‘(Not So Much) Social Anxiety’
… I was overwhelmed by the positive response I got from the people I tagged when I shared it on Facebook – that is, the people who were at the two social occasions I mentioned. Originally it was intended as a ‘Thanks for being lovely’ kind of post, but it sort of morphed into a ‘Coming out as someone with social anxiety’ post. There were likes and there were positive comments, along the lines of, ‘Well done for sharing/being honest,’ ‘I didn’t realise you felt this way,’ and, ‘I feel/felt that way also.’ I will share below some of the comments (minus names, as approved by the commenters).
Not to be too dramatic about it or anything, but… I feel like I have awakened! And it seems, if I have perceived things right, that I may have helped one or two other people to positively share their own anxieties.
From a personal point of view, the ‘getting it all out there’ feels liberating. Those who are closest to me, by which I mean one or two people, already ‘know’ me and the feelings/anxieties I have had to deal with pretty much all my life. I have hinted at such things in stuff I have shared on social media, and in snippets of conversation, but I don’t think I have ever metaphorically stood up in a semi-public place and said, “I have social anxiety.” Well now I have! I have no doubt that the semi-euphoric sense of liberation I now feel will settle and normalise, but while it is still calmly buzzing around my emotional aura, I want to make the most of it. So…
Much has been said about social anxiety. Some of what’s been written has helped me to get to the point of acceptance and honesty where I’m at now. In particular I want to mention the highly recommendable works of Matt Haig, whose Reasons to Stay Alive, Notes on a Nervous Planet, and his substantial social media presence have certainly helped me to work through some stuff (Matt talks about his personal experiences with depression and anxiety, and he gives advice on fighting these demons in the fast-paced, stressful world in which we live; he also writes some damned good stories!). I could get bogged down with research and talk about how social anxiety is defined, but really the only perspective and experiences I have are my own (if you want a definition/description, however, this NHS article does the job: Social anxiety (social phobia)).
I have suffered from social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I don’t really like the word ‘suffered.’ ‘Experienced’? No, that downplays it – I’ll stick with ‘suffered.’ But the last thing I want is to overdramatise. I know there are people who deal with debilitating depression, with panic attacks, with extreme forms of anxiety which make it difficult to step outside their front door. I have experienced these things, to varying degrees and at different points in my life, but it is the social anxiety which has had the greatest and longest lasting impact. Most people who now know me would, I expect, be surprised, as I appear to function reasonably normally, but it has taken me decades to build up resilience and strategies to cope.
If you had known me as a child, you… wouldn’t really have known me. I was the quiet, shy one in the corner. I was socially awkward, avoiding social contact where possible and generally preferring to be alone. I left school for university and discovered the anonymity of nightclubs and all that is inherent therewith – not to any extreme degree, but the intoxicating mix of music, dancing, booze and semi-hypnotic lighting was know to alternately dissolve social barriers and enable me to immerse myself in a miasma of sensation. And there were a few select people who managed to break through my self-imposed barriers and ‘bring me out.’ One of those people is my partner – the mother of my beautiful, complicated daughter – who I am still with nearly three decades later.
My social anxiety is always and has always been there – but it manifests to varying degrees, depending on the situation and how I am generally feeling at different points in my life. If I am sad or depressed or low or stressed, it kicks in more, but happiness and positive events bring out the confident and gregarious me. I used to be accused of being or coming across as arrogant or aloof, for my inability to make eye contact, defensive body language and apparent disdain for fellow humans. I can now make eye contact! But it still, at times, causes a physical pressure in my eyes. I have trained myself to appear (relatively) relaxed and confident, to the point where, given the right circumstances, I am now often not even pretending.
I now like human contact!
If I had travelled into the future, twenty or thirty years ago, and heard myself saying this, I wouldn’t have believed it was me. But then I learned how to act. At first this had to be fuelled with booze, but while I still enjoy a drink or two, I have reached the point where it is not necessarily required for social occasions to give me pleasure… and I can even look forward to them! They are still often exhausting and preceded by anxiety, but as per my previous blog post, I am now at the point where, rather than often seeing them as a necessary evil which I prefer to avoid, I crave more of them. The pay-off is worth it!
So back to the title: the ‘In Celebration Of’ part. Rather than just being something I have learned to deal with and, to some extent, overcome, how has social anxiety improved or enhanced my life? One of the biggest things it has given me is… WRITING. Through finding spoken, face-to-face communication difficult, I have learned to hone my skills on the page. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare or Stephen King, but while it’s nice to receive positive feedback, that’s not the reason I do it. Well not the main reason. It’s a release – emotional and creative. It entertains me – you can’t beat the feeling of constructing a satisfying story! And as per some of my reasons for blogging, it helps me to sort out what’s going on in my head.
For those who don’t know, I am a teaching assistant in a special school. This may seem like the last thing someone with social anxiety should be doing, but I can honestly say that I don’t think I would be doing this kind of work if I was more, to use a technical term, neurotypical. The social pressures of an office have, at times, been excruciating for me. And while I don’t claim to be an expert on the complex range of issues, conditions and personalities I come into contact with daily at the school where I work, I feel that my social anxiety gives me a little bit of an ‘in.’ A tiny doorway to empathy. Not to mention the fact that, on a more personal level, in a place where you have to be sociable, patient, appropriate, etc, this has necessitated me refining my skills in these areas, which I can then take into the rest of my life. Probably most importantly, my work is meaningful and satisfying, which gives me the impetus and motivation to work through the difficulties to the incomparable rewards.
Thirdly, a little about social media. Where would I be without it!? There are issues with this, of course – some would have it that it is the bane of modern society – but being someone who doesn’t naturally fit into ‘real’ life (I could talk at length on what constitutes ‘real’ – but not here…), I have, since it’s emergence in the world, endeavoured to make the most of what the likes of Facebook have to offer. Honing my social skills, my communication, my writing; making and keeping in touch with friends/family… all in a pretty safe arena. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg!
As promised, here are some of the comments responding to my previous post:
“I completely get this, felt the same, glad we all survived.”
“I also was extremely anxious, but it really was great fun and left us all wanting to do more ‘awkward socialising’ together.”
“He almost didn’t come because of being so anxious, but I told him that none of you would expect sparkling conversation from him and that he could just be himself.”
“I didn’t realise the extent you felt this… Good to see the world through your eyes. I didn’t notice any social awkwardness… Keep on being honest and getting over the trapping of the anxious mind.”
“Learning about you all the time… Well done for putting it out there.”
“I never knew… I have had depression and anxiety, so good to break the social stigma of talking about it… Well done you.”
Thank you to the authors of all of the above… and more. You have helped me to be who I was always meant to be. 🙂