It has often been said that if you want to know more about a particular topic, it’s best to go directly to the source, or the horse’s mouth — as it were. But with social anxiety disorder, things aren’t so easy. Ask me about it and the chances are I won’t be able to tell you much of anything. Not because I don’t know — I do, I’ve suffered from it my whole life. No, the problem is that those of us who have social anxiety disorder don’t like to answer personal questions. Or many other types of questions, for that matter. We see no upside but plenty of downside in doing so. We’re afraid that if we respond you might judge us as inferior or stupid, or find our answers so absurd you’ll even laugh at us. Then you’ll go tell all your friends so they can laugh at us too. Knowing this, we’re reluctant to comment on controversial topics or reveal much of anything of an intimate nature. Even if we find the courage to speak and manage to mutter a few semi-coherent thoughts — and that does happen sometimes — we won’t see it as a victory. Instead we’ll replay that conversation again and again later on, castigating ourselves over what we should have said and knowing we made a terrible impression. All of that may sound silly or strange. But that’s what it’s like to live inside the bubble of social anxiety disorder, also known as a social phobia. Extreme self-consciousness is the hallmark of the socially phobic person, and while constant self-absorption might work for Donald Trump-style narcissists, for self-esteem-challenged SAD sufferers, it is deflating and depressing. For the socially anxious man or woman, authenticity is incredibly difficult to display. Afraid to be ourselves, we constantly put on an act in front of others, saying and doing what we think is expected or acceptable. Toeing the line on some vague version of social and cultural correctness. This is an emotionally exhausting and ultimately empty way to live. But still we do it because at the subconscious level we believe it keeps us safe and protected. Safe and protected from what, you ask? Honestly, I’m not sure.
Many people beset by mental health struggles eventually manage to cry out for help. But with SAD sufferers, most of the crying is done alone, at home, in their rooms. If we somehow do work up the nerve to call a therapist to make an appointment, once we get there we’ll seldom open up or make any real personal connection. Doing so doesn’t come naturally and we’re acutely aware the only reason that person is listening to us is because we’re paying them to do so. Another problem with therapy is that people with SAD tend to be intimidated by authority figures (they make us feel small and insignificant), and in our society few individuals are more venerated and respected than those with a medical degree, including shrinks. In my case, the one time I did go see a psychiatrist, he started asking me questions about my sex life and I had absolutely no interest in going there. Or anywhere else for that matter … at least not with him. In truth the only reason I went to see him in the first place was to get a prescription for an antidepressant. At that time I was in the midst of a 10-year battle with clinical depression (a common side effect of social anxiety) and I thought the drugs might help (they didn’t). Self-help groups or self-esteem-building courses generally aren’t much help, either. I tried those a handful of times, but I always came out of it feeling worse. I felt like I was the quietest, most insecure and most helpless one in the room. Even among my own kind, I felt like a misfit. What’s ironic is that I imagine most, if not all, of my peers in those groups felt the same way. For the socially anxious, being in the company of others like yourself isn’t necessarily reassuring. Building supportive relationships is virtually impossible in such circumstances, since we’re too guarded and distrustful to allow that to happen.
The Internet to the Rescue
When I got online for the first time back in 2003, I was brimming with optimism. Here, I thought, was my chance to make meaningful connections with other SAD sufferers in a safe, stress-free environment. I figured the anonymity of the Internet would make it easier to open up and express myself in front of other SAD victims, who would commiserate and want to be my friends. After Googling to see what was out there I joined a large, active forum devoted to social anxiety, where presumably fellow travelers on the social phobia highway could get together to share stories and form lasting bonds. But that experience was a huge disappointment. As we all know, the anonymity of the Internet brings out the worst in people, and sadly I found things were no different among the socially anxious. When I jumped in and started posting on that forum I was judged, attacked, scorned, mocked, ridiculed, rejected, scoffed at and dismissed—and then on the second day things really got bad. OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating just a wee bit. But overall my experiences trying to connect with other social phobia sufferers online were disappointing, disheartening, discouraging and disillusioning. There was a lot of bitterness and passive aggressiveness and while some people seemed nice no one reached out. Everyone preferred to remain remote and distant. Then again maybe they just wanted to stay remote from me, who knows? My social activities in virtual space weren’t a complete waste, since I did meet my wife there. But I met her on a dating site for vegetarians, not on a social anxiety site, and interestingly she’s an extravert not an introvert, which I think is significant. I’ve come to the conclusion that SAD sufferers are more likely to form satisfying relationships with outgoing people who understand them and don’t judge them, as opposed to socially anxious peers struggling to overcome the same issues. That’s just a theory. Maybe others have had better experiences than I had interacting with their fellow social phobia victims. But being in a relationship with an extravert has forced me to stretch and has helped me learn to feel more comfortable in at least some social situations. Living with an extravert, I don’t always have to take the initiative and you have someone a bit more confident and socially skilled than you are to set a good example. And it’s uplifting to know someone you admire and respect loves me unconditionally. If they think I deserve that then who am I to argue?
What You Need to Know About Social Anxiety Disorder
I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never even played one on TV. But I do have an insider’s perspective on this mysterious, hidden disorder. Based on my experiences here’s what I’ve learned …
Social anxiety and shyness are not the same thing.
This is the biggest misconception out there. When you have social phobia you’ll constantly be referred to as “shy,” but what we actually are is repressed. Frozen. Tongue-tied. Petrified. Mortified. Paralyzed like a deer in the headlights. Not in every situation, but more often than not when I’m around people I don’t know. I’ll be desperate to escape not because I don’t crave human contact (I do), but because I don’t know what to say and am afraid if I open my mouth I’ll be rejected and exposed. And again, if you ask me “exposed as what,” I won’t have an answer. None of this stuff is rational. It isn’t rational and it also isn’t shyness, despite the surface similarities. Take away the artificial mind-barriers and many SAD sufferers would undoubtedly reveal themselves as extraverts, and downright gregarious ones at that. Socially anxious people are not antisocial, even though it seems that way. We are un-social but not by choice. Even those of us who are natural introverts would adopt quite a different persona and make a vastly different impression if we could shed the social phobia cloak for a while. But unfortunately this brand of mental illness doesn’t let us roll that way.
One of the biggest burdens facing socially anxious people is our lack of social skills.
This is a huge limitation we all face. Practice, as we know, makes perfect, but a lack of practice leads to chronic ineptitude and that’s how it is with socially anxious people in many routine social situations. If we can learn to break out of our shells every now and then, our social and communication skills will progress to some extent. Our anxiety symptoms will decrease and we won’t be quite as tongue-tied or brain-fogged during spontaneous conversations as we used to be. But our social skills will never reach the level of “normal” people, for the same reason you can’t become a world-class figure skater or PGA champion golfer if you don’t take up the sport until after the age of 20. Too much time has passed and you’ve already pissed away too many valuable years of development.
Childhood for kids with SAD is not an unrelenting hell — but it can come pretty darn close.
As a socially anxious kid, we aren’t understood by our parents, siblings, extended family, teachers or other children. Some will be sympathetic, some will be cruel, most will be indifferent, but unless we’re lucky enough to find a friend or two we’ll spend an extraordinary amount of time in isolation, feeling like an outcast. Fortunately I did make a few friends during my elementary school years, and it was not as lonely or traumatic as it might have been as a result. But as I aged, my small social network gradually melted away, until I had no one left to talk to. From then on, days at school were days spent alone, my head buried in a book whenever I had any free time. Decades later it still makes me shudder to think about it.
Exposure therapy works for social phobia, but the results are unpredictable and inconsistent.
We all know how this one works, right? Repeatedly expose yourself to the situations that terrify you, pushing yourself a bit further beyond your supposed limits each time, until the day when your phobia magically disappears. For the social anxiety sufferer, however, progress is never this linear or long-lasting. Over time, with exposure, we can learn to become more comfortable in some social situations. Maybe we’ll overcome our fear of asking for help in a store, or be able to actively participate in casual conversations with a co-worker, taxi driver or person standing in line behind us at the store. But only on some days. On other days we’ll remain as silent and uncomfortable as ever, praying for the encounter to be over soon so we can leave. And there will undoubtedly be some circumstances where our awkwardness is unassailable, where we’ll remain unable to manage the anxiety symptoms that leave us panicking and speechless. Over the years I’ve gotten much better in a variety of social settings. But authority figures continue to intimidate me. And if someone hadn’t invented the Internet, I would have never met my wife and would have stayed alone and single for the rest of my life. That’s like 99% guaranteed, I can assure you. As social phobia sufferers, there are always going to be things we simply can’t do, and no amount of exposure is going to change that.
For people with SAD, others who want to help will reassure us that our fears are groundless and that others aren’t judging us or talking about us behind our backs. For us, they’re either naïve or lying.
When people act “weird,” “strange,” awkward or painfully self-conscious, others will notice and not all will respond with kindness and understanding. True, most people aren’t paying close enough attention to care one way of the other. But there are others who will take great pleasure in putting us down when they see we’re vulnerable. Sometimes they’ll mock us to our faces but usually they’ll do it behind our backs, like the cowards they are. Doing so makes them feel better, smarter, superior. Because they’re not a sad, pathetic loser like I am. Now these people may be seriously lacking in character. Or maturity, or class, or humility. But whatever the excuse they do exist, and in more abundance than any of us would like to believe. When I went off to university, I spent my freshmen year living in a dorm with very thin walls, and on several occasions I overheard my floor mates ridiculing and laughing at me. Because I was so soft, spineless and timid, a real weakling. That was the first time I’d ever been exposed to that sort of thing, and it left scars that were slow to heal. The problem is that for people with social anxiety, we already believe some version of those judgments at a subconscious level. They may in fact be the heartless ravings of jerks who deserve to be ignored. But from our perspective, they seem like confirmation of our essential worthlessness.
Social anxiety cannot be cured.
People with social anxiety can learn to cope with it. Create smart life strategies to lessen its impact. Get some help that will allow us to gain greater perspective. Push ourselves hard and surprise ourselves by rising higher than we ever thought possible. I’ve done all of those things myself and am pleased with how far I’ve progressed. But we can’t get rid of it. Our brains and bodies are wired for anxiety. Our memories and experiences have conditioned us to respond to the world in a defensive manner. To some degree we’ll always be on our heels, struggling to adjust or fit in. Thousands of social anxiety disorder sufferers have ended up on disability, which proves this is a serious mental health problem with significant and pervasive real-world consequences. It is important to emphasize that most of what the socially anxious put ourselves through is not based on conscious thought but ingrained reflex. We aren’t aware at the time why we’re feeling so uncomfortable and inadequate. It’s only later, when we have the time to reflect, that the depth and nature of our self-esteem issues become apparent. Consciously we can reject the absurd self-judgments and the mean-spirited reactions of others, but the insecurities are deeply rooted and resistant to persuasion. We’re survivors, and we can take some pride in the fact it hasn’t beaten us down or prevented us from achieving. I’ve overcome a lot to get to where I am. But the self-doubt and the assumptions of inferiority are always there, inextricably woven into the fabric of our beings. Thankfully they don’t define us, but they are always lurking in the background looking for the opportunity to sabotage us. And that sucks, big time.
Me and My Shadow
My description of social anxiety disorder is based only on my own observations and experiences and may not apply to all who suffer from this condition. If you’re socially phobic but don’t recognize yourself in my description that’s OK. No two people are ever completely alike. Your reality is every bit as valid as mine and I would never try to argue any differently. Now do you see what just happened there? I began that paragraph with the assumption that other social phobia sufferers reading this article would disagree with my take on it, and maybe get mad at me for getting it wrong. So I was pre-emptively apologizing based on a fear that others might reject me if I didn’t. That kind of defensiveness is par for the course with social anxiety disorder. It’s exhausting and if I had a choice I’d want no part of it. But it is my shadow. All I can do is be aware of it and do the best I can not to let it determine my moods, attitudes or life choices. The good news is that while social anxiety is restrictive, it doesn’t have to be a prison. I’m still around and still fighting the good fight, even accomplishing a few things here or there, and so are millions of others who’ve walked in my shoes. I may not be talking to them or know exactly where they are, but just knowing they’re out there is enough to bring hope and comfort. By Nathan Falde