Living with social anxiety is not as easy as it might seem.
“Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance. Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” Dr. Thomas A. Richards provides this definition here. No one fully understands social anxiety, though, unless they live through it. So what exactly is it like to live with social anxiety?
Social anxiety is feeling alone in a crowded room because you are too afraid to talk to anyone. It is standing awkwardly in the dark corner of a party, trying desperately to will yourself to take a step forward, to join a group, to dance. But you can’t, because fear has taken over your body. It is the fear of being rejected by others, the fear of making a fool of yourself. Social anxiety takes over, and you cannot do a thing about it, no matter how badly you want to.
Social anxiety is feeling alone in smaller crowds too. You sit in a small group of people, and you want to join in the conversation. But you can’t. You can’t because you just know that if you speak, your breath will get caught in your throat, and you will choke. Or you will stumble over your words like you always do when you’re nervous, and some high-ranking member of the group will look at you just the way you hate. It’s that condescending, “why did you even bother speaking?” look. You remind yourself that look may not even be real. Perhaps your social anxiety is making you paranoid. It probably is. Or maybe it’s not…you simply cannot tell. So you submit to the anxiety, and you keep your mouth shut, even if you have a lot to say.
Social anxiety is also fear welling up inside of you when you are with only one other person. You’re sitting with them in a restaurant or a classroom or a mall. And you look down to see your hands beginning to shake. You don’t know what to say to the other person. Will they think you’re boring? Will they think you’re rude? You wonder if you should try to speak. But then you remember how strange your voice is, and how you can’t keep a conversation going. You suddenly become aware of your body as well. They must be watching how you nervously flick your hair back every couple of minutes, or how awkwardly you sit and cross your legs. Now you tense up. And you’re sure you look even weirder now, but you can’t help it. You tense up because you are afraid. You are afraid of interacting with just one person, and you hate it.
And social anxiety is nobody believing your fear is real. It is your irritated family and teachers and acquaintances telling you to simply get over it, as if that is possible. As if you haven’t tried hard enough already to live as the more confident people do. You wish they could understand that you want to make the fear go away instantaneously, but you can’t. Something in your life triggered this burden, and it is a part of you now. Social anxiety is wondering why some people don’t seem to understand your fear.
But social anxiety is not all doom and gloom. It is those times when you somehow force yourself to speak, to relax, to function as if you are not scared. It is the sense of pride and accomplishment you feel when push yourself past your limits, and you are okay. It is those times when the group acknowledges you, and values your presence. It is knowing that you are working hard to become the best version of yourself. You know you may never be an extrovert, but you accept that, and you work on decreasing your fear every day. It is knowing that you matter, no matter how socially anxious you are. It is being able to help others with their anxiety, and letting them know that they are not alone. Perhaps a wonderful friendship comes from this interaction too. Your fear is not continuously active at all hours of the day, and social anxiety is living for the moments when you are at peace, whether it be while you are alone or in a group that accepts and loves you for who you are. We all have these groups, and social anxiety is taking advantage of those moments when you are not afraid, and finding these people.
Social anxiety is often overlooked and misunderstood. For many years now, I have struggled with social anxiety. I’ve come to realize that making friends who encourage and support me is crucial to overcoming my fears. I encourage everyone to be kinder to others. Remember that everyone fights their own battle, and for 7% of Americans social anxiety is that battle. The fear is real, and cannot be simply willed away at any given point. But when we do open up, when we do take a leap and interact with others, don’t judge us for how we act or the things we say; we already do this enough by ourselves. Just be kind is all I can say.
The phrase “a little kindness goes a long way” will always ring true. And for those living with social anxiety: know that you are not alone. Realize that everything is okay and will be okay. Whenever you feel embarrassed, remember you don’t need to be ashamed of who are you. You are loved and you are important, no matter what. Never forget that.
Illustration by: Alessandra De Cristofaro