A question I get asked is, “What is it like to suffer from social anxiety?” Actually, I cleaned up the question a bit, but that’s the essence. I could counter with, “What’s it like not to suffer from social anxiety?” Ever since I can remember, I’ve had this problem. When I was in therapy a few years ago, I wrote an abstract story to describe what I feel like (The Traveler and the Little Girl). What? Too trippy? Let me try and explain a little clearer.
I’m much more relaxed than I used to be. In school, I was wound pretty tightly. Walking with my head down and hurrying to class because I could not be late. That would have been the end of the world. I didn’t speak up in class and I didn’t cause any trouble. The teachers always told my mom the same thing during Parent/Teacher Conferences, “Corina needs to speak up more.” Can you imagine? A teacher telling a parent that her daughter is too quiet? My mom never believed the teachers because I’d bounce off the walls when I got home. After being inhibited all day I’d come home and release. My mom saw me as noisy and obnoxious – why on earth would the teachers want me to speak up more?
It’s just been in the last few years that I accepted my lot in life. But when I was younger, I always wanted to change my lot. The truth is I never realized I was so quiet. My thoughts were constantly racing that I had plenty of noise – just in my head. I always have an inner-dialogue taking place.
I grew up being quiet and avoiding social situations. But I can’t avoid all social settings and so I started noticing how often I was told, “You’re quiet.” I hate that. Why is it okay to point out how quiet somebody is and even try to be charming about it? What if I pointed out other people’s flaws but cover it up with a joke? “Wow, another donut, eh? Well, looks like your hips have room for it.” I’d be shown the door if I said something like that. But, “Next time, Corina will have to talk less. I didn’t get in a word edgewise! (wink, wink)” is totally acceptable.
Why is that offensive? Because I’m trying not to be so quiet. For example, somebody came over to visit my dad the other day and I found myself in a situation I don’t like. There were more than two people in the conversation. I forced myself to stay. I forced myself to ask questions. I forced myself to make comments. I felt pretty proud of myself for my accomplishment. Then, as our guest was leaving, he said it, “Corina will have to talk more next time.” My delight turned to defeat. I tried so hard and my accomplishment was ripped out from under me.
On the same note, it’s not necessary to point out when my face gets red. When it turns red, it also emits heat. Which means I can actually feel it turn red. When it does, I go into panic mode and try to cool down before it’s pointed out. It’s a genetic thing and all of my siblings have the same problem. My older sister tells the story of when she was in Junior High. She had a teacher just point at her until she turned red. The whole class would watch as my sister’s face turned bright red. What did this accomplish? Only to prove that teachers can be bullies, too.
I’m not trying to be a spokesperson for Social Anxiety. Everybody has different components that cause different symptoms. For example, I love to speak publically. I always say I’m different than most people in that I can public speak I just can’t social speak. However, I’m going to share my story and hope it helps somebody whether it is a fellow sufferer or somebody trying to help a sufferer.
I’m okay when it’s one on one. But throw just one more person into the mix and I become Mute Girl. It doesn’t matter if we’re all friends. If there are three, I have to force myself to join the conversation. I have a tendency to be more of an observer than a participator. My instinct is to watch and sometimes I forget it isn’t a show to watch but life to join in.
In my opinion, I won’t ever be cured of Social Anxiety. Instead, I’ve learned to cope. Forcing social situations on me hoping to cure me is about as effective as throwing someone into the deep end of the pool hoping she learns to swim. There’s a possibility it will work, but do you want to be responsible for the consequences if it doesn’t? It’s really an embarrassing ailment and I wish I could be healed. But when an attack hits, I physically cannot make myself do something – it’s like I hit a brick wall and can’t progress.
So, how do I cope? I have become a counter. I realize counting down hours and or days doesn’t appeal to most people but I have to do it. I need to know the moment isn’t going to last, that there is an end. So yes, I count down the hours until 5:00pm just so that I can get through the day. I count down the days until the weekend to get through the week. When I attend a play or performance, I need a program so that I can count down the performances. It sounds horrible and most people try to convince me that I need to “Savor the day.” But if I don’t count, I can’t function because I’ll be too worried. It’s my way of stepping out of the moment and seeing the bigger picture. The moment can consume me if I let it.
I know my persona comes off as rude. Most people are surprised when they get to know me and find out that I am actually friendly. I can’t initiate the friendliness but I can reciprocate it. Don’t ask me to explain, it’s one of those brick walls I face. I also won’t volunteer to bring anything to a potluck at a future date because I don’t know how brave I will be then. If I hit a brick wall, I won’t attend. I don’t want to be unreliable so I won’t volunteer. I also hate being a moocher so I usually won’t participate at all which only perpetuates the illness.
If we have a five minute conversation I will replay it in my head for the rest of the day. Even if it went well, I will go over and over it until I find a gaffe I made. I analyze everything I say and do and I am my biggest critic. If I make a social error, my tendency is to berate myself. My coping skill in this instance is to stop my smack thoughts and recognize my effort. Although controlling my thoughts is an acquired skill and goes against my instinct.
Sometimes I go home feeling like I’ve ticked everybody off. Can you imagine leaving church – a place promoting peace with a feeling of everyone upset with you? It’s not pleasant. Yes, I know it’s irrational. That’s why it’s a disorder. Again, I have to control my thoughts and realize people aren’t upset with me. For the most part, they probably don’t even notice me because they have their own problems.
I’ve had to memorize certain topics of discussion otherwise, I will be Mute Girl. If I know I’ll be in a social setting, I will go over a few safe topics in my head. That’s why I tend to ask the same questions over and over again.
I can’t handle contention and authority figures make me uneasy. That’s why I work at jobs well beneath my ability and then I get bored. The longest I’ve worked at a job is four years. I have a flight mode in which I run away because I have no idea how to make it better.
Any form of rejection shuts me down. You’d be surprised what I consider as rejection. It can be as simple as being told, “No.” I have to regroup before I can face anyone.
I realize there is a stigma of being a loner. But I need to be alone so that I can reset my coping mechanisms. I have a “Brave day,” in which I need to run my errands and get things done. My brave days have become more frequent lately but I still need my alone time in between.
A party is supposed to be a good time filled with laughs. But if there is going to be more than two people, it’s not fun for me. It’s a social interaction that I’d have to work at just to appear fairly normal. This takes a lot of effort on my part. So, I usually have an excuse to get out of it. Don’t be offended that I don’t make it, but I appreciate the fact I get invited.
Texting has been a very helpful invention. I prefer to text than to speak on the phone.
This may not fit every person who suffers from Social Anxiety but it’s a peek into my world. If nothing else, I hope somebody finds this that needs to know he or she is not alone.