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.
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.
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?)
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.