If you've ever had the feeling of walking into a crowded room and your chest tightens, your breaths either seize or quicken, and your immediate thought is to run as fast and as far as you can, welcome to my world. I have tons of reasons I was afraid to talk about my social anxiety and, for the longest time, wrote it off as abnormal. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I wasn't able to do things others seemed to do with such ease, like entering a restaurant with a wait line or shopping for groceries at a peak hour. While these might be nothing to someone, they are everything to me.
When I was younger, I had two sides of me. There was the social butterfly that loved to dance and sing, performing for others when I was brave enough to bury my insecurities. Then there was the introvert who'd much rather sit alone in our front yard's tree for hours than spend that night with a friend. There was no in between, really, and a lot of times my quietness was mistaken for being shy and my performance abilities mistaken as me simply being outgoing. Neither was an accurate representation of the real, true, authentic me. Social anxiety is complicated (especially as a mother), and often masks the greatest of intentions with overwhelming fear. Just because I want to go to a holiday party doesn't mean all the suffocating feelings disappear once I'm there.
It took me more than a few years to navigate my anxiety and, even now when I feel like I have it wrangled, it sneaks up on me at literally the worst times. If you're afraid to talk about your social anxiety, maybe you can relate to all the reasons why I was, too. Trust me though, talking about it makes it way less awkward.
I Couldn't Verbalize My Reasoning
Many times (more than I can count, actually), I've been in a social situation where it felt all-consuming. The intense sensation of being trapped or submerged takes over and all rational thought disappears. Last summer at an Orlando City soccer game, I had a panic attack in the midst of all the crowds and on top of that, the heat was stifling (which didn't help my ability to calm myself).
We were on a vacation and with extended family so I'm sure my behavior seemed strange or off-putting. However, in the moment I couldn't explain in any way what was happening. I wanted to, sure, but my thoughts wouldn't let me. It's a lonely feeling to have it all exploding inside my brain with everyone's eyes on me and yet, I can't talk my way out of it even if my life depends on it (and to be fair, it feels that way at times).
I Was Insecure About How I'd Be Perceived
Much of the social anxiety comes with a massive fear of what others think about me or my awkward nature. I may stroll in looking confident but, rest assured, inside I'm freaking out. What are you thinking about me? Do you like me? Do you not like me? What are you thinking? These thoughts run rampant until I either do something really awkward like trip over nothing or ramble my way through a conversation with all the words echoing in my head forever. And yes, I will still think of these moments years later. In fact, just last night I was awakened with something I said four years ago. I hate it.
I Feared Being The Punchline
Along with worrying myself to death about what you're thinking of me, I'm also terrified that by not pointing my anxiety out first, I'll become the punchline to someone's joke. Mental illness shouldn't be mocked and that includes anxiety disorders, but in my family (where all the women are battling some sort of mental illness or disorder), we've always been taught it's better to laugh at ourselves before others do.
So, I guess if I make a joke about how anxious I am before you're able to pinpoint it and dissect it, I'm in control of your perception of me (if that makes sense). Basically, I'm so complicated it exhausts even me, but if we're going to laugh about it, it's because I made the joke — not you.
My Mind Would Literally Go Blank
Sometimes, as much as I want to say something — anything — about what the hell is happening to me in public, I freeze. Like literally every single thought disappears. This has happened as far back as my school days when I'd have to give a presentation in front of the class and I'd forget everything: how to talk, how to breathe, how to be a human. It's mystifying. Part of social anxiety means learning to be OK with how weird I act at the worst times. I'm still working on it but in talking about it openly, I hope others can understand it, and me, a little better.
Physical Symptoms Took Over First
Something happens to my body, physically, when I'm anxious. My muscles tense, I become clammy and often sweat through my clothes. I could get a headache or stomachache from the stress of being in the situation. I may even develop chest pain (yes, this has happened). I've learned some breathing and visualization techniques to help a panic attack pass but I put off explaining these symptoms to people for so long because I hoped it'd pass and that eventually, I would be able to act and feel just like everyone else.
I Was Afraid Of Being Labeled Or Discounted
Social anxiety is sort of a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" situation because, while I want others to understand what I'm going through, in speaking out about it I put myself at risk for judgement or worse — being discounted altogether.
I'm still a capable woman, an intelligent, hard-working mother of two, but with my anxiety I've experienced instances of people I thought should get me labeling me instead. I'm weird. I'm crazy. I'm unhinged. It's unfair to group me into such categories. Until you've walked in my shoes, felt what I feel, don't assume you know what it's like to be me.
I Thought No One Would Understand
At the base of all I've said, the biggest reason I first feared opening up about my struggles with social anxiety is that no one would understand. Because I've experienced that exact sentiment, it sometimes scares me into not saying all I want to about it. I've had friends disband, family give me the side-eye, and a partner who still can't quite wrap his brain around my actions at times. To be honest, I don't blame any of them.
Anxiety of any sort is complex with lots of layers. Every day is a new learning experience in who I am, and who I'm to become as a friend, wife, mother, and woman. Now that I've started talking about my struggles with all types of anxiety, I don't intend to stop. For all those just as scared as I once was, I'll be your voice no matter how many others don't get it.
You're not alone.