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.
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