Social Anxiety: I Have a Mouth but I Can’t Scream
Speech. Social anxiety’s worst enemy.
Talk. Chat. Socialize. Comment. Network. Complain. Yell. Argue. Discuss. Brief. Debrief.
In the English language alone, there are thousands of words set aside for describing every type of verbal expression.
So where does that leave someone who struggles with socializing?
In just over a month’s time, I will be attending the OYW 2018 Leadership forum. This honor was imbued (teehee–love that word) upon me by my current manager at my job, and I couldn’t be more pleased, excited, and ecstatic to attend.
Yesterday, however, the OYW administrators emailed the agenda of activities and the option to sign up for workshops.
Great! I thought, opening the email and scanning through the list. I’d been wondering what we would be doing each da—
And that’s when I read it. The statement nestled between every other timeslot for all the days.
Networking with fellow delegates.
Networking with delegates.
Speaking Is Golden
It is my understanding (and numerous observations) that people like to talk. That a lot of people talk a lot. Some of these people are good at talking. Some of them…enjoy talking, even if they don’t have the most accurate of words to express themselves.
Of course, speaking is only half of it. The other half is being able to approach strangers on the street, at a party of unknowns, in the mall or at a festival. People don’t make them nervous. They don’t think of the worst (albeit oftentimes unrealistic) possible scenarios if their communicative tactics are off the game.
Despite my struggles now, I didn’t have much trouble socializing as a child. In fact, my mother has told me that I was rather confrontational. When my older sister and I were under 10 years old, I would get in the faces of any naysayers who dared to put her off.
I had friends in elementary school, and we interacted enough where everyone had a chance to talk on equal ground. No one dominated. We said what we needed to say and moved on.
- Kid: B!
- Me: Yeah?
- Kid: You’re It!
- Me: No, I’m not!
- Kid: Yeah, you are. I tagged you!
- Me: No, you didn’t!
- Kid *chases me; tags me* Now you’re definitely It.
- Me: Fine. *resumes game*
Nice, isn’t it? It’s simple, straightforward, easy to follow, and easy to understand. Kids don’t mince words, not to themselves or with adults. If they have something to say, they say it without leading up to it.
As adults, many of us lose that ability. Society dictates that it’s wrong to just approach someone and tell them what you want without using some generic lead-in to create a sense of politeness, concern, and niceties.
- Adult: Good morning, B!
- Me: Good morning! How are you?
- Adult: Good! How are you?
- Me *deep inside my mind*: Honestly? I’ve felt like crap for the last three days, and it’s too cold on this floor. I could seriously pass out right now. If I do, leave me on the floor. I don’t care who sees me.
- Me *in reality*: I’m good, thank you.
- Adult: Did you have a good drive in to work?
- Me *in my mind*: No; my SUV was T-boned, so I decided to walk the rest of the 10 miles here. I’m like the Unbreakable man; nothing touches me! Lawl!
- Me *in reality*: Not bad! Little traffic. Oh, and the stoplights were out.
- Adult: Omigosh, I saw that! Took me twice as long to get here!
Nine times out of ten, this conversation is nothing more than to ask Mr./Mrs. Adult if he/she can check in the flippin document on the shared web space, or invite him/her to a long overdue meeting.
The Rise of Social Anxiety (aka WTF Happened)
Somewhere between the playground and the office space, meeting new people made me anxious. Not all people, necessarily, and not anxious all the time. But there was certainly a difference in eyeing up bullies in my youth, to wanting to work alone through lunch.
The change is most noticeable between college graduation and landing my full-time first job as an English teacher. I like to call this time The Age of WTF Happened.
It’s not an elegant title. But then again, neither was that age.
I’ve touched on similar moments in various posts, from my desire to find escape to unintentionally “hermiting” myself three years ago. To keep the story short here, the WTF Happened age was a time when I truly doubted myself among strangers–not only with my abilities, but with my very personality.
Even as I sit here on my lunch break, looking around at the people scattered across the courtyard, everyone is talking. In pairs, in trios, in groups; even the people sitting solitary are pacing the walkways chatting on their phones.
Yep–the average person loves to talk. And that’s great!
But…it’s just not me. And trying to make myself feel that way, only makes me feel worse.
My strength of expression is not in speaking. Even if it was as a child, it isn’t anymore. I’m not the person who formulates a quick idea and has it ready in the middle of an important meeting. I’m not the one who walks up to every stranger in a party, hand extended and smile gleaming.
But I know if I want to achieve certain goals in my life…If I want to give good interviews as my acting and voice acting careers expand…if I hope to introduce myself and get to know whatever man will be the love of my life…if I want the OYW Forum to go well and gain many powerful connections…
I have to be ready to socialize–social anxiety be durned.
Social Anxiety ≠ Nervous
I can hear those reading this who might not have ever suffered from social anxiety, thinking, “B, relax. We all get nervous in front of new people. You just gotta suck it up and keep doing it until it becomes habitual. You’re gonna feel so much better once you’ve done it. So–do it.”
And I repeat–I will do it. To get where I want to be in life, I have to.
But the sigh of relief and exuberance in the way you probably expect me to feel once I’ve crossed that bridge will not always arise. If it does, it won’t always be for the reasons you’re thinking.
The shaky hands, urge to hide away and cry out my stress, and the necessity to surround myself with the things that would never wish to see me scared or hurt, will arise. The shame that certainly, I said the dumbest things ever and not only am I disrespected, but probably boring, will flood me at the most inopportune times.
And this will repeat inside every time I do it.
It’s mostly illogical thoughts, yes. But it doesn’t stop the very real, physiological reaction. The repetition just makes the aftermath easier to anticipate and prepare for.
That is the difference between social anxiety and nervousness. At least it is for me.
What Social Anxious People Want
A person who has never suffered from social anxiety cannot understand how much a person who has, want so badly to not only express themselves, but to express themselves and enjoy the experience of expression. They want to tell their favorite joke and watch their audience burst into bright, admirable laughter as they gaze on in respect.
They want to disagree with someone and not expect the world to charge down on their heads.
They want to tell someone, “Hi, I’m B,” and reach out their hand–and happily anticipate the cheery response: “Hi, B!”
They want to walk in a crowd and not have the crowd overwhelm their every pore.
The body heat.
The chatter from all directions.
The shuffling to nowhere.
The expressions on everyone’s faces. The impatient ones. The angry ones. The exhausted ones.
The anxious ones.
They want a moment when social anxiety is not on their minds.
Defying Social Anxiety
For me, I have two moments when social anxiety is a distant thought.
One is when I’m writing.
The other is when I’m performing.
Once I had a co-worker and fellow introvert double-take on me when I showed him my recent live voice acting performance in the radio drama The Blood Crow Stories. “So, you had no problem performing in front of all those people?” he said.
I thought about it for a second. “No, not really.”
He himself paused, to reflect on my answer. At last, he looked me sincerely in the eye and asked, “What makes performing not affect your anxiety, versus being in a party?”
My answer: I am able to hide some of my weaker natures from the crowd. At the same time, I am giving every essence of my soul to offer a quality presentation, thus leaving myself much more vulnerable than I could ever be at a party starting a conversation with “Hi.”
If my performance sucks, the crowd will tell me. If they like me, they will tell me. But I will know immediately where I stand. It’s the sweet simplicity of childhood all over again.
I feel stronger when I am not speaking–at least, when I am not speaking in the conversational sense. Oh, I will happily hold an in-depth, spiritual conversation with a person one-on-one (that’s the introvert in me). However, if I want to introduce my true self to a group of people, they will see it so much faster and fuller if it is in the setting of performer vs. audience.
Performance. My writings. Music and art. Eye contact. Touch. Presence.
The rare and elusive comfortable silence.
These are the communications I cherish.
The famous saying goes that you know you’ve met a true friend when you can sit in comfortable silence with them. This is what I seek in the people who will stay in my life for many seasons.
Because on the days when my social anxiety flares up and affects even them, they will hardly notice.
Because I’ve already “greeted” them in my own way. And they’ve “greeted” me.
And in this Tag life, we can play the rest of the game together.