Social anxiety is the third largest mental health issue in the world. Millions of people world-wide suffer from this traumatic condition every day. In some cases it’s a specific situation that is triggering, for others such as myself, it’s a lot more general.
I’ve mentioned it briefly a couple of times now.
My social anxiety, I mean.
To be honest, I’m not even sure where to begin. It’s very difficult to explain what it’s like to live with social anxiety to somebody who doesn’t suffer from it themselves. How scary and debilitating it can be to just go outside for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. Not always, but often, it feels as if I’m being watched, judged, by strangers on the street. It can be small things, like my choice of clothing that day. I can be all up in my head about it, thinking I should have worn something different because now everybody are staring at me. That’s usually not the case of course, but that’s how somebody with anxiety view it.
As a 5’10” female there really isn’t any hiding for me. When I walk into a room I get noticed. Period. I can keep my head down all I want, avoid eye contact until I go blue, and even try hiding behind other people (don’t try it, you’ll only draw more attention to yourself. Ha!), it isn’t working. The only thing for me to do is to accept I’m a wandering flagpole and do my best to get on with it. Some days are good, others are filled with anxiety and I refrain from going outside at all.
It’s all too common that when I tell people I’m not a people-person I get a “Yes, I hate people too!” for reply. I’m always taken aback by it. Is that really what people think of me? That I hate people? I don’t hate anyone. Especially not people I don’t know. I’m typically the kind of person who accept others just the way they are and aim to always see the good in others. I can’t think of anybody I hate. Yet it seems to be a very common misconception that shy people, reserved people avoid people out of hate or dislike. I can’t speak for all, but a lot of the time it’s more fear-based than anything else. I lack confidence in my ability to speak. I speak too quietly a lot of the time, or I stutter if I get too overwhelmed. I can have something to say but I hold back in fear of sounding silly or being judged for what I said.
Smalltalk is so difficult for me. More often than not I’ll just stand around feeling awkward while desperately trying to think of something smart to say while the other person is just looking on, seemingly wondering why I’m acting so strange. Inside I’m frozen, I feel like sinking through the ground cause it’s so embarrassing. What you can’t see is that my mind is working hard to save the situation, to make a comeback of sorts. Usually to no avail. It’s exhausting to spend the next three days wondering what the other person must be thinking of me now after our encounter, and in hindsight think of things I could have said, should have said, instead. It’s an endless road of beating myself up over what said or didn’t say or do. It’s like I can’t win with myself.
The worst thing you can say to somebody with social anxiety is probably “you’re so quiet, you never speak”. I’ve lost count of how many times people have told me that. Nobody would think of the idea to walk up to a person with only one leg and tell them “hey your leg is missing”. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s similar. All I have to say is I know. I know I’m quiet, I know I’m socially awkward at times, and having people pointing it out, even if they mean no harm, makes us more self-conscious about it. A lot of the time it will have me desperately attempting to talk more, but since I’m so stressed about the situation already it usually backfires and I just go blank. Just be nice and friendly instead, and don’t get angry if I can’t keep a conversation flowing, or if I forget to ask you how you are after you’ve asked me. It’s nerves. It happens to me a lot.
I know there are situations most people are anxious in. An important job interview is probably a good example of one. You feel closed in on, your stomach is acting up, the heart is racing. But imagine feeling the emotions of going to a life-changing job interview when in reality you’re simply going to the supermarket to buy groceries. On some days I’d even avoid going into a store I’d like to check out just because the shop clerk might speak to me and I know I will choke up. It’s exhausting. For a person with severe social anxiety is a job interview almost impossible.
The phone is probably one of the worst inventions ever invented for somebody like me. Often times I’d usually leave my phone on soundless to make it less stressful for me to deal with it. It stems from childhood I think, when I felt constantly chased and controlled. Whenever my phone went off I knew I was in trouble. Especially checking it and seeing 15 missed calls within the last half an hour. Calling authorities is another high on my what not-to-do list. It’s the feeling of being small and inferior, I think, combined with fears of bothering others with my questions and inquiries. Troubling people, being ridiculed or rejected are definitely the three main reasons to my anxiety.
The only place I ever feel completely safe and comfortable is at home. Preferably home alone, knowing there’s nobody around I must please, or could potentially annoy or bother. That’s the only time I can truly relax and just be, without feeling like I’m on the edge. There are people I feel comfortable around but they are few, and very specific.
People who suffer from social anxiety (or any anxiety) can’t help it. Just with all fears and phobias we know it’s all in our heads, that we’re not being rational but knowing something isn’t the same feeling or thinking something. To us it feels very real which makes it difficult to just brush off.
It’s a pretty fine, confusing line between ordinary social anxiety and Avoidant Personality Disorder, and I can’t fully tell which is which. To me it feels like the social anxiety is simply one of the symptoms of the Avoidant Personality Disorder. If the social anxiety is so debilitating that you live isolated and your quality of live is affected, it’s most likely a personality disorder and not ordinary social anxiety. In certain situations I’m considered pretty high functioning for an Avoidant, in others, not at all. In the end it comes down to life experience I think. Many Avoidants wouldn’t dream of using public transport. I, however grew up in a family without a car, therefore taking the bus wasn’t an option if I wanted to get somewhere. I’ve been trained, and got certain experience and skills, while I lack completely in other areas. I got no clue how to make friends for instance, and I’m even worse at maintaining friendships.
Lastly, please don’t take it personally if we’re quiet, avoid eye contact or even avoid you altogether. Most of us are not trying to offend anyone, quite the contrary. We are afraid of what you think of us because we want to be well-recieved and accepted above anything else.