The discovery of social anxiety
To start from the beginning we have to go back to my childhood.
Since a very young age I had the recurrent feeling that I was different from other people. Not in the good sense of being special, on the contrary, I sometimes felt as if I was inadequate. Sometimes I didn't feel good doing things that my friends seemed to enjoy.
I was a very quiet, shy boy who seemed to live in his own world all the time. Often, when I listened to adults talking about my shyness, I heard that typical comment: "don't worry, it's a phase. It will pass".
But it didn't.
As I grew up and started to encounter more new social situations, that sensation of inadequacy became more present. For years I couldn't quite locate what it was and even if it was real or just a subjective perception I had of myself. In high school I started to better understand in which ways I was different from others and what social situations I had trouble with.
I knew that in some situations I had genuine disinterest, but in others, I felt that I wanted to enjoy what I couldn't, as if I was incarcerated against my will inside my inner world. For example, I had a hard time partying, or starting conversations with new people, especially with girls I found attractive. I tried to label what was happening to me. I thought about fear of failure and fear of ridicule but those concepts did not quite match the symptoms I was feeling.
Some years later, at the beginning of 2016, I stumbled upon a post online in which someone was sharing some bad experience in a social situation. I was reading and feeling more and more identified. I searched through the comments and there was it:
"You may have social anxiety, look it up".
And I did.
One of the most impactful days I've had in my life and the true beginning of this story.
That same day I started reading and researching everything I could online. The concept "social anxiety" was quite popular so I had no trouble finding anything I wanted, from symptoms and diagnosis to causes and possible solutions. In the following months, I got a fair amount of knowledge on the topic, apart from all the first-hand experience I already had.
The 6 stages of my social anxiety
From here on I will divide the story into the main stages I went through. I will write key takeaways I got from each stage
Disclaimer! In no way this story is meant to substitute therapy. If you feel identified with what I am describing I recommend you seek professional advice (whenever you are ready!).
1. The rational approach. Fear to feel
At first, I tried to solve everything in my head, just by thinking and reflecting. I didn't want to face my fears so I did everything I could to understand what it meant to suffer from social anxiety. I thought I could solve the problem by knowing why and how it happened. Of course, I didn't succeed.
Because that isn't how the brain and our emotions work. Understanding the problem provides some power over it, but is just a part of the puzzle.
This rationalization process allowed me to place the concepts in a sort of mental map and also helped me to better identify the somatic sensations I felt whenever I had anxiety and the triggers that generated it.
Learn about social anxiety as a means to organize better in your mind what is really happening, why it's happening, and how to approach the path to solve it. But you will have to walk that path, which took me to the second stage.
2. The emotional approach. We heal in the interaction
Soon, I realized I had to do those things that scared me. The problem with anxiety was not that I did not understand it, but that it made me feel bad.
I wanted to stop feeling bad.
So I had to teach my emotions that the situations that generated anxiety were not dangerous. I had to face my fears in their domain.
I started to do those little things that were very easy for other people but I couldn't do. For example, making a phone call or starting a trivial conversation (what people call small talk, concept I couldn't understand back then) with a stranger while waiting for the bus. It did not matter if the conversation was meaningful, or even if it started or ended awkwardly. I knew the importance of that step was not the conversation itself, but showing my emotions that the outcome was not dangerous.
For months, I took as many opportunities as I could. It went good sometimes, worse other times, but it didn't matter. Soon I started to feel genuinely good doing things that not long before were extremely scary.
Every time I had to face a situation like that I said to myself: "Remember why you are doing this. It makes you feel bad now. It won't in the future".
It doesn't matter which specific situations are difficult for you. You may find starting a conversation way too challenging to do it now. Start at the step in which you feel confident enough that you will be able to do it. There is always a next step to where we are. Find it and start climbing the stairway to freedom.
First, we heal our psychological issues in the interactions that generate the emotional reactions. We can ease the process with other actions: thinking, reflecting, talking to a therapist, meditation, etc. but when we really heal is in those specific situations that produce the painful outcomes. To overcome social anxiety I had to start conversations, talk to people, speak in public, etc.
Second, we should proceed step by step. Don't let anyone or anything decide the speed at which you will take the steps. Take it as you feel it. Some days it will be painful, so painful that you will just want to stay in bed. Then stay. Sooner or later you will feel much more able to go up another step. Keep in mind your goal but don't force the situation, it may be counterproductive.
3. Seeking professional help
I used that approach for almost 2 years to remove little barriers that were reducing my day-to-day freedom. But some situations seemed too difficult to withstand and I didn't dare to face them. One of those situations appeared on the horizon:
My bachelor's thesis defense in September of 2017 (just reading this sentence would have increased my heartbeat at that time).
The defense scared the hell out of me. I was thinking about it months before the date. The somatic responses were constantly appearing and only disappeared when my mind was busy with other things. I even had a hard time writing the manuscript. I thought about doing it badly on purpose, just to create an artificial excuse for a potential failure. But I didn't do it.
Instead, I decided that I wanted to keep walking my path. But I knew I wouldn't be able to face this situation by myself so I contacted a psychologist specialized in social anxiety.
In the previous years I tried to overcome social anxiety by myself because I didn't want to fully acknowledge it. Although I had told my parents and my best friends, accepting that I needed help because I wasn't able to solve it by myself was hard.
Hard, but one of the best decisions I've made in my life.
The psychologist helped me prepare my emotional self for the defense. I developed better strategies to fight my anxiety (although very similar to the ones I was trying). It helped me build a solid background to hold on to when I was in doubt or feeling weak.
We followed cognitive behavioral therapy but I think the specific psychological approach is not the most important aspect. I followed other approaches afterward that were also very useful for me.
For me, the important thing was that I felt very comfortable with my psychologist and with the therapy, seeing results on a weekly basis. Had I felt otherwise I would probably have tried another place to continue my progress.
Therapy can help and guide your emotional healing to go forward. However, you should be comfortable with the therapist as a person and with the progress you are making. Otherwise, don't hesitate to look for a change.
4. Social anxiety as a protection mechanism
After the defense (I gotta say it went quite well, although the previous days were hellish) I started to feel better in situations that were impossible to handle as little as a few months before.
And I started to see a pattern: the more I practiced in any specific scenario, the better I felt the next time I tried. It didn't matter the particular outcome of the previous times.
My brain was probably starting to dissociate those scenarios from danger. The part of my brain that was responsible for protecting me was starting to "understand" that there was nothing to protect me from in those non-dangerous social scenarios.
But if my social anxiety was the mechanism by which I was protecting myself, the question is: what was it protecting exactly?
If we take the approach to psychotherapy of the internal family system model developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s (Minor, 2016), we can understand our minds as a set of parts that relate to each other in different ways. In particular, a protective part may relate strongly with a damaged part that could produce important psychological damage if it were poked by external agents.
In the context of social anxiety, the damaged part may be thought of as the self-esteem. The sense of worthiness we all have. I understood that if I was able to teach my anxiety to not appear in situations that were presumably not dangerous, I could start healing my self-esteem.
As stupid as it may sound, anxiety is trying to help us. It's protecting us. Don't think of it as an enemy, but as something that should be taught to not damage us while it tries to help us. And then, we will be able to heal whatever it is protecting.
5. Social anxiety is context-specific. Divide and conquer
I also realized that social anxiety is context-specific and facing my fear in a specific scenario could radically improve my skill in that scenario without necessarily extrapolate to other situations. I selected those contexts in which I wanted to improve my social abilities and defined the paths I would follow for each of them.
For more than two years now I have been constantly using (almost) every social situation to take a step forward in any of those parallel paths. If I left the house I tried to talk to any person that I encountered even to just say "hello". When I was with my friends I volunteered to order pizza and I was the first one to propose mixing groups to get to know new people.
I repeated the same process day after day. I continued to see advances in the way I felt and in the development of my social abilities. Nevertheless, there were always days when I didn't feel strong enough so I had to take a break.
The most important aspects in which I notably improved are summarized here:
- Being able to start and maintain interesting conversations without thinking about the possibility to have a blank or even caring if it would happen. I can just say: "ops, I lost track there. What was I saying?"
- Being able to pick up the phone from unknown numbers or being able to make a call without thinking what to say in advance.
- Being able to approach women and flirting without fearing rejection.
- Being able to express opinions, even if my opinion would create a conflict.
- Being able to present my work in front of an audience and enjoy the process and even joke around.
- Being able to not take any social situation too seriously and understand that any rejection says nothing about me or my worth
There are still some scenarios in which I still feel anxious but it has changed so much for the better that I often even forget that I suffered social anxiety on a daily basis.
Don't think of social anxiety as a huge problem that has to be tackled all at once. Think of it as something that can be divided into little parts and conquered by tackling them separately.
6. Social anxiety as a marginal problem
It took me almost five years to get to where I am today after discovering the concept of social anxiety. Now it's not a life-deteriorating problem anymore. It doesn't interfere in my daily life almost ever. There are some specific contexts in which I would like to further evolve but I am extremely happy with the results nowadays. I can do so many things that I couldn't before.
Even, as I had to develop my social abilities from scratch, I've got to a point in which I feel that I am more skilled than people that never had any problem with social situations.
Don't think of social anxiety as something to get rid of completely, but as something to be reduced to a level at which it doesn't bother you anymore.
It hasn't been an easy journey, but I can say, without a doubt, that overcoming social anxiety is the most important achievement in my life so far. I have radically changed how I experience life. All my relationships, with myself and with others, have improved drastically. I wouldn't change this journey for anything else.
I probably will never say: "My social anxiety has disappeared completely", but now it's just a marginal issue that I don't have to confront to live a good, high-quality life. Nowadays I think of my social anxiety as an old friend that has accompanied me for most of my life and has taught me a lot of things the hard way. And I've come to terms of peace with it and even feel grateful for it.
I hope someday you could too.
Minor, A. J. (2016). Internal Family Systems Model. In Carlson, Jon; Dermer, Shannon B. (eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling. SAGE Publications. ISBN 978–1–4833–6956–3