This is the first in a series of posts about my experiences with social anxiety and finding my voice. Look for the next instalment in two weeks.
For most of my life, I have felt like someone who doesn't speak up. Dozens of people have told me that I am quiet, aloof, standoffish, cold and too introverted and over the years I absorbed those words as being an essential part of who I was.
I had a hard time dating because I could never think of anything to say. I got lost in big groups because I didn't want to fight for attention. I never raised my hand in class - even when part of my grade depended on participation. I never stayed to mingle after a class or meeting - I would grab my stuff and leave - even if I was surrounded by friendly faces.
Talking to people has been my biggest challenge and the biggest obstacle between me and my dreams. I always believed that I would never get what I wanted because I couldn't make connections. I've never found a mentor because I never asked for help or advice from anyone. The only time I ever applied for something that required reference letters, I nearly gave up because my teachers said they didn't know me well enough to write a reference.
Until a few months ago, I still believed that being quiet would be my downfall. That despite all the celebration of introverts that has been happening in the world, I was still hopelessly flawed.
Recently, however, I noticed that something had changed. After all the years and all the wishing and hoping to be different, I could suddenly see that I was different.
I suddenly realized that I had found my voice.
I had just left a meeting of a podcast club - a group that meets to discuss podcasts, sort of like a book club. I had only met the members a handful of times and I had been feeling very nervous about attending the second meeting. But as soon as the discussion started, my nervousness dissipated and I jumped in with both feet. I had so much to say. When it was over I got in my car and nearly started crying. It had been so easy, so fun, and so energizing to discuss ideas with these near strangers. I had opinions and I explained them well, without feeling confused or insecure. It was suddenly clear to me that the thing that I've been wanting my whole life was happening: I was communicating and connecting.
I thought about all the other ways in which I've been speaking up and it was like I was seeing myself clearly for the first time.
The truth is that this has been a long time coming, with lots of incremental progress along the way. But this was the first time that I truly, deeply felt that the familiar shackles of fear and self-hatred were gone. Gone! And I could speak!
What happened to get me to this point? It has taken years of work and while I thought that I would write a quick list of helpful things, I soon realized that there was so much more for me to say. In this series of posts I'm going to cover what my social anxiety looked like, all the things that made it worse, the things I did that helped, what my life looks like now, and what I still want to work on.
First, I want to share a few things that have not been helpful with my struggles over the years. If you suffer from social anxiety, or feel like your introvert nature or shyness are holding you back, here are some things that I would recommend NOT doing:
Obsess over what's "wrong" with you
I was in high school when I figured out that talking to people was difficult and that everyone seemed to be better at it than I was. The moment I decided that I was "broken", I started to fixate on all the ways that I was failing at life. I collected every moment of fear and avoidance as proof of how little worth I had. I set up unreasonable expectations around how I should feel and and how I should behave and beat myself up every time I failed to meet them.
Try to fix yourself
At first I thought that a few simple behaviour tweaks would solve my problem. Once it became clear that the fear ran deep, I thought that I would need a complete personality overhaul and set about trying to make the necessary changes. I was convinced that if I could just fix all my defects and make myself perfect I would get what I wanted and be happy. But none of my efforts seemed to help. I kept making the same mistakes over and over again and I felt like I would always be quiet and hiding in a corner. I became obsessed with self help but the more I learned, the more there was to fix and the more hopeless things seemed.
Read endless books about communication and social skills
For as long as I could remember, as soon as I identified a problem in my life, I would find a book and figure out how to fix it. This occasionally worked out really well for me - I taught myself the front crawl from a book and went from struggling to make it across the pool to doing laps confidently. But most of the books I read about communication made it sound like it was just a set of simple steps that anyone could follow. They didn't address the fear and anxiety that consumed me. I could never make the advice fit with my own situation and the feeling that something was wrong with me settled deeper and deeper.
Put your tale of woe on repeat
Even after introversion started to show up as a legitimate way of being in the world, and I started working really hard on accepting myself, I still believed deep down that I was held back by a lack of social skills. I looked at the success of people around me and decided that they were better at interacting with the world than me and that if I ever did succeed it would be despite my introversion and quietness, not because of it. I clung to the idea that I was still trapped in my own little bubble, separate from everyone, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Let other people define you
I have always trusted other people's opinions of me more than my own. If I have a different opinion than someone, I tend to assume that I'm wrong and when something bad happens I always blame myself. I took me a long time to understand that other people might be projecting their own bullshit onto me, and that what they said or thought about me was an interpretation, not objective reality.
If you recognize any of these behaviours from your own life, I hope that you can see how little they're helping you. In my next post I'll talk about how I addressed all these negative habits: how I stopped believing that I needed to be fixed, started addressing the root of the problem, and changed the stories I was telling myself.