I talked to strangers everyday for a week, and this is what I learned about my social anxiety.
As I’ve discussed before, I have all kinds of anxiety — but one type of anxiety that visibly affects me is of the social variety. I’m an introvert with extreme antisocial tendencies, and when I do make an effort, it usually comes across as super awkward. I want to be invited to events, and I want to be included in all the things — but once it’s time to actually go, I’ll either attend and hide, go for only a brief amount of time before leaving, or I’ll cancel altogether.
I don’t know why I’m this way, exactly — I didn’t used to be. There are many overlapping issues from my past that I’ve come to terms with, but it’s hard to pinpoint.
Here’s what I learned about my social anxiety:
During my weekly run, I passed an older gentleman on a walk. It was one of the more humid days in recent weeks, which made the weather unbearable. I’d typically huff and puff to myself because IT’S TOO HOT TO TALK! However, with this experiment in mind, I took the first step out of my usual comfort zone. As I approached the man, I slowed my pace.
We live in a very small town where most everyone is friendly, so I didn’t hesitate in talking to this stranger. I said hello and made a joke about the heat, fully expecting him to nod, smile, and turn away. I was wrong! The closer I got, the more he wanted converse — in-depth — about the heat, how it’s too hot for a walk or run, something about water, and have a nice day. Surprisingly, the little chat didn’t kill me and my pace didn’t even suffer that much. But I was still skeptical that this experiment could pull me too far from my safe little box of keeping to myself.
Do you ever have days where you don’t want to talk, not even for a little? That is me on the daily. I work behind a computer, at home, so I get used to not talking to people. This only contributes to my social anxiety, because by the time I have a conversation, I forget how to speak aloud! I had to go to the local store, and there’s a greeter I regularly see but have never spoken to. As the woman did her usual welcome speech, I stopped to look her in the eye (which may have been even more awkward, but whatever). I smiled. I asked how she was doing and — get this — when she answered, I listened! This might be easy stuff for a lot of people, but not for me. I was screaming inside the whole time, but I could tell that she appreciated the brief interaction — which, in turn, made me feel alright. I still wasn’t sure about this whole thing, but I decided I’d prevail.
There are a couple new employees at the coffee shop I frequent. And if you have anxiety or OCD-related issues, then you might understand the pain of having to request my order using words, as opposed to a simpler “double today.” I’ve gotten so used to (read: lucky) assuming my beloved baristas know how I like my latte, that I’ve forgotten what to do when someone new asks what I’ll be drinking. That day, I recited my order, asked the new barista where she was from (a nearby town), and introduced myself as someone who will be in the cafe every day. This seemed to put her at ease, but as she made my drink, I felt all these knots in my stomach bunch up — almost as if I’d said something wrong (side note: this is what social anxiety does).
Once she handed me my drink, I couldn’t wait to catch my breath in the car. I recalled every word I’d said to the barista, hoping I didn’t come across as rude or make her uncomfortable. However, when I returned to the cafe on a different day, she not only remembered my order — but asked about my kids (who I must’ve mentioned). Maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I felt? This proved to me that feeling uncomfortable was the only way through this experiment.
My 9-year-old is a cheerleader in school this year, so naturally, I’m required to attend her games. At her very first game of the season, my son and I sat as far away from other people as possible while still holding a clear view of the action. I hoped not to be spoken to or about by anybody else on the bleachers, but then I remembered — I’m supposed to fight this urge and put myself “out there.” So, when a woman holding an umbrella in the hot, hot sun commented that she envied my son’s candy from the concession stand, I jokingly referenced her umbrella. I told her she was the lucky one, escaping the sun.
She didn’t laugh. I sat down, and I hoped to avoid any other situations with anyone else.
My baby began his second year of pre-K on this day, and that meant I’d be doing a lot more talking than I’m used to — particularly to parents of kids that weren’t in his pre-K class last year. Having been in that position once before, I was able to sense another woman’s nerves as she picked her daughter up from school. I asked the mother how her day went, and — to my embarrassment — she either didn’t hear, or she chose to ignore me (which, ironically, is what I might do in this situation!). My attempt was a huge fail, BUT I tried.
I needed something from the pet store and I reluctantly went shopping. I tend to avoid leaving my house at all costs, and the habit seems to worsen with age. But we needed cat food, and my cats require the special high-priced stuff so a trip was necessary. This is the same place where I adopted my rescue cat, Feathers, so I hoped to avoid seeing anyone who’d want to chat about her. I’d been feeling closed off after lack of sleep and no coffee, so interaction sounded awful. As I walked into the store, I accidentally bumped into an elderly lady and her cart. She looked as if she needed something from the top shelf, but couldn’t reach. I didn’t want to offend, but I offered my help, and she was so grateful.
I handed her what she needed, then she asked about my cat food and how many cats I had. I returned the interview questions. Five minutes passed, and I realized I was doing it — I was having an actual conversation with a stranger over CATS! It was the best. We said goodbye, I paid for my cat food without seeing anyone related to my previous cat adoption, and I high-fived myself in the car. Yes, I really did this, and no, I’m not sorry.
I made a much-needed hair appointment during a busy part of the day to fix my grayish roots. The week had already been quite stressful, and now I couldn’t find a place to park after battling a ton of traffic — so my anxiety was already through the roof. Once inside, a lady struck up a conversation about my t-shirt. “I did that race,” she said. I scanned myself to remember what I was wearing, and though I was reluctant to continue the conversation at first, I let it happen. She informed me that she was running her first half marathon and she was so excited. As my stylist called me over, I wished her luck. Surprisingly, I felt a little more open after that. Our interaction really wasn’t as bad as I was building it up to be — which I found to be the case through most of this week.
It’s not easy to connect — but if you have anxiety and avoid public spaces and people like I usually do, give this a try. You might be surprised by how easy it is, and how much it helps you.