A self-proclaimed feminist, I grew up listening to unapologetic riot grrrl bangers and worshiping the ground that Ruth Bader Ginsburg walks on, but I wasn’t, and am still not, a very outspoken person, much to my chagrin. My mentors and loved ones have often called me shy. While I have strong opinions, I’m also severely self-conscious about sharing them in a way that exceeds beyond shyness. You see, I have social anxiety.
Untethered from my safe suburban upbringing, I became aware of my anxiety when I left for college. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Attending a large, competitive university gave me exciting opportunities to learn while also making me acutely conscious of my anxiety. This, of course, made me more anxious. My grades as a humanities major, unfortunately, hinged on participation, which is by far one of academia’s cruelest inventions. Whenever I mustered up the courage to raise my sweaty hand, my heart beat a thousand miles per minute. My mind would go blank from the crippling fear of saying something dumb. Oh, and don’t even get me started on presentations, which were one-way rides to nausea.
It’s frustrating to have a lot to say but also feel like something is constantly pulling the cord between your brain and your mouth.
My worrisome mind touched other parts of my life as well. Making friends in a new environment was often difficult because I never felt well-adjusted enough to contribute to conversations. Case in point: at a party, I once burned through my data watching an entire episode of The X-Files on the stairwell of an apartment complex when I lost the person who brought me there.
After much agonizing, I set up an appointment with a school psychologist for a free counseling session. I left with a diagnosis of social anxiety. My psychologist gave me a small “homework assignment” to strike up a conversation with someone. While it struck me as slightly paternalistic, it did help me manage my anxiety by giving me a concrete goal. Shortly after, I went to a club event and despite early reluctance, made small talk with someone who would become one of my closest friends in college.
I wish I could say that something inspiring happened and forever fixed me, but I still sometimes put my foot in my mouth in front of people that I don’t know well. It’s frustrating to have a lot to say but also feel like something is constantly pulling the cord between your brain and your mouth.
I get shaky. I stutter. My palms get clammy. In order to mitigate those feelings, I avoid potentially unpleasant social interactions.
The major difference between shyness and social anxiety, for me, is the physical manifestations of the latter. I don’t always have control over how my body reacts to certain situations, and it often feels like the rational part of my brain is watching from the sidelines. I get shaky. I stutter. My palms get clammy. In order to mitigate those feelings, I avoid potentially unpleasant social interactions.
Still, I do crave meaningful human connections, so I’ve picked up a few techniques over the years to control my misgivings. Most days, I manage my social anxiety by staying present in the moment, whether I’m reconnecting with an old friend or talking with a client. Deep breathing, which I once believed to be a scam, helps me center myself. (One of my favorite exercises comes from a recent interview that I heard on Fresh Air with Annette Bening!) I’m far from any transcendental level of zen, but you know what? I’m living my life the best that I can.
Although it can often be more detrimental than not, my excessive zeroing in on details also helps me stay present. I like paying attention to small things about people — maybe a book they’re reading or a lipstick they’re wearing — and then starting a conversation from there. It’s astounding how many friends I’ve made while talking about my favorite makeup!
I’m not my anxiety, but experiencing this condition has heightened my self-awareness. It makes me deliberate about the things that I do and considerate about how they’ll affect the people around me. Now, I’m better at not letting that turn into crippling self-consciousness. Listen, I won’t be partying like Gatsby any time soon, but I’ll try my best to approach life with an open — not uncontrollably beating — heart.