You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
I’ve always been shy. I’ve become accustomed to being called “the quiet one.” My mum tells stories of me hiding my face away whenever we had company when I was just a wee toddler — a toddler who, through genetic build up and perhaps social conditioning, acted on his instinct to cover up and hide away.
As I grew, so did my anxiety. From my childhood innocence, I transformed into a more receptive, sensitive young man. These were optimum conditions for anxiety to grow, like warmth and dampness to bacteria.
My older brother’s bar-mitzvah exposed and perhaps exaggerated my anxieties. As obligated by tradition and expectation, my nine-year-old self took to the stage to deliver the brother and sister speech.
The speech was received well, but my nervous laughing gradually turned to crying, the situation too overwhelming for my anxious little soul. I once again took to hiding my face — my sister’s arm a shield against the nerves and embarrassment I felt looking into the crowd.
The episode was laughed off by those in attendance, put down to my shyness and my youth. But as I grew older, with hair growing where it once didn’t and muscles starting to show up, inside I was still this shy, scared boy of nine.
Rising Tide of Anxiety
As male culture began to envelop my school — boys becoming interested in girls and banter adopted as the new official language — I felt like I was drowning in this rising tide of anxiety.
With my mellow, quiet nature, I felt increasingly isolated from people. I felt like a child in a group of adults. Consumed by my anxieties, I would think people were judging me:
- “He’s quiet”
- “He’s not funny”
- Or worst of all “He’s boring”
Not being able to show the real me at school or to be the person I was at home, where I was fortunate enough to feel comfortable, became increasingly frustrating.
I made habit of seeking solace in a toilet cubicle. An increasing number of my break times were being spent alone, safe in my isolated cell. There I was faceless, able to take a break from the pressure I felt while socializing, not having to perform.
Time moved quickly, my mind occupied on my recent social blunders. I got annoyed at myself for mumbling my words in history class or only later thinking of a witty response when that girl I like spoke to me.
Seeking a Quick Fix
In an attempt to improve the situation, I gave cognitive behavioral therapy and more standard counseling a try.
When both counselors suggested that the only way I could make any real progress was through exposure therapy, I decided that counseling wasn’t for me. I wanted a quick fix, a no-pain, no-effort solution. This exposure therapy seemed backwards to me — if I could do it, I would just do it. I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair!
The reason I couldn’t go out and be more confident was precisely why I couldn’t go out and be more confident! I wished to overcome my fear of spiders, but I wasn’t going to let a tarantula crawl over my face to achieve this!
Both of the counselors were of course right. I needed to confront my issues head-on, otherwise they would continue to fester and eventually become incurable. I realized I was becoming paralyzed by my social anxieties. They were controlling my every decision and running my life, I was the dog, social anxiety was my leash, and it was tight around my neck.
I realized there were two main things holding me back. I found that these things were just figments of my imagination! This has enabled me to finally loosen that leash, a grip social anxiety had on me for so long.
1. Not All Awkward Silences Are Because of Me
Conversations are, at least, a two-way street. Really understanding this enabled me to take the pressure off — letting myself relax a bit.
I occasionally actually enjoyed talking to people! If things went stale and started to feel a little awkward, I accepted this wasn’t just down to me. The other person wasn’t judging me or thinking I was boring. I could just be myself and stop worrying so much.
2. No One Cares
This discovery in particular has been extremely liberating for me. There was something arrogant in the mindset I had developed, that people had me in their thoughts constantly, caring what I looked like, scrutinizing every word I spoke.
If I didn’t spend my time inspecting others every action, why on earth would others do so for me? No one was judging me.
I was free from this burden. Instead of spending my time worrying what others thought of me, I could spend time on actually living, not just surviving, treading carefully through this imaginary minefield of embarrassment and judgement.
When I started to realize my thought processes were irrational, I could begin to confront my fears.
I now voluntarily socialize, something I used to actively avoid. While I still find it scary, as many do, I realize it is more important to really live, not to just survive.
I’m still the quiet one, but I can now speak to people without my heart feeling as if it’s about to explode. I am dreaming much bigger than I once did. Free from the straight jacket that was my social anxiety, my life has opened up to far more exciting and fuller opportunities.
Where I once would apply for jobs that would limit interaction and not participate in clubs, I now have the ammo to defeat these demons whenever they rear their ugly head.
Where I was once living not to be seen, I am now trying to simply live.