Posted in Faith, Mental health

Coming to Terms with Social Anxiety

A few years ago, in a small group at my church, I was sharing prayer requests with two other ladies. I told them about my feelings of loneliness, and that I was often too afraid to approach people, which was a necessary step if I was going to make any friends.  One woman’s eyes got wide, and she said emphatically, “I know exactly what you mean!  I feel the same way.”  The other woman looked puzzled and asked us quite genuinely, “Why?  What are you afraid of?”

I learned two things from this exchange.  First, I wasn’t the only one – there were others who had the same problem.  And second, there were people who did not fear social situations at all, and in fact, found it difficult to understand why we would.

The second woman’s question was difficult for us to answer.  What were we afraid of?  Everything.  Nothing.  I don’t know.  Maybe it was, what others would think of us.  Or whether we would offend them.  Or that we didn’t know how to make conversation, or what to do if the situation got awkward.  All we knew for sure was: it was terrifying.  And debilitating.

Early Experiences

My first memory of being intensely socially anxious occurred in Grade 5.  On a beautiful spring day, it had been postulated that our class “may” go outside at some point and join an older grade for a game of football.  In my mind, there were several problems with this idea.  I was smaller than the other kids, and feared getting pummeled.  I had never played football before, didn’t know the rules, and would surely end up looking like a fool.  Being around older kids, especially in a competitive, sometimes aggressive situation like team sports, struck fear into every part of me.  And finally, I would surely be the last one picked for teams. Even if the picking were randomized, I was fairly certain no one would want me on theirs.  I would feel like the biggest loser in the world.

Thankfully, the proposed game of football never occurred, but its very possibility had ruined my entire day.  I remember sitting on my plastic school chair, heart pounding.  Slightly faint.  Slightly nauseous.  Willing the day to be over, and praying with all my might that we would just stay inside.

I could share other examples similar to these of the fears that I experienced during my school days.  Unstructured recess times when I didn’t know what to do or whom to hang out with. Confrontations with other children when I felt intimidated and afraid.  Now, as an adult, I believe there could have been some proactive measures taken to create a more positive social environment at my school.  My stress may not have been eliminated, but it could have been helped.

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Naming the Struggle

Although I do not claim my anxiety to be at the level of a disorder, I believe that there is value in naming the struggle for what it is.

Social anxiety.  I have social anxiety.

It has become cliche, but is true about so many things, that admitting you have a problem is the first step in becoming able to deal with it.  For many years, I didn’t recognize what I was experiencing.  Usually, I have had at least one or two friends.  I am a functioning member of society.  I have completed schooling, gotten jobs, and worked with some success as an entrepreneur.  Growing up, I often played piano in front of rooms full of people.  I can public speak – I’ve delivered several verbal presentations and even taught a class of university students.

However, there are many commonplace things that cause me undue fear:

  • Talking to salespeople about products that I am unfamiliar with (for me, these would be things like machinery, vehicles, soil and gravel, etc.).
  • Placing restaurant orders over the phone.
  • Eating meals with co-workers.
  • Asking clients for payment.
  • Approaching superiors at work.
  • Attending large parties or social events, especially where I have to dress up.
  • Visiting my husband’s places of work.
  • Trying to understand people with very strong accents.
  • Singing in front of others (a particularly challenging one, for someone who has chosen music therapy as a career!).
  • Having groups of people come into my home.

Again, there are other examples I could share.  But the simple act of admitting to myself that these situations make me anxious, has increased my ability to deal with them.  In doing so, I am acknowledging and validating my own feelings.  It is the difference between telling myself, “I feel fear, and that is ok,” versus “What is wrong with me??  I suck.”  (A pretty big difference, right?)

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Strategies to Cope

Yes, I’m socially anxious.  And if I own up to it, I can make a plan of how to survive the situation.  I can take a deep breath and say, “It’s ok.  I’m ok.”  I can develop thought patterns that prepare me to interact in a more relaxed way.  For example, I have come to think of other people as my “brothers and sisters.”  Not only is this biblically accurate, but it postures me to converse in a comfortable, familiar, and kind way, because I’m thinking of them as my siblings!

Other strategies that I have used include thinking ahead about things to say, or questions to ask a person, in case a conversation grows stagnant.  Allowing myself to become curious about another person is a great way to think of discussion topics.

When a get-together is planned at my house, I prepare as much food as I can in advance, and my husband helps with cooking on the day of, so I have less to think about while entertaining guests.

And perhaps, the most powerful step that I have taken to deal with my social anxiety, is striving to accept myself for who I am.  There are entire books that could be written on this topic (and probably have been), but for myself I will simply affirm: I am who I am, and who I am is perfectly fine.  One of the first times that I felt the Holy Spirit speak clearly to me, do you know what He said?

He said, “It’s ok to be you.”

Obviously, this was (and is) something that I needed to get into my bones.  Because my fears do not stem from disdain for others, or for being with them.  To the contrary!  I, like any other human being, long for genuine connections with others.  My fears are based in a (faulty, nagging, festering) belief that I will fall short.  That I will be found, sorely, lacking.

And whatever coping strategies I may learn, or use – it is only a restorative work of God, in the deepest part of my soul, that will ultimately bring me healing.

What kind of social situations, if any, cause you anxiety?  What’s your earliest memory of this?  Do you have pointers to share on how to cope?  I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.

Warm wishes,

Lisa

Author:

Hi, I'm Lisa, a born-and-bred-in-Manitoba mom of 2 boys. Having lived in 7 different Manitoba towns or cities, I've managed to stay warm in them all 😜❄. I am trained as a music therapist but currently work as a fulltime stay-at-home-mom by day, and a piano teacher in the evenings. By night, well...I sleep. Usually.

16 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Social Anxiety

  1. I can totally relate to this. I am also a social anxious introvert. What am I afraid of? Everything. Why? I don’t know. I just assume I am unlikeable. I can’t talk to people, I turn red – and what people don’t understand is that it is a PHYSICAL reaction. My heart is pounding, I start to shake. I can become emotionally unstable if I am passionate about something. I am also the worst around people that have a strong opinion and are able to voice it. I appear mean and standoffish when really, I am just trying to appear normal. I don’t mind sitting alone. I don’t mind not going out or being a part of the crowd. It’s hard. For Lent this year I gave up being mean to myself since I always put myself down when I say something out loud (because to me I always sound stupid). Quarantine helped, but I got through forty days of self-kindness. It was really a great exercise and has helped me even after Lent!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know Robyn, reading some of your blog posts and hearing you admit to having social anxiety was one of the things that made me think about how it relates to myself. Sometimes, my self awareness sucks! So thank you for being so open about your experience.

      I find it remarkable that some people have a hard time imagining or understanding social anxiety, when for some of us it is a daily reality! Yes, self-kindness is so important. We probably don’t appear as silly to others as we think we do. And even if we do. So be it! 😂 That is sort of where I’ve ended up.

      And then sometimes I think – I’m 35 years into this life now, and still haven’t grown out of this, like I always thought I would! Haha, I guess it’s here to stay! 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing tips on how to overcome this. There’s been days where I’ve made it to the front door only to turn around and go back to my couch. Some days I wish I could just be “normal”, whatever that means.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awe…this is normal for those of us it’s normal for, I suppose! It can be so hard. But a bit of forethought makes it easier – at least it does help me. I also think it’s important to respect our own limits. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The ironic thing about my social anxiety is that I used to be a reporter. I interviewed people for a living. But that was like my secret identity. I could pretend to be someone else back then. When I was asking questions as a reporter, I didn’t have to focus on who I was and how awkward I felt. I just needed the information and moved on. Now, though? I can barely function around people on a social level. I have few friends and no idea how to start new friendships because I’m so awkward and I over think everything I say. Part of that is from past friendships that fell apart because of things I said wrong but didn’t know until later because they never told me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can check a few things off of that list myself. When I got my first job at 18 I had to approach strangers and speak to them. I worked in retail sales and we had to make a certain quota per day. As a child I had a speech impairment and sometimes if I get flustered and nervous it comes back to haunt me. With sales it was like playing a part but the real me always stayed quiet at parties and large events which I do not like attending. I just got used to being quiet I guess. I got really good with sales though and would move up and become manager as well as a retail buyer and you really had to talk to different people and deal with stressful situations with those positions, but I survived and when I would make mistakes I would be the first to admit that. I have always been a homebody.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you; that is very impressive! I get the sense that the hiring for many jobs depends too much on personality. It is possible for naturally quiet people to do well in dealing with people. We may listen well, think carefully about what we say and do, avoid unnecessary confrontations, and be willing to admit our own mistakes, as you mentioned. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

      Like

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