I’ve recently been chatting with a friend (who, for obvious reasons, shall remain nameless) who is coming to terms with their own feelings of social anxiety and wishes to make a difference to improve their life. I have spoken on the subject at length on this blog on a number of occasions in the past, but sometimes it’s helpful to just talk about these things or read about them. I’m sure writing about this will be cathartic for me, and for my friend it might help to know how other people experience this problem and how they deal with it — or not, as the case might be.
Deeply personal “TMI” post follows. Feel free to skip if you Don’t Want To Know. Follow the link if you do.
Social anxiety sucks. I’ve suffered with it for years, though for the longest time I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was just “awkwardness” or “shyness” and thus didn’t really think about it that much. I knew it made me feel bad, but I didn’t think it was an actual problem as such.
To understand the issue, I look back to the earliest school days I can remember. I experienced a lot of bullying while at primary school, mostly over my appearance. There were several kids who persistently and mercilessly mocked me, occasionally escalating to physical violence. And then I had a bunch of rather fickle friends, who would happily play with me some days and join in with the bullies on other days. It didn’t help that the bullies were more towards the “popular” end of the social spectrum, and so an easy way for people to ingratiate themselves with them was to pick on the weak kids who couldn’t stand up for themselves — kids like me.
Over time, something in my brain came to accept that being bullied was somehow “normal” and I perversely found myself seeking out the attention of these absolute bastards. I’d deliberately put myself in situations where I’d come across them, and they wouldn’t let me down. Almost inevitably, I’d end up lying on the floor having been punched in the stomach, crying. I don’t remember my supposed “friends” rallying around me that often.
Unsurprisingly, these experiences led to something of a diminished feeling of self-worth. Given that people I didn’t really know evidently took such a massive dislike to me for completely arbitrary reasons, it was perfectly natural for me to think less of myself. I often became very angry, particularly towards one dinner lady, who would punish me for my rage. But it was attention — and attention that didn’t hurt.
In secondary school, things improved somewhat. The bullying was considerably less as the sheer size of the place meant it was easy for incompatible personalities to avoid one another. But damage had already been done to a certain degree. I vividly remember sitting in my tutor group classroom on the first day of secondary school and turning to my erstwhile best friend from primary school, who was sitting behind me, and saying “I can’t remember how to make friends.”
I couldn’t. I had no idea how to start a conversation. All the lines in my head sounded stupid and forced, so I tried to avoid saying them. Oddly enough, I found it easier to talk to the pretty girl who sat in front of me — Claire, whom I took an immediate liking to in a “she’s hot!” sense — than the boy I’d been sat next to. Of course, said boy ended up being an absolute git of a bully for a goodly proportion of my first year, though this particular issue resolved itself when I thumped him good and proper right in the kisser — unfortunately just as the headmaster was coming around the corner. (The headmaster, thankfully, was all too aware of the situation and thus I got off rather lightly.)
After these early problems, the rest of secondary school was somewhat better but, as I say, the damage to my self-esteem had already been done a long time ago. I didn’t think much of myself — I hated the way I looked, my personality, my voice (particularly before it broke) — and consequently didn’t have the confidence to raise my head and step outside my comfort zone. Fortunately, I had a reasonably stable circle of friends who supported me, though some of these were still prone to bouts of fickleness at times.
Dating was pretty much out of the question, though. Oh, I liked girls. Plenty of girls. But so far as my brain was concerned, all of the ones I actually liked were completely out of my league. I managed to strike up a close friendship with quite a few of the girls I liked, but was too terrified to take things any further. I valued my friendship with them more than risking losing it all. In retrospect, I should have trusted the strength of my friendship bonds with them — why on Earth would they suddenly hate me if I said I found them attractive, or wanted something more than just friendship with them? But that’s what social anxiety does — it makes you worry about every detail, and paranoid that a step out of line will destroy everything, leaving you alone for evermore. It’s rarely that simple, of course, but that’s what my mind would think.
I got together with my first girlfriend during a school production. She wasn’t the girl I had my eye on — I thought things were actually going pretty well with her, as we were spending a lot of time alone with one another when offstage and getting quite flirtatious — but when push came to shove, and as harsh as it may sound in the cold light of day now, I got with her because I had never been romantically involved with someone, and I wanted to be romantically involved with someone. I wasn’t sure that I fancied her or liked her, but I was willing to give it a try.
As it happened, we had a pretty good relationship for a while. We got on well and had fun together. Her parents liked me, too, which was a bonus. Still, constantly, I was scared, though — scared that I’d do something stupid and lose her. I was afraid to try and take things further sexually, for example, even though I desperately wanted to and, on one occasion, she told me outright that she wanted to, too. Granted, she did so in an overly-cute “I don’t want to pronounce these words out loud because they’re embarrassing” voice so I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly — and she wouldn’t repeat them — so I did nothing, because I was too afraid.
Time passed and we drifted apart. Eventually, it got to the school prom. We turned up together as a couple. Within about an hour, she’d cheated on me with another guy right in front of me. They’re married now. Well done, them.
I won’t break down every other romantic involvement I’ve had since then — though it wouldn’t take that long — but suffice to say, that whole experience didn’t really help my self-esteem or confidence in dealing with other people.
Fast forward a few years and we get to university. The two years prior at sixth form had been the happiest of my life — I had a small but rock-solid circle of friends, I was doing things I enjoyed and I was content with my life. I had all but given up trying to get a girlfriend, though I still occasionally looked longingly at some of the girls in my extended friendship groups. Long story short, I was in a reasonably good place when I got to university, and I saw the complete change in setting as an opportunity to reinvent myself. I wasn’t sure how far I was going to take this, though — would I think up a cool nickname for myself? (No, as it happened.)
One thing I did make a specific effort with was talking to strangers. My first week at university was spent in a different hall to that which I’d be spending most of my first year in, surrounded by musicians, so I figured I’d at least have something in common with them. It was harder than it sounded, though — my brain wanted to do it, but another part of it stopped me from just walking up to someone and introducing myself. That old problem “I can’t remember how to make friends” reared its ugly head — I couldn’t think how to start a conversation.
Eventually I found myself in a creaky old lift going up to my room on the 15th floor. There was one other occupant in the lift. I said hello and introduced myself to her, and she responded in kind. That’s how I met my friend Cat, who is still a friend to date. I’m not sure she really knows how utterly terrifying that experience was for me at the time. (Well, she does now.)
Nowadays, my experiences with social anxiety manifest themselves as a feeling of “clamming up” and being unable to speak. It happens when “difficult conversations” are happening, or when I’m in a situation I refer to as “enforced socialisation” — a social event where I’m not in total control or don’t have an easy escape route. It can happen with my closest friends surrounding me — I just run out of things to say — or with strangers. It’s difficult to cope with, but I deal. And, oddly enough, I cope absolutely fine with professional engagements and networking — perhaps due to my background in performance of various kinds. But it’s still tough.
I know I should probably get some help for this problem at some point. But a variety of factors over the years — a lack of money, instability in my personal life, not knowing whether I’d be living in the same place and consequently be able to “commit” to a long-term “relationship” with a counsellor — have provided some convenient excuses. Perhaps if and when Andie and I manage to make it back to Southampton — I’m determined it’s going to happen! — I’ll look into it, because while I wouldn’t say social anxiety has “destroyed” my life, it has certainly made it significantly more of a trial than it really needs to be. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Thanks for indulging this lengthy post. Good night!