Inside the mind of someone struggling with social anxiety

I’ve always admired people who are able to laugh at themselves. The people who do something awkward or stupid, put their foot in their mouth, make a (temporary) ass of themselves—then laugh, turn it into a funny story, and carry on. Maybe they accidentally offend someone, or they call their new boss by the wrong name, or they choke during a public speaking event.

It sucks in the moment, but it’s just a day in the life for them. They may feel a twinge of embarrassment, sure—their face may flush, and they might feel like an idiot, but then they throw their head back and laugh, and the just like that, the moment is in the past. It rolls right off their skin like a drop of water—insignificant, just a blip in their radar.

OK, so maybe I don’t just admire these people. I envy them so much that it physically pains me. Because when I embarrass myself, I don’t let it roll off me.

I drown in it.

Oh my god. I just offended her.

That one drop of water turns into thousands of drops before my very eyes.

I can’t believe I said that. Why would I say that? I apologized, but she still probably hates me. Maybe I’ll apologize again. Oh my god, I think I’ve annoyed her now.

They split off, multiply, swallowing me whole.

She thinks I’m an awful, stupid person. She probably will tell everybody about it.

And suddenly, what was once a drop of water becomes a dark, murky ocean. And I try so hard to swim to safety, escape to land, but I can’t remember how I got here, and I don’t know which direction to go.

Everybody probably hates me. Everybody DOES hate me.

I frantically paddle, trying to keep my head above the black water. But the waves get bigger, more ferocious, and no matter how frantically I swim, I’m sinking.

Everybody has always hated me, and they’ve just been pretending like they don’t, because they’re nice people. But they know I’m not one of them.

I try to keep my head above the waves, but it’s like the harder I try, the heavier I become. My lungs are collapsing. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be out of the water. All I can do is keep on paddling until the water dries up on its own. And all the while, I’m terrified that it won’t dry up this time. That I’ll be stuck here, paddling in vain, gasping for air…forever.

But it does dry up. It always does. And then, finally able to breathe again, I try to figure out what happened. I make charts, lists, blindly trying to figure out what triggered my social anxiety this time, and how I can live life like a normal person without drowning again.

Because that’s what social anxiety is for me. It’s walking out into the world knowing that at any second, I may suddenly be submerged in an ocean of my own thoughts, gasping for air, waiting desperately until I reach solid ground, all while wondering if I will at all. The fear of offending someone or embarrassing myself is crippling. The trigger could be something major, like a networking event or a serious one-on-one meeting with my boss. But a tweet without the right punctuation might set me off, or perhaps a text I’ve sent that didn’t receive an answer within an hour.

Every single interaction is terrifying because I never know if it will be the one to make me drown all over again. And I start shaking, apologizing to the person I probably didn’t offend, but the apologies make me more nervous, and suddenly I can’t breathe. I’m submerged in the black water, and all I can do is wait.

It’s enough to make me avoid social contact completely. And some days, I do. Some days, I just want to lay in my bed without talking to anyone at all, because I just need 24 hours where I am certain, absolutely and unequivocally, that I will stay dry.

But after a while, I remember that the only thing worse than drowning is loneliness. I have to face it. I know I have to. After a while, I learn that I will drown again—but that it’s better to face that possibility than it is to stay on my own little private island forever.

I pull myself together and hope desperately that the tides will stay at bay. I hold my head high, swallowing back my fear, trying to hide the fact that my hands are shaking. I open the door and walk out into the light. 

And the knowledge that I’m strong enough to do this, despite it all, makes that giant, murky ocean seem just a little bit smaller.

(Photo via IMDb)

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