Social anxiety is an issue that effects so many people, and it is something that may disguise itself as shyness or the opposite – loudness, or can even be hidden by alcoholism etc. In my case, I experience social anxiety as soon as I plan to go out with friends or in a group. It feels like something is sitting on my chest, its that feeling that you experience when you are dreading something. But I can’t figure out why I feel that way. These are my friends – I should be excited and happy to go and see them and have a good time, and I am on some level. But I still feel that way, every time.
My social anxiety comes from the fact that I compare myself to everyone. That person is funnier than me, that person is prettier than me, taller than me, has skinnier legs than me etc etc. I used to spend my night out unable to concentrate on what anyone was saying, unable to involve myself in conversation because I was so preoccupied with what other people were doing, saying and what they looked like.
My therapist advised me to record when I compared myself to people. So in a diary I wrote down when I did that, what time of the day and what the circumstances were. And what I discovered was that I was comparing myself to the best of in people. Someone making a joke once I’d immediately think to myself that they were so much funnier than me and I’d beat myself up for not thinking of a joke to tell. Someone wearing gorgeous makeup I’d say they are so pretty, I’ll never be able to be pretty like them. I was taking people at their best moments and comparing myself to them and beating myself up thinking I’d never be good enough. How could anyone stand to be around me? I’m boring, plain and stupid.
My high expectations for myself were taking a toll. I developed an eating disorder to try to live up to the expectations from myself that I needed to be skinny to be liked. I often either drank too much to mask the fear that my personality wasn’t good enough to be liked or refused to go out. I spent hours trying on clothes and makeup trying to find something that wouldn’t make me look ‘fat’ or that wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. I became withdrawn and started to avoid going out with friends. I felt like everyone in the room was judging my every move.
If anyone of you has ever experienced anxiety you will probably know how it feels to have a panic attack. The feeling that you might die because your nail varnish chipped and it won’t look perfect for your night out. You might die because somebody didn’t laugh at your joke or because they made a joke about you. I began to experience panic over small things like this and ruined every night for myself by imagining that the world was ending because of something stupidly minuscule.
The good news is, I have began to take back control of this anxiety. And it’s true what people say – you need to stop caring. Obviously if it was that easy everyone would do that. You need to practice not caring. I started by drawing my attention to other things in the room – the colour of the walls, the shape of the table, how many chairs were there in the room. Stepping outside of myself like that is called mindfulness. Its taking the thoughts about you and your worries to the back of your mind while you concentrate on trivial objects and it’s when you start to do this that you start to breathe normally again.
I then began to catch myself comparing myself. I would literally say to myself “I am having a thought that this person is better than me.” I’d acknowledge that thought, think about it and debunk it by looking at every third person, comparing myself to them too and seeing that actually I’m average and just like everyone else. Nobody is looking at you and you are normal.
I can not say I am totally cured of my social anxiety. And I know I only had a degree of it in the first place. But these tactics helped me. I learned these from my therapist in the Wexford Mental Health Centre in Summerhill over several months. It took time and effort to help myself but I will say this YOU are important. You do NOT have to go out if you don’t feel like it and you are the average of the people you hang out with. So if you are feeling totally uncomfortable with large groups, maybe take a break from that and say “my feelings matter”. You are not unusual if you experience these things. You just need to start listening to yourself.