By Shavel Gordon
My predicament is common among young girls and women between 16 and 24. Approximately 1 in 10 adults, including me, suffer from social anxiety disorder. So, I’m not alone, but it indeed does feel that way. Here are a couple of fun facts about me:
- My primary school teacher said I didn’t speak very often because I thought I was better than other students.
- My co-worker said I had a mental disability because of not completing tasks the way they wanted me to.
- My tutor thought I had another mental disability because I took a long time to understand mathematical equations and solutions.
From these experiences, you can see a general pattern. That is, any individual who is different from everyone else, especially in a society that praises extroversion, will be seen and treated as an outcast. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that society admires people who are distinctive in very unconventional ways. But this usually happens when they’re not too different from the status quo. This statement can often ring true when speaking on issues such as sexism and racism. But that’s another conversation for another day (and article).
It is my understanding that many people with social anxiety can relate to at least one or even many instances of my experience. We have all been made to feel atypical and unintelligent due to our anxiety. You may have also missed out on many opportunities because of brain fog. A term that describes feeling less astute than usual and makes it more challenging to think as clearly as you usually would.
You have probably also been overlooked because of not speaking as much as others. Ever been afraid of raising your hand in class? Or even simply contributing an exciting idea may have seemed difficult for you. Trust me, I’ve been there a thousand times (and I still do!). But here’s a secret: I promise you it does get better.
At least, it did for me. But instead of telling you to just speak and ignore the judgemental looks of others, to go out there and live a little and to stop worrying about what others will say. Instead, I would say it’s okay to battle with social anxiety.
Yes, you read that right; it really is okay. Don’t believe me? Read this statement carefully: anxiety is normal, at least in small doses; the bad thing about anxiety is that it can be activated in situations that aren’t dangerous to humans. For instance, in a seemingly stressful situation, our body goes into fight or flight mode. The major problem with anxiety sufferers is that our body is constantly in the fighting stage, which causes us to react to harmless situations as if they are dangerous to our overall safety and health. Yes, this leads to the anxiety symptoms you always have, such as being restless, problems with concentrating, rapid heart rate, and difficulties with eye contact, among many others. That is why we feel anxious. Now, you may have been wondering when I will stop and finally tell you how life with social anxiety can get better. Well, here it is!
Firstly, it is essential to give yourself enough time to heal.
Things got better when I slowed down and gave myself the time to heal from past trauma. I became more patient with myself and was more forgiving of my awkwardness. With the help of multiple mental health professionals, I learned to accept myself and get to the root of my social anxiety. This involved being hit with the realisation that I needed others to be more patient with me and to give me more time to think carefully about my answers. I also made small plans and followed different steps, enabling me to practice my social skills much deeper. Throughout this process, I evaluated my progress after each social event, from which I noticed that many people also have awkward moments. So, I wasn’t completely alone, and perhaps I wasn’t always being judged as harshly as I thought. Maybe, it was all in my head.
Secondly, learn to accept yourself.
I also learned about the importance of accepting myself first and trying to understand that I am not a superhuman. I may make mistakes when socialising, and that’s alright with me – I am not perfect. I have also recently discovered the many strengths exhibited during my many social interactions. These are being empathetic, being a good listener, and paying great attention to minutiae details. I am also understanding, can predict a conversation’s direction, and am profoundly analytical. Imagine what more incredible things you can discover about yourself after embarking on a journey of self-acceptance.
Thirdly, be proud of your weaknesses.
I am very proud of my weaknesses: being unable to fully assert myself during large group interactions, suffering from brain fog on some days, and being anxious around high-level authority figures. From all these beautiful yet painful qualities, I have discovered that many of my socially anxious attributes can also be linked to introversion. After a long day socialising with everyone in sight, I need to recharge my social batteries. I also prefer one-to-one conversations rather than having to interact with large groups of people. And, yes, I still accept social invitations and cancel them all at the last minute.
Finally, always remember that change is possible.
A vital point of this very, very, very seriously long article is that change is possible. No matter how difficult it seems.
Improving your social skills may take some years, but taking your time is essential. You will eventually get there. Trust me, I scoffed whenever anyone gave me this exact advice. And may I suggest one more tidbit of advice? Whatever you do, do not ever shy away from life-changing opportunities. If that’s too difficult, take tiny steps towards those opportunities until you get there. Trust me, I’ve done it.
Shavel Gordon is a 22-year-old reader, researcher and writer. She is also an amateur exerciser, with a focus on moderately healthy living half of the time. She hopes to use her degree in psychology to support other individuals in the field of clinical psychology.