.  So often, we try to fight negative emotions—to ignore them, push them away, force ourselves to “get over” them.  But some negative emotions can’t be fought off.  Social anxiety is one of those things—it grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go until you’ve cowered off into a corner where the big, bad people can’t find you.

You can’t “fight” something like that.  Or maybe some people can, but I can’t.  And believe me, I’ve tried.  I’ve tried breathing exercises, visualizations, shaking myself out of it, bribing myself, and reminding myself that it’s never as scary as I think it will be.  It doesn’t make a lick of difference.  All it does is focus my thoughts with laser precision directly at the center of the anxiety I’m trying to get rid of.  (And make me hate myself for not being able to get rid of it.)

Which is why I’ve finally come to realize the one thing that can help me free myself from the fear:

By letting it have its way with me, in a way.

Learning to be OK with the fact that anxiety is my natural reaction to social situations, and not panicking every time it happens, is the only way I can manage to ride it out and keep going in spite of it.  Not against it, not without it, but in spite of it.


New Plan of Attack ( = No Attack At All)

So I have a cognitive glitch in my head that will take lots (and LOTS) of reprogramming to undo.  I’m not going to get over my anxiety after a few good, hard tries; I’m going to have to power through, again and again and again, before my lizard brain stops interpreting every social event as a trigger for a panic attack.

This means that every time I feel the anxiety starting to well up, I need to let it.  I need to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Because riding it out and pushing through in spite of it is the only way I’m ever going to break the cycle.

Every time I sit in the worry and anxiety and accept that it’s just a mental malfunction of mine, it’s a little easier to disassociate myself from it and dare to go out in spite of it.  Every time I feel the fear, and show up anyway, I make it a little easier to show up the next time.

So, I’ve started…well, not “welcoming,” but at least “putting up with”…the arrival of Antisocial Me.  I expect her, I brace for her, and when she arrives, I say, “Yep, you again,” and keep moving anyway.

I still want to flee.  I still want to whine.  I still feel an instant headache/stomachache/soul ache come on.  But I distract myself as best I can until it’s time to leave, and then I leave.

It’s hardly a bold social experiment, but it’s a start.  And I’ll take it.

Image: the camera is a toy. / Flickr

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  • Aliza123

    I could have written this myself, even though most people I know would think I hide it very well (when I DO go out!). I have found that if I make plans to do whatever it is with someone else I am more likely to go (even though I always have a good time, whatever it is I’m nervous about). I make all those excuses to myself too – too busy, need a night to myself – all of them. But sometimes I just MAKE myself go and end up havign a pretty good time. Don’t even ask me about dating though…lol

    • I’m the same way, Aliza. I used to be pretty petrified once I actually GOT to places, too, but now I’m pretty good about appearing “normal” once I get there–if I can just get myself out the door in the first place!

      I’ve enlisted my husband as my accountabilabuddy. He reminds me, when I start making excuses, of all the other times I’ve felt the same way but then had a great time once I actually went out. He also has carte blanche to make me go out when I try to beg off, unless I am actually physically sick (a la flu/migraine). Every little safeguard against my own fears helps. 🙂

      Yeah, dating can be scary for even the most sociable people. I mainly waited around until fate threw my husband my way–which did eventually happen. So there’s hope. 🙂

  • Darius Belejevas

    Heh, I can still remember gathering all my mental energy for like 30 minutes to go buy groceries in a shop ~200 meters away – just being around people was freakin` stressful 🙂 Seems so distant when looking back.

    In retrospect, my own social issues were very much about the image of myself that I have created in my mind (ego). It was so ridiculously out-of-whack that there’s no way I could live up to it in reality.

    This gap between how I saw myself and how I thought I appear to others is what caused most of my anxieties and, in turn, questions very similar to yours, Cordelia: “what if others think I’m lame or beneath them?”, “what if they laugh at me behind my back?”, “what if they don’t really want to see me/talk to me?”

    So one major change that I had to make, was to become okay with appearing dumb/awkward/boring/lame. This was such a relief! Many other changes also had to happen to be at the stage where I am happy with my social anxieties. Now I enjoy sometimes driving to another town for a night out and just meeting strangers and having fun.

    Thank you for sharing this, Cordelia and best of luck with this quit 🙂

    • That’s a really good point, Darius. Social anxiety is very much about worrying how you’ll come across–will you be cool enough, entertaining enough, funny enough–when in reality, everyone is worried about that. Half the people at the parties I’ve been terrified to go to were probably equally focused on how they were coming across–so much so that they might not have even noticed if *I* seemed a little awkward!

      It’s often said that the best conversationalists are good listeners, not good talkers, and I’ve been trying to apply that to my attempts to be more social. Instead of focusing inward on how I’m coming across, I focus on trying to engage the other person–ask them questions, make *them* feel at ease, etc. I’m not quite to your point of being able to meet strangers spur of the moment and enjoy it (I envy you that!), but I am slowly getting better.

      It’s all about accepting the things you can’t change (the fear) and moving on in spite of it. Every time you do that, the fear loses a little bit of its power.

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  • Melinda Gonzalez

    Very powerful article. I wish more people thought like this, instead of denying their feelings. I think a lot of people have social anxiety to some degree, they just don’t all admit it.

    I had it really bad for the same reason as you. Tough childhood that I wasn’t allowed to emotionally release as a kid. You wouldn’t know it by talking to me, because I was “normal” in every other way. In fact, I put on a pretty good “confident” show. However, just going into a store would almost always cause my heart to race and my mind to go crazy. If there was a group of people, I would pretty much be a complete mess of anxiety.

    Eventually, I went on an emotional healing path. I started allowing the feelings to just come. I stopped fighting them. I realized under all the anxiety were tears.
    Some days I would have to leave the store because the tears would come on so strong. I just allowed them to come as much as they needed. This went on for a while. I made sure to keep my “head” out of it, and just allowed my heart to open up. This continued for a while. I would go back and forth, sometimes I was OK, and sometimes I would feel the anxiousness again and start crying.

    Eventually, the tears stop. We don’t have to know why they are there. We don’t have to mentally rehash past memories. If we let go we will finish grieving when we are ready.

    I used to go outside and run when I felt anxious. It was a temporary fixed, that society said was acceptable. However, if we always run or hide from our feelings they will never be released. Now, when I feel anxious I stop and feel into my heart center. There is almost always tears.

    I honestly think most of society’s dis-functions are just un-shed tears. Even anger, if you dig deep enough, has tears and sadness underneath.

    I read an article about a women who had worked with repeat prisoners. These were people who had been in the system for years. She would give them the end of a cut off garden hose, and tell them to beat a mattress with it. She would make them hit it until they got so angry, and eventually they would break down and start crying. None of the prisioners that were released ever went back into the system.

    Your blog resonates with me on so many levels. I am glad you talk about things most people are afraid to talk about.

    • You make such powerful and insightful points. I think so many people are afraid of acknowledging their fears (and tears) because they think it’s a sign of weakness–better to just ignore them, suppress them, move on in spite of them. But that just makes things worse.

      The key for me, in dealing with so many things, is to realize that YOU ARE NOT YOUR FEELINGS. Just because you get panicky going to the store, that doesn’t mean you are fragile. It just means your feelings are trying to tell you something. You can feel them, and dwell in them until they begin to resolve themselves, without letting it affect how you view yourself as a person. You’re right; so many issues people face today could be fixed if they just learned to process what they’re feeling–to let it come and try to understand what’s at the root of it and how to address that–rather than pushing it down and finding temporary coping measures.

      The example of the prisoners is so moving. It isn’t easy to deal with these things–it’s uncomfortable, and scarey, and it can take a long time to move through them, but that’s the thing: you’ve got to move THROUGH them to get past them. We all have our issues. It’s how we learn to live with them, to be gentle with ourselves about them, and to find ways to work through them, that makes all the difference in the world.