I’ve always been what people would call ‘socially awkward’. I have a nervous laugh that comes out in most social situations and I sometimes shake and stutter when I’m talking to people I don’t know very well. Of course it’s perfectly normal to experience these symptoms sometimes in social situations, but I had an intense fear that people were judging me all the time. I feared that they would laugh at me, ridicule me or talk about me behind my back.
This fear of social situations is known as social anxiety disorder (Or SAD). It’s when you experience intense anxiety in social aspects of life.
My SAD affected me massively as I was growing up. People told me I was too self-conscious, too shy, weird. I had a few close friends but I always had the fear that they would discover the ‘real me’ and then judge me. In larger social settings like parties I stuck to one person or else went ‘missing’ where I would go off on my own to get relief from the socializing.
To my friends I would have seemed mostly normal because I adopted a mask of confidence but on the inside I was freaking out. The fear of being discovered as a fraud was intense.
In later years I grew to be incredibly afraid of rejection so I would cut ties with people close to me, keep my distance and be hard to reach. Easier to let yourself go than to be let go by someone else right?
I went to therapy, where I shook as I revealed my fears. I was told that it sounded like SAD and that I could learn to live with it. Over the next few years I worked on myself.. trying to break down the walls I had built up around myself to let people in.
The strange thing was I found it easy to make friends- it was keeping them that was more difficult. So I started to open up to people. In a way this blog allowed me to do that too. You can see how I began to tackle my fears in this personal post Minding your mental health on a night out
I developed an eating disorder as a way of controlling my anxiety because a huge part of my social anxiety was that I was afraid people wouldn’t accept me if I wasn’t thin.
I started to deal with my anxiety by keeping a journal, opening up to close friends and family and by writing a blog. I also went to CBT and worked on changing my thought patterns from negative self-image to positive.
Fast forward to last year. I moved to a new city and began to work in new schools as a substitute teacher. I was at my most anxious whenever I went into a new school, meeting new people and trying to impress everyone I met. I felt my mask slipping, until I couldn’t take it anymore and fell into old patterns of self hatred, punishing myself for not being stronger and more confident.
But I realised something.
Despite my fears that my friends didn’t like me, they were all there for me. My foundation was secure. I was going to be OK.
I went back to therapy and worked through my anxiety and depression. I practiced self-care and started to say positive affirmations. I recorded my thoughts in my journal and I challenged them.
Now I would say my social anxiety is at its lowest in years. It’s not completely gone as I still have moments of intense anxiety when I have to enter social situations such as going to the gym, going to work and meeting parents of children I teach. But I’ve realised that it’s also completely natural to feel anxious sometimes.
If you think you might have social anxiety disorder I suggest you reach out to a therapist, a friend or family member or an online resource. Social Anxiety Ireland have excellent resources that help you get in contact with CBT that might help you.