I just moved seats twice in this coffee shop that I’ve been in for maybe five minutes.
I hate sitting with my back to the center of a room, because I can’t see everyone at all times, and for some reason that makes me nervous. Normally, I would force myself to deal with it. I would pick the first seat that was easiest to find, and sit there fighting the nervous impulse to look back every five seconds to see if anyone new had arrived or others had left. Why I need to keep mental track of this information at all times, I have no idea. But I do. And I would probably not get much work done, because trying to focus an anxious mind is like herding cats—which, if you know me, you know I have some IRL experience with. Not easy.
But lately I’ve been trying something new. I’ve been trying to give myself a break. I’m turning toward my anxiety, looking it dead in the eyes, and saying, “What today? What do I need to do so that you and I can coexist and make the most out of this unfortunate party neither of us can leave?” This is not an easy thing for me to do.
For years and years I’ve spent so much of my energy mentally berating myself for my anxious tendencies, especially my social anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety can be an incredibly quiet illness. Unless you’re having a total mental breakdown, most people will have no idea how stressed you are or how fast your thoughts are racing or that you’re on the brink of tears, but just the brink. Social anxiety, however, is loud. It’s having to be the person to make your friends stand further back at a concert than they want to because you can’t handle the crowds. It’s having to tell your sister to hurry up in the dressing room because you feel like you might pass out from being at the mall much longer. It’s frantically looking around the bar in an attempt to take everything in and stay out of the way of everyone else (which also means making direct eye contact with anyone who happens to be looking your way. Awkward.) It’s avoiding going to new coffee shops alone because you don’t know what it looks like inside, if you’ll have a place to sit, and if you’re going to spend the next couple hours fidgeting and turning around every five seconds to calm your anxious mind.
Since I can remember having an anxiety disorder, I have consistently suppressed these feelings. I’ve either endured those social activities that I probably did WANT to be a part of, but couldn’t help feeling silently miserable while they were happening. Or I’ve just quietly denied invitations with an “I’m tired” or “I have other plans today.” Those other plans were undoubtedly sitting at home, watching Netflix, mentally punishing myself for not being more social, more fun, less neurotic.
(I should mention, I have had my fair share of fun in social settings. Some of my favorite memories have come from dancing with my friends or singing along at a concert. But those are were times I was able to overcome my nerves. Like I’ve said before and I’ll say again, with anxiety, it just depends on the day.)
Who knows? Maybe yesterday I could’ve walked into this coffee shop no problem, I could’ve picked a seat and stayed in it and been fine. But today I was anxious just coming here. Today on the drive over I told myself that all I had to do was walk in, assess the situation, and then I could leave if I wanted to. If it was too much. But this time, it wasn’t. In fact, I discovered this awesome new coffee shop with tons of space and a very friendly staff who didn’t seem fazed by my half-ordering, half-thoroughly-checking-my-surroundings attitude. And no one seemed bothered by the fact that I moved seats twice before settling on a little table looking out on the rest of the room.
So maybe my biggest accomplishment today was sitting in a coffee shop and writing for a little while. But to me that’s big, and to anyone else struggling with social anxiety—or any anxiety in general—it’s okay to give yourself a break. This is a lesson I’m still learning, but I’m trying, and that’s enough for now.