You might be surprised to know that I grew up with some serious social anxiety. Wait, what? The bubbly, charismatic, center of attention deals with social anxiety? No, way. Didn’t your mom ever teach you not to judge a book by its cover?
I’ve had conversations about having social anxiety with people who also deal with it, and the truth is everyone just copes with it differently. Some retract and distance themselves; I over compensated by forcing myself to be a social butterfly and tried to ignore it.
Side note: I just want to put it out there that when I talk about having anxiety I do not see it as something that is “wrong” with me. I simply see it as a function of my brain that I am learning to understand; the more I understand it and what triggers it the less it affects me.
I changed high schools 3 different times, which I think actually worked a bit in my favor. It forced me to put myself out there or risk eating alone at lunchtime. Oh the horror! Makes me laugh now remembering I was so worried about that, as I’m sitting here eating breakfast alone and completely content.
What does it feel like? It feels like a pit in your stomach, followed by a laundry list of anxious thoughts. I was terrified of having sleepovers as a kid because the experience of being in someone else’s house made me anxious. Any time I was invited to one I insisted that my cousin came with me, and when she couldn’t come I would often call my mom to pick me up in the middle of the night.
As I got older and was invited to go bowling with friends, a party, a football game, whatever – a lot of times I would make up an excuse why I couldn’t come, or at the last minute I would cancel. When I did actually show up, it was after some serious internal pep talks and forcing myself to ignore the thoughts about not knowing what I was going to talk about (I would literally plan conversations to have as back up if I ran out of things to say).
The result is a very seemingly charismatic girl, who is silently insecure, forcing herself to be something she isn’t. Constantly talking as a nervous habit to avoid “awkward silence,” who couldn’t actually be present with people because she’s so caught up in her head.
Fast-forward to 2 years ago, I attended a personal growth seminar called The Landmark Forum (which I’ve talked about before). At the start of the weekend I was, of course, the first to raise my hand, eager to get in front of the microphone. Because, I’m Taylor the charismatic, center of attention… and that’s what she would do. I had ignored the anxious feeling for so long I pretty much forgot about it.
At one point in the weekend they did an exercise and the speaker said, “Consider the fact that the person sitting next to you is just as afraid of you as you are of them. Consider the fact that everyone in this room is just as afraid of you as you are of them.” And like a tidal wave of emotions, the stomach aches and the child hood pep talks and the near panic attacks came flooding back into my mind. I burst into tears. In a room full of people, I cried.
Might seem a bit dramatic to you, but all this time I had been forcing myself to be this person, when I was actually terrified of people. Only to finally realize that they are just as scared of me. We are ALL full of worries, and insecurities, concerned about what people think about us, hiding things we aren’t proud of, some of us have been physically, mentally or sexually abused, have anxiety or other mental health conditions, some are silently unhappy while pretending to have it all. We walk around feeling like we are the only one. But, we aren’t.
For the first time in my life I felt like I could actually just be. I pretended to be this charismatic person for so long that I became very confident in my social abilities, but I’m now clear that we all have our own crap going on in our head. Reminding myself of this allows me to actually look people in the eye and hear them, allows me to not feel like I have to constantly be so on and bubbly, and I don’t HAVE to be that way for people to like me. It allows me to actually enjoy myself around people, and let me tell you it is the biggest relief in the world.