What time do I need to leave? What if I leave too early and nobody is there yet? What if I leave too late and I’m the last to arrive and then have to look around the restaurant to find them and look like an idiot? What if I can’t find a parking spot? What if I have to sit there and make conversation with one person and can’t think of a single thing to say? What if I can’t find anything on the menu I like? What about driving to the movie theater afterward? I know there’s a parking garage, but where is it? What if I can’t find it and I’m the last to arrive and my friends are waiting on me? What if I can’t find my way out of the parking garage easily? What if my car doesn’t start at the end of the night? What if I lose my keys or my wallet?
Oh shit, the friend I was going to arrive with isn’t going to this event anymore. Now I have to show up alone – THE. WORST. What if I can’t find the location easily? What if everyone sees me trying to parallel park my car on the street and sees how terrible I am at it? What if I arrive too early and see everyone in the first shift and I look like a dork? What if I can’t find C when I get there and I don’t know what to do and just stand around looking stupid? What if I don’t know what I’m doing – I’ve never painted in my life? What if everyone is buddy-buddy with everyone and I’m just left alone, painting by myself?
Social anxiety is about worrying about every worst possible scenario whenever you have to do something social. It’s spending the weeks, hours, and days leading up to an event downward-spiraling and falling deeper and deeper into your thoughts as you contemplate everything that could make you uncomfortable or feel out of place. It’s getting to an event and feeling like everyone is looking at you and judging you.
Even though almost every single social event I’ve gone to has been fine and I’ve wound up having a great time, I’m always going to worry about these events. Always. I will never not worry about them.
It’s something I’ve come to accept. Something that makes me so vastly different than the majority of the population.
The first event referenced above happened just this past week when I had plans for dinner and a movie with three close girlfriends. I know these girlfriends well. I love them. I had a great time with them. And yet I still spent the day leading up to our night out worrying about every little logistical detail.
The other event was a charity painting event I did with some coworkers and some people I didn’t know back in April of last year. I spent weeks worrying about that event, especially when I found out my best friend wasn’t going to be there to be my buffer. I considered canceling multiple times, but I didn’t have a good excuse, so I ended up going and asking another friend if she could pick me up on the way there. (This is one of my Social Anxiety Tricks: try to always show up to an event with someone else.) I ended up having a blast, but I couldn’t help feeling like a freak about how much I worried about everything leading up to that day.
And that’s just the truth of what having social anxiety feels like: it makes me feel like a freak. I can literally drive myself to sickness with how much I worry about certain social situations, and in doing so, it makes me want to just hide away and never make plans with people ever. Life is easier that way. I don’t have to worry about anything when my weekend plans are to binge on Netflix and read a book and take naps.
But life wasn’t meant to be easy. It was meant to be challenging and messy and crazy and wonderful. And I can’t get all that I want out of life if I become a hermit, hiding away in my apartment and never taking chances on something new.
If I hadn’t taken a chance and joined a book club in my area, even though I was so nervous leading up to that first meeting that my body was shaking, my teeth were chattering, and my heart rate was through the roof during the drive to the restaurant, I wouldn’t have met some of my best friends.
If I hadn’t taken a chance and started a new job in an unfamiliar part of town in a completely different industry, even though I couldn’t go into the break room for the first few days because I was too shy and didn’t make any friends for the first few months, I wouldn’t have grown so much as a professional and as a person. And I also wouldn’t have met Roomie. Or some of my most favorite people. Or realized that it’s totally possible to love what you do, even if it’s not your dream job.
If I hadn’t taken a chance and started an online dating profile and started saying yes to dates, even though I would spend the hours leading up to the date in the bathroom and get body shakes driving to the restaurant, I wouldn’t have met some of the guys I’ve met and have had some really terrible, really fun, and really mediocre dating experiences.
The the truth of the matter is that social anxiety is a part of who I am. It’s a challenge. It’s difficult to live with. It’s not something I would wish on anyone else. But it’s part of my story. It does not make me a freak. It doesn’t not make me less of a person. It just makes me a human who has limits when it comes to socializing. There are some events I know my anxiety cannot handle – like going to a networking event alone – and there are some events that I know I have to power through because the end result is worth the panic beforehand – like attending a charity painting event or going on a date with someone I met online.
I’m not defined by my social anxiety, but it is a big part of who I am. I’m learning to live with it. I’m learning to acknowledge the effect it has on me. And I’m learning to not beat myself up just because I have to worry about every single logistical detail of social situations.
And I’m learning to speak up about my social anxiety so that people don’t have to feel alone. I’m here and I’m listening.