Imagine walking into the sea only to be immediately surrounded by sharks and you can’t escape because you don’t know what you’re supposed to do so you just drown. That’s kind of what social anxiety feels like.
When I walk into a room it feels like the walls are crashing down around me. I’ve forgotten how to stand, where to put my hands, how to speak. So, more often that not, I just don’t.
Over the years things have got better. A one on one conversation is perfect for me. I might be awkward and I certainly won’t babble on for hours and hours but I’ll talk.
Put me in a group and I’ll fall to pieces inside. I’ve been at university six years now and while I’ll obviously answer a question when asked, I haven’t put my hand up in the six years I’ve been there. I’ve spent many a lesson desperate to answer a question because I actually know it, but instead I keep quiet. The mute in the corner.
I don’t remember ever not being this way. As a child I was always quiet. My parents would encourage me to talk to their friends but I wouldn’t. I wasn’t being obstinate. I just couldn’t do it. I went full days of secondary school not saying a word to anyone. Years of people telling me “You’re so quiet” and asking “why don’t you just talk?” A question that I would also like the answer to!
Even now, living in a house of 7 girls, all of whom I get on with, I’m the same. If someone’s in the kitchen I will wait until they’re done. If someone’s watching TV I won’t join them because I don’t want to interact. It’s exhausting, constantly worrying whether you’ve said something stupid, whether the person you’re talking to thinks you’re awkward. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you that ‘they’re probably just as nervous as you are’ or ‘no one will even notice that you feel awkward’ or my personal favourite, ‘you’ll enjoy it when you get there.’
Chances are, if you met me you wouldn’t know that I was socially anxious. You’d probably just think that I was a bit quiet or a bit socially awkward.
You wouldn’t know that some of my worst fears are buying something at a till, ordering coffee at Starbucks or ringing someone on the phone.
You wouldn’t know that I like being early because walking into a room full of people fills me with a dread.
You wouldn’t know that I’ve skipped presentations at school because I simply could not stand up in front of the class and speak.
And you wouldn’t know that it’s a genuine fear that when someone talks to me I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to get the words out to respond.
Social anxiety often gets overlooked as being an introvert or just being ‘a bit quiet’. But it’s exhausting and hard and it bleeds into lots of other areas of life.
Over the years I’ve learned that however nervous I am, it’s always much better after the situation has passed. The anxiety might linger for a while but eventually it will go.
I think we’ll all get there, one coffee order at a time.