I have social anxiety.
For a lot of people who know me personally and are reading this, you might be shaking your head and saying, “No way,” but I can assure you that not only do I suffer from this affliction, but it can be very debilitating.
Some other people reading might be saying, “Affliction? Come on, it’s just anxiety,” but I’ll walk you through better understanding social anxiety so you understand the severity and reality of it.
Unfortunately, for me, social anxiety doesn’t just occur when I’m in groups of people. There is an entire process where there is a build-up of discomfort.
Let me walk you through an experience of my social anxiety:
It first begins with the planning. When a friend reaches out to me with the intentions to get together or hang out, I want to meet up with them, I want to maintain that physical contact and interaction with my friend, but my brain starts with the following conversation:
What are the expectations of me?
What if I’m really tired that day and can’t give a quality hang out?
What will I have to talk about?
What questions should I ask them about themselves?
What if something comes up at that hour of that day and I can’t dedicate myself to it, anymore?
What will I wear?
As you can probably tell, there is nothing comfortable about that planning process. The discomfort of meeting up with someone starts immediately. But there is a way to ease someone with social anxiety into a comfortable hangout: find out their favourite place to be (other than their home – otherwise this brings up new anxieties towards cleaning and prepping the space; best to avoid that). For me, it’s being in a bookstore. It is much easier for me to meet up with someone if it is a place I would have likely already made plans to visit at some point that day/week/month.
The week before meeting up with someone/having a party to attend, there is also a build up of nervous anticipation. I check my calendar and look at the “event” daily. I have a mental countdown of the date. I get more and more anxious the closer it arrives. Sometimes, I consider making other “important appointments” so I can have an excuse to not attend (Don’t hold this against me! I’m just being honest with you, reader, right now!).
There’s a way to ease people through this process as well: don’t make them feel guilty if they can’t come or aren’t feeling up to it. Sending a message a few days before saying, “Hey, looking forward to spending time together! But no worries if your schedule got busy or something. I’ll understand.” By removing the pressure off the individual who is expected to be there (it’s a very heavy weight to bear), you allow them to ease into the hangout, to get comfortable with it, and to not feel guilty if suddenly they “can’t attend”.
And then the day of the “event” arrives. If that event is later in the evening rather than at the start of the day, that day is ruined. I will be unable to concentrate, get comfortable, relax and watch a movie or television show or read a book, I will be pacing the house, I will be obsessively cleaning or organizing or re-arranging the house (that’s my strange outlet for stress). I will be on edge up until I arrive for the occasion. I will get ready two hours early (just in case something were to happen while I was getting ready and I would need to change my outfit/hair/makeup/anything, entirely – it’s neurotic, I am aware). And then after I’m ready, I’ll have to pace the house until it’s time to leave, or I’ll play music on the record player to distract myself as I walk around the room. It sounds absolutely crazy, I understand that completely, but this is what I go through…
It’s best to make plans with people who suffer from social anxiety early in the day. It’s not to “get the event over with” but to relax the tension that the day carries. Keep this in mind.
Most people who know me wouldn’t get the feeling that I have social anxiety because when I’m in a public space, either one-on-one or in a group or “party” setting, I make a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone. I’m usually one to talk right away, and I’m usually one to initiate conversation with strangers, but know that this takes a lot of energy on my part. My way of dealing with my social anxiety when I am out and about with people is to make myself uncomfortable. What this means is that you’ll usually find that I cut events or outings “short”; this is because it takes a lot of physical energy and mental stress to push myself into these uncomfortable places and I am immensely exhausted after a few hours. The drive home usually has me on the edge of falling asleep at the wheel. My body simply can’t handle it.
But I do all this because I genuinely care about the people in my life and I really try to make an effort to be there when they need me or reach out to me. But I’m sharing this so you understand that it’s really not easy for me to do. Don’t hold it against me when I cancel a million times over or make excuses for why I can’t attend something, or why I’m giving you a “maybe” for attending your event, instead of saying “yes” or “no”. It’s very, very hard for me. It sounds stupid, it sounds crazy, but I’m being honest.
The only time my social anxiety doesn’t get the better of me is when it’s for work (or family gatherings, but that one is obvious). If I have a meeting or engagement that requires my attention and it’s work related, I am able to make the mental disconnect and it doesn’t cause me anxiety. Meetings or workshops or work engagements don’t have the same effect because it’s an obligation that will advance my career, or simply something that needs my time and attention for my students or class, so I know it’s necessary. It’s the same for other work meetings I have been a part of; I’m not afraid to engage or reach out if a career is involved. There is less expectation for me in those situations. I know how to “advertise myself” for work. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable.
So please, if you’re a friend of mine reading this, know that my constant excuses are not because I don’t enjoy you or your company. It doesn’t mean you make me uncomfortable. The mind is a powerful thing and I’m constantly working on me controlling it, rather than vice versa. Be patient with me.
Do you suffer from social anxiety? What ways do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments below.