How giving compliments helped me learn to manage my social anxiety
Let’s talk about social anxiety for a second, because a lot of people suffer from it and those who don’t, don’t really seem to understand it. When you try to explain to someone that you suffer from social anxiety or are just shy, they often say well-meaning, but ultimately-unhelpful things like, “stop caring what other people think,” “just put yourself out there,” or, maybe worst of all, “why can’t you just make friends?”
Even worse, when you try to explain that these things are just not possible at this current moment in your life, you get hit with things like, “you’re just making up excuses,” or even worse, “if you didn’t want my help, why are you complaining to me?” And if the person you’re talking to is particularly irritated, they might say the worst thing of all: “I’m sick of you whining about this.” The best thing to do when someone with social anxiety (or just plain shyness) confides in you is to validate their emotions and help them to discover their own solutions — if that’s what they’re looking for.
As a child, I was the bookish type. I was often compared to characters like Rory Gilmore or Matilda. This was never a problem for me — I thought life was beautiful observing from the shadows — until I found myself attending university. Recruiters came to my high school and once they saw my grades, they accepted me that day. I received my official acceptance letter a week later, and the following September I found myself eager for knowledge in the front seat of the class.
I have always loved school and learning. My friends even called me “Hermione Granger” when we were growing up. The first day of classes went amazingly; the teachers talked and we listened. We scribbled notes as fast as we could as many of our teachers began lecturing on day one. I was ecstatic, but that joy quickly faded I realized that the tiny size of my school meant teachers would recognize my face.
I work best independently and in silence. I do not get my jollies from presenting or speaking out in class. So, imagine my horror when I discovered that many of my classes had a participation quota, which meant I needed to stand up and speak my opinion in front of hundreds of my peers, or my grade would be docked. Some teachers encouraged debate but did not monitor our discussions, some students would straight up tell others that their points were ridiculous and unfounded (which is university talk for “you’re stupid, shut up”).
I didn’t take these harsh debates personally, but I was frustrated and disappointed. My entire childhood, I fantasized about university, I was always told it was this fantastic place where the shy and studious were finally accepted and free. I was told that once you graduate high school, you never see the jerks that filled those badly-painted halls again, so imagine my annoyance when I heard a strange sound in my English 100 lecture hall and turned to see it was my old bullies “mooing” at me. Some girls gave me dirty looks in the bathroom and one girl walked past me on a cold Monday morning and said something pointedly to her friend about how she would never be caught dead in sweatpants at school. I didn’t think I was better or worse than her for wearing sweatpants; I was just there to learn and didn’t understand why she cared what I looked like since she would probably never see me again.
All of this got me thinking: Why would someone who doesn’t even know who I am as a person or who has never even interacted with me say something so mean? Is it because she’s insecure? But she was beautiful — how could she be self-conscious when she looks like that? I would love to look like that.
Then, one day, something happened that changed my perspective. While I was waiting to start my shift, an elderly woman came over to me and told me that I was beautiful and I couldn’t stop smiling all day. I was so warmed by the thought that a complete stranger took time out of her own life to come over to me and to tell me something that was truly kind, something that could have been ignored so easily. As I was recovering from a long term eating disorder, I remembered this kind old lady and decided that instead of comparing myself negatively to the beautiful strangers that pass me on the street, I would think of one thing about them that was just gorgeous and one thing about myself that was gorgeous, too.
One day while I was talking to one of my childhood friends, I became entranced by her beauty. I was just blown away by the curve of her smile, her mint green eyes and how they flashed with animated excitement as she talked, and how her freckles were like stars hand painted by the gods over her ivory cheeks. I probably looked insane and I did not hear a single word she was saying because all I could think was, “wow, you are so insanely beautiful” — and without thinking about it, that’s exactly what I said.
She was stunned for a moment and then she blushed and her entire face lit up. I could tell that even though she was playing it off like it was no big deal, I had made her day. I suddenly couldn’t stop talking about how amazing she was inside and out. I had become a never-ending waterfall of praise and she was embarrassed, but happy. And her joy made me feel so secure and powerful.
Oftentimes, my shyness prevents me from saying the things I want to say because the anxious center of my brain plays out every possible disaster that could come of my words and that fear usually renders me mute, but her acceptance and love for my words made me feel so safe in that moment being vocal and vulnerable. The immense power that our words have over others’ moods finally hit me and I realized that if some strangers decided that it was okay to randomly insult me and ruin my day that I could randomly compliment people and make their day.
I am very shy, so approaching people to tell them how gorgeous their hair, or eyes, or outfit, or everything is is quite terrifying for me, but I believe that if I want the world to be a good place, that I should help make it that way. Their reactions are my favorite part about it. Sometimes they blush and laugh, sometimes they hug me. I’ve had a few people cry, and most of the time, if they are with their partners, their partner smiles with pride and holds them closer. I can tell that, with a few seconds that I could have remained silent, I changed their day.
(Image via Shutterstock.)