Inside, Not Out: Living With Social Anxiety

November 3, 2016

If you were to meet me face-to-face, I’m not quite certain you would notice anything unusual about me. I’m a pleasant person. We’d meet, and I would greet you with a warm smile, ask you about yourself for a bit. We’d chat a bit, you’d probably ask me what I do, where I live. You know, the small talk kind of stuff. Eventually, the conversation would end and you’d move on to talk to the next person. For most people, parties and networking functions are a breeze. Have a cocktail, chat endlessly with new people, feed off the energy in the room, and go home having made new contacts. You might be one of those people, and you would see our conversation as just a friendly, human interaction.

What you wouldn’t know is how unbelievably taxing it was for me, that I was literally pushing forth so much energy that after just a few interactions such as ours that I would leave the gathering early, drained and exhausted. For people like me who suffer from social anxiety, “a small gathering of friends” might as well be a stadium filled with cheering, screaming, pushing people who are trying to tear me limb from limb. The fear is very real, the anxiety that fills my shoes with mental mud so heavy I’m incapable of moving from where I stand. I don’t want to go. It’s nothing against you personally. I would just rather walk down the street on my lips than have to interact with large groups of people I don’t know or enter gatherings filled with people.

Before we go any further, I’d like to dispel a few rumors. Social anxiety goes beyond being introverted. I am also introverted, yes, but it’s much bigger than that. Introverts are people who prefer to be alone or in the company of those known well enough to provide comfort. Social anxiety takes on a fear basis, an intense sense that you’re being judged. It’s self-consciousness on overdrive. That crack I just made about feeling like the crowd means to rip you limb from limb? I’m not making that up. The judging looks that survey what I’m wearing, the competitive conversation that people think is inquisitive that’s really a gauntlet I have to pass through just to get to the buffet table or the snack bar, the feeling that I’m being innately graded on my every move. That’s social anxiety.

Author Susan Cain of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2013) and creator of The Quiet Movement is herself an introvert who understands my issues implicitly. The fact is, introversion is born, but social anxiety is made. I have always been a quiet person who has no problem being alone for long, long periods of time. I never get bored. I never tire of my own company. When I have to enter gatherings of people, I am instantly uncomfortable. I Actually, it’s not uncomfortable: it’s anxiety-producing madness. I can feel every eye on me, I struggle for small talk, I can feel myself ebbing and flowing between annoyance at perceived judgment, fear of being judged so negatively that catastrophic events could occur (more on that in a minute,) and the inevitable exhaustion that follows. Afterwards, I have to retreat to my home to recharge. I need solitude to gather my senses again.

There are a good number of us who suffer social anxiety so greatly that we will, in the absence of therapy or prescription assistance, will start to self-medicate. I did this for years, relying on alcohol to make it through social gatherings and large-scale events. Alcohol was a magical solution for a bit until it became a necessity for living. Drinking and I parted ways five years ago, and after years of detoxing I’ve come to realize that I drank so much in part because I have been in situations where social gatherings have been a huge part of my life. I was anesthetizing myself against the world. Now, five years after I’ve stopped, there is nothing between me and the very real anxiety with which I deal on a daily basis.

In my everyday life, I have to attend a litany of social events for work, events where I am forced to socialize with people who work in my industry. It’s essentially akin to going to a cocktail party (and some of them are) at least five times a week. With some assistance from friends and experts like Cain, I’ve come to accept my condition and work with it rather than against it. These are solutions that have worked for me:

I have a set amount of time that I know I can go. If the event is an hour, I can handle an hour. But when it’s time to go, I make no excuses about having to leave at the time I’ve committed.

For those of us who used to use alcohol to lubricate our social selves, it’s suggested we refrain from such activities. I find it’s easier if I come to any event with a beverage already in hand wherever and whenever possible. I’m rarely without a large chai latte or herbal tea from Starbucks in my hand. If it’s truly a cocktail function, I get a glass of sparkling water with as much fruit in it as they’ll allow (it distinguishes my beverage from others,) and I almost never set it down. It gives my hand something to do, and it guards me against reaching for the alcohol that seems to be all over the place.

I’ve learned the best way to get through small talk is to ask people about themselves. A genuine interest in others not only takes the spotlight off me having to feel that I need to contribute anything to the conversation, but people are usually happy to talk about themselves endlessly. It also makes the time go a little faster.

At a certain point, I have to leave. I’m usually feeling drained, which is when it’s time to go. I find the host, let them know that it’s time to go, stay firm to that decision (people love to ask departing guests to stay just for a bit longer, but inevitably you have to take care of yourself,) and make my way home. I listen to calming music. I avoid stimulants like caffeine, news, and social media for the rest of the night. I take care of myself.

I should also add that I’m in talk therapy as we speak for this and a few other issues. I’m not on antidepressants right now, but that option is open to me should I desire it. I believe everyone is different, and I advise you to talk to your doctor or a medical professional for the right diagnosis for you.

In the end, if we meet, you may never know about my social anxiety. But it’s real. Right under the surface. We have learned to co-exist, my social anxiety and I, and in louder moments we must agree to disagree. But with time, hope and grace, it’s better every single day.