When I was a little girl, I was always extremely social. I loved being around people and talking to them. Although when I turned 13, I went through a phase where I just preferred being alone in my bedroom with my own privacy. But that phase eventually passed. Isolation made me feel exhausted, it still does, but I realised that I had symptoms of mild social anxiety. Not because I didn’t want to socialise, I was just afraid of people not liking me. Of course, a lot of things led to this point, but that’s not what I want to write about today. I’ve known quite a few people with this issue. I’ve been having problems with someone extremely close to me that has social anxiety to a pretty unhealthy extent. And I spent a lot of time dwelling on this topic and trying to understand how it must feel like to be in such a state. I’m writing this as a “note-to-myself” and others who might need help understanding people with similar issues. And also some piece of advice for those who are struggling with it.
For me, meeting people is exciting and terrifying at the same time. I wouldn’t say that I’m bad at it. But, I do know that people with social anxiety have it way worse. You never know what to say and whatever you actually want to say never manages to come out, and whatever manages to come out, comes out awkwardly. You don’t know how to accurately translate your thoughts into actual words. You don’t feel like you have anything interesting to say, or mostly don’t feel like people would find anything you say, interesting. And you’re afraid to be negatively judged. I can relate to the latter, but other than that, I don’t really have an issue with socialising.
I can only imagine what a terrible feeling it must be to be in a social setting and feel like you have something to say, and feel like you WANT to say something, contribute, yet there is a weird force stopping you from saying anything at all. Almost like a little devil on the shoulder, like in cartoons, telling you “don’t do it, don’t say anything, you’ll be embarrassed or even worse, nobody will hear you.” So you don’t. And eventually, you’re sitting there for an hour not saying anything and forcing a smile often so that you don’t seem sad or bored or angry, not that you would be any of those things.
Over the years, this behaviour turns you into a person who is underestimated and not taken seriously. Or at least, make you feel that way. And more importantly, make you feel completely misunderstood. Nobody knows what’s going on inside your head, why would they? They just see a quiet person. They don’t realise the inner struggle and how uncomfortable you feel. Outwardly, you may seem shy, quiet, unfriendly, and disinterested, but none of those reflects on your true self. Okay, you could be totally disinterested sometimes, but not as often as it may seem.
You tend to understand people quite well because this behaviour forces you to become an observer. You observe and listen to people and can tell when someone is lying or pretending although you don’t say anything. It takes months to get comfortable with someone. Comfortable enough to start opening up and start feeling like you can be yourself. You need time with someone to achieve a normal state of “being yourself”, but that still might put you at maybe 90%. You might have never been quite 100% yourself with anyone, ever.
Since I’m a big believer in good things happening, I can’t bring myself to think that it’s just part of someone’s personality to feel this awful about themselves. It’s a serious issue. And it’s quite frustrating because it doesn’t go away easily. I wish you could sing and dance in front of people. Who knows? They might actually think you’re cute and funny. (I sure would) Don’t hold yourself back, it’s all based on irrational fear. Fear of being embarrassed, fear of being judged, fear of not being heard, fear of being misunderstood. Most people may see the side of you that is quiet and reserved, but close friends see the (almost) real you, comfortable enough to put yourself out there if the situation calls for it.
I understand that spending time with others can leave you feeling drained and needing a recharge, but too much time alone can foster gloominess and loneliness. I personally like a balance of the two and you should definitely give it a try.
Make a fool of yourself. Do silly things in public, if you will. The more ridiculous things you do in public, the more you realise whatever fears you had are not actually viable. And the more you’ll realise how much people don’t care and they’re actually way in their own heads most of the time. Take the chance and allow your social anxiety to make you a stronger, braver, more determined person, to do as you choose without constantly worrying what the aftermath would be. Control it and don’t let it control you.
Human interaction and contact is a precious gift that you have trouble finding your way to. You muddle through, soldier on and every time you try is a brave act, a herculean effort for which I admire you for. I’m proud of you for trying, for surviving. Don’t be too hard on yourself for all the times that you stayed in or didn’t interact. If it’s all you have, hold onto the things that keep you going, even if you’re like me sometimes and watching the socially inept group on series that make you feel less alone as they struggle with the same things.
It will get easier the more often you do it. Don’t worry. No one will think you’re rude or weird or a limpet for sticking so close to your best mate that you practically have them in headlock at parties. Not going to things due to nerves is particularly awful career-wise so if you start small you can reap the benefits later.
Right now, you may feel safer in your cocoon, clinging on to them longer than you need to, but you are meant to leave them. You will soon break free of isolation and fly in the great world out there and what a beautiful, hard-won sight it will be!
Sending my love,