Meet Ned. My furry little social anxiety gremlin.
Ned has been around for a long time. I didn’t always know who he was or why he was there, but he’s been my companion for well over a decade now.
Sometime around the hormonal spectacle that is teenagedom, I developed social anxiety. Back then, I didn’t really know what it was. I thought I was just like everyone else—worrying about what people thought about me and if I said the right thing or sounded like a complete nerd.
Normal teenager in braces stuff.
But as time went on and my hormones became more about monthly pimples than constant emotional chaos, my anxiety gremlin never went away.
Ned isn’t just hormones or introversion or the horribly strong desire for people to like me.
Although, I definitely experience all three of those things. When they all line up together, you get moments like this:
Nope, social anxiety is more than that. It’s when Ned snuggles up to me and squeezes my chest as hard as he possibly can. And I know he looks like a sweet little gnarly bugger who would hug like a teddy bear.
But, let me tell you…he squeezes like a grizzly.
There are days when I walk around unable to take a full breath. It feels physically impossible to expand my chest because the muscles are clenched so tight.
All because Ned is terrified to his core that we are unlikeable.
On the few occasions I've talked to friends about it, the general sentiment is surprise. They didn't realize social interaction makes my brain go haywire.
But you're good at talking to people, they say.
I know how to talk to strangers. Social anxiety doesn’t mean I lack the ability to interact. It’s the terror that results because I have to interact with people. Especially ones I don’t know all that well.
It’s the completely irrational fear that they will reject me, and it manifests in very real, physical symptoms.
This year, I have had a staggering amount of interaction with new acquaintances. I have a toddler, and so more and more, there have been birthday parties and group classes and playground visits. I also started my career as an author and that means I’ve been putting myself out there in a very personal and public way.
Most of my social interaction as an author happens on the Internet. For some people, the Internet makes their introversion and anxiety easier to handle. For me, it throws everything into a tailspin.
There are no physical cues to help relax me. Nope. I have to put myself out there—and ahhh, it better be perfect because it’s there forever—and hope people accept me.
This summer, I pushed myself to my brink. My social calendar has been full with absolutely no action plan for how to handle the inevitable anxiety attacks that occurred because of those interactions.
I crashed. Hard.
Over the past month, even opening up my phone or talking to other moms at the playground has triggered Ned. I’ve been emotionally overwhelmed from the simplest of situations. I’ve lost it on a level that rivaled my toddler multiple times. And I've been so tense that I can barely focus on communicating with the people I feel entirely comfortable. (Sorry husband, the for better or for worse part kinda sucks sometimes.)
Here’s the funny thing…No one has been mean to me. In fact, it’s been the opposite; I have received an outpouring of support and encouragement through being a toddler mom as well as a new author.
Still, I’m irrationally terrified. Terrified that I will say or do the wrong thing and everyone will turn on me.
And so Ned and I have had a lot of face time lately. He latches on in that bear hug, and he doesn’t let up. He makes sure my heart rate goes up and I can’t breathe or think or go to sleep. He makes sure I replay the most mundane interactions, berating myself for not doing better.
I don’t even know what better is.
I’m not an asshole. If I am, it’s certainly not intentional.
But I’m a socially anxious, highly sensitive introvert who was raised to be hyper aware of social rules and expectations.
And I’m working on figuring out how to deal with that.
Because I won’t forgive myself if I quit...if I give up writing or turn down social engagements or stop trying to make new friends because I have a Ned.
I think it’s important to be honest though, and so this is me.
I am terrified you won’t like me. And you can show me all the Pinterest quotes in the world about how I shouldn’t care. I’m still going to worry about it. I’m going to replay our conversation twenty times. And sometimes I’m going to irrationally assume that I did something to upset you.
I know. That’s grossly egotistical. Ned’s kind of self-centered like that.
And sometimes I might disappear. My communication may be sporadic; I will respond to everything for a week and then go silent for two.
That’s Ned too.
He’s not my favorite, and I’m working on how to peel him off of me and send him on a long vacation to Bermuda.
But he’s going to pop up from time to time, particularly when I’m going through periods of major change and growth. And that’s okay.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because I think it's valuable to share our common struggles.
It might not be apparent when you meet someone that they suffer from social anxiety. We all deal with the fear of social rejection. It triggers the same part of your brain as physical pain (source). It makes sense; our cavemen ancestors would have died if their tribe rejected them.
It’s when social anxiety starts to take over your life and cause serious physical and mental distress that it becomes a problem.
When Ned starts to call the shots, it’s time to get a game plan.
I'm working on mine. I turned off the lock-screen social media notifications on my phone. I'm being more diligent about when I schedule social activity and when I schedule recharge time. I'm also researching my therapy options.
It's a process. Just like everything else.
Ned has been around for a long time, and he's going to be around for a lot longer. I just have to work on dislodging him from my chest and setting him back up on the shelf.
I'm learning how to take deep breathes again and reminding myself that it's okay if people don't always like me. I'm lucky to be surrounded by some of the most loving people in the world. In the end, that's all I need.
But, Ned? Stop being such an attention-hogging jerk. You're cute on the outside, but your hugs hurt like a mother trucker.