This story does not end with me conquering my anxiety, nor will it be full of tips or anecdotes on how to cope in social situations, because no matter how much I have studied it I have not mastered any of them. In fact, I just spent a full 20 minutes ugly crying having yet again farewelled my family off to another social event that in my heart of hearts I want to go to, but yet again I can’t make it out of the door. This is an everyday situation that I suspect many of you will recognise and the rest will hopefully understand.
The first shockwave came when my better half told me it was a friend’s 50th and we had been invited to a casual afternoon bbq in celebration. I say shockwave not to be dramatic, but to illustrate the physical feeling that literally travelled through my body, like a surge running through my nerves spreading from my chest outwards. My first thought was; ‘nope, not me, I can’t, YOU can go you socially adept guy you, but I will not be joining you’. This is my instinctive response to ANY invitation that comes my way, sometimes even if it’s just for coffee. It’s a familiar opening to the tune that will run on repeat in my head for the coming week, full of catchy lines like; you’ll not have anything to say, you’re so boring, anything you do say will sound stupid or clumsy, and a rousing chorus of; you’re not smart enough, fun enough, thin enough, before ending with the classic; why are you making this about you, you’re SO self absorbed!
That was a week ago.
I put it out of my mind for a few days – I managed to find the mute button, others may call this denial. I knew I would have a battle on my hands, but it’s a friend and I wanted to make the effort…even if it felt like it would be easier to make sense of the American government system for me at that moment…seriously, no matter how hard I try #confused.
Over the holidays I had treated myself to a dress…well it’s a bit like a badly folded tent, but in it I feel comfortable, relaxed and like myself. It’s nothing fancy, a bit Scandi, but when I wear it I feel like it reflects the real me (I’m sorry, I just read that too, but I work in fashion, we are conditioned to think this way!) the approachable, friendly me, a little quirky, unfussy, down-to-earth, enjoys nature (this point is especially reinforced on the days when teamed with my black Birkenstocks and straw basket). So, my first step was to make sure said tent/dress was clean for the day of the bbq.
A couple of days out and the usual pattern starts to emerge; how can I get out of it? I really want to go, and I am very fond of the friend and his family, but I just can’t get past the shroud of discomfort and panic that descends when I envisage a room full of strangers. Aside from any shyness I may feel, I also find large groups and noise overwhelming and disorienting.
The afternoon before and I’m trying to work out the right gift and what we should take along as an offering, as an expert at avoiding social events I am in return a novice in social etiquette and yet a stickler for wanting to get it ‘right’. Is it good to take food when you know they will have over catered? Is it weird to take alcohol when you don’t drink? Are flowers a good idea although you know your host’s girlfriend was looking at flowers for the occasion, so probably has more than enough and they’d be wasted? Does any of the above matter or should you just rock up with some sausages, a six pack and some sort of floral arrangement? But does that seem thoughtless given prior knowledge of the above? See, round and round and round!
I try to coach myself, I hear the song and I try to counteract it with a mash up adding in; When I’m comfortable I’m apparently not terrible company, I am open and warm, I’m curious and a great listener, all good characteristics for social interactions. I am not stupid, I MAY not always get my point across about the current social climate in ten perfectly chosen words or less, but I’m well-read, if all else fails just ask lots of questions, I work in media for God’s sake, all we do is communicate with people we barely know as if they were our best friends! It’s not exactly Beyonce, but these reminders lift me a little and I manage to convince myself that I can go, it will be fine. Turns out there are a couple of people going that I know and would really like to catch up with too, I shouldn’t focus on the inevitable crowd, and I’ll be with my family, what’s the big deal? Right?
So this morning comes and after a very broken night’s sleep, thanks to late night copy editing and an unhealthy discovery of Netflix’s bastardized version of Dynasty, followed by a restless small human who insisted I join her in bed, I don’t wake up feeling 100% to begin with. Then I remember we have the bbq. But it’s ok, I’ve got my tent/dress, I’ve resigned myself to a little discomfort and awkwardness and the overstimulated exhaustion, it’s my friend’s birthday, I want to make an appearance at least. But as the morning rolls on, that familiar knot in my stomach starts to get bigger, nausea begins to build and a cloud of fogginess descends over my brain. To any of you extroverted peeps, or just those comfortable in social situations, this will sound ridiculous. How can I be having a full on physical response to hanging out with some delightful people, eating delicious food and celebrating someone we all love? I know, it kills me! Many people have written about introversion/extroversion, I’m not going to go into it all this time, but it’s real people, and sometimes it really bloody sucks…unless you’re an ambivert – those guys have got it sorted!
As we move through the day I can’t eat, which is especially bad because I know I won’t eat at the bbq thanks to a nervous stomach. This also means I have zero energy of course and I can’t focus or muster any enthusiasm for anything beyond a cup of tea. We are going away for the night the next morning and as we talk about what to take, I find I can’t get a straight handle on what we might need, let alone try and make any kind of decision. I’m uneasy, my partner is familiar with the routine, he is reassuring, low key, says all the right things, but sadly as is always the way, nothing anyone else says can cut through the fog, in fact, though they are absolutely right and mean well, somehow it’s like they whip it up even more and the clouds get thicker and I just want to hide deeper within them.
I decide to meditate, 20 minutes of the ‘anxiety’ meditation on the Headspace app will get me to a good place, surely. But as hard as I try, I am flooded with thoughts and no amount of ‘gently brushing them away with a feather’, deep breathing or ‘body scanning’ will relieve me. The body scan went like this…Head: Hmmm foggy. Throat: Tight, Shoulders: Tense, Chest: Palpitating, Stomach: Knotted tighter than Kim Kardashian’s bandage dress, Arms; A little tense, Hands; Experiencing surges of what can only be described as an electrical current running through to my fingertips, like my nerves are on fire; Am I actually having a heart attack? So, you get the picture.
My 20 minutes are up and it’s time to wrap the gift and go.
While crammed into our tiny bathroom for final preparations, I remind the small human she needs to clean her teeth. While I’m standing at the mirror applying mascara in the hope it looks like I at least made a little effort, without compromising on the undone, minimalist, Scandi vibe, I feel something brush against my arse. I half jokingly say to the small one, “Please tell me you didn’t just get toothpaste on the back of my dress?” and turn to see her face and realise that is EXACTLY what she has done. Fark, seriously? I twist the dress around to be greeted by a pea sized splodge of Macleans. I take a tissue and proceed to dab at it, and that’s when a giant blue streak emerges. Why? Why do they have to put that crap in there? Nothing in nature, at $3 a tube, is THAT shade of blue! That’s it, we’re going organic on the toothpaste! Frantically I get a damp cloth and start trying to get it out but no, it’s going nowhere and in that moment I realise that now, no longer am I. It’s like the weight of a thousand toothpaste tubes hits me and that whisper-thin shred of ‘I can do this’ is obliterated in an instant.
I close the door and sit on the toilet lid and try to talk myself down. It’s ok, you have time to change, just get changed. You need to do this. You want to go. Ok, you don’t want to go, but you want to want to go. What are the bloody chances? My one outfit, my invisibility cloak, now with a blue stripe on my arse? There is no way of concealing it and with that my socialising super powers fail. I run through outfit options in my head but I know I’m just going through the motions, it’s over, my resolve is shot, and a wave of anxiety smashes through me like a tsunami, I want to be sick.
My other half pops his head in and I can feel his disappointment. He knows not to push, he tries gently to say it’s fine, that no one will notice, but I’m already too far back in the fog. I’m on the verge of tears and the small human knows it started with the toothpaste. I don’t want her to feel guilty for what is entirely my own problem, so I brush her hair and tell her mummy isn’t coming because she feels sick in the tummy – not actually a lie – that the toothpaste isn’t the problem – also very true, though why for the love of all things did it have to happen just at the moment we were about to walk out of the door? I was SO close!
I force a smile, my other half gathers up the gift and the child and ushers her out the door, turning back to flash a final, imploring look of ‘Really? You can’t come?’ He knows the answer, so off they go. As the door closes the clouds break and tears start falling. All the frustration, the guilt, the disappointment, the stress, comes flooding out. I’m not a crier in general, I wish I was, I think it’s cathartic, as well as having many physical benefits when a hormonal release is required. I cry at weird times, in meetings with my boss, always when I tell myself NOT to cry in a situation, at sunset? But otherwise I’m a bit like Cameron Diaz’s character in The Holiday, the tears just won’t come. But oh they came today, big fat ugly ones, accompanied by a slight wailing/coughing backing track. Because it hurts, it physically and emotionally hurts to feel trapped in your own head, to feel you have let people down, to feel like you are a bad friend, a bad partner, to miss out, to have given in and danced to the wrong tune.
There are so many resources out there for understanding social anxiety and it’s close cousin introversion. The best I have read so far is Quiet by Susan Cain. It was the first time I truly saw myself and understood the importance of learning which situations fill you up and energise you, compared to those that drain and deplete you. She also gives a great Ted Talk on the power of introverts here. I still try to push myself into the less comfortable zones, sometimes it works and others, like today, it just doesn’t. So I’m going to make a cup of tea and some avo on toast (I’m starving now, of course!) and try to go easy on myself. I’ve had pictures sent from the party and the birthday boy et al are having a wonderful time, which is all I would wish for. I’ll take him for a birthday coffee soon, somewhere quiet.
We crave connection, we are wired for it, but I try to remind myself that for some of us the circumstances have to be right, and when they are – be that an extrovert in a large group or an introvert one-on-one in a quiet corner – we will shine and want to sing from the rooftops (or alone in our bedrooms), because we are social animals deep down and really, who doesn’t want to party like it’s 1999? It’s just that some of us may prefer to dance with the lights out.
Does this sound familiar to you? Or am I just cray-cray? What are your thoughts/experiences? I’d love to hear from you either in the comments below or you can connect through our Instagram or Facebook pages.