Overcoming (social) Anxiety (August 10, 2017)
I’ve always had this slight discomfort with interacting with people. To anyone who knows me, you probably think that’s a lie. Here’s the thing- where I am today has taken years and years of practice. Don’t get me wrong… I love people a ton and I really enjoy being around them. I love asking questions, I love seeing who people actually are, I love tearing down the facade people put up, and I love prodding people out of their comfort zone, all mostly because that’s what it took to get me to overcome social anxiety.
Ever since I was young, I was completely different than others. I was a strange child, loved my short shorts (still do) and would wear them as many days as possible before my mom made me change (still happens). But I really didn’t click with anyone. Interacting with others was really overwhelming, I didn’t know how to strike up conversations, and even as a kid I thought other kids knew I was peculiar. Luckily I figured out some sense of humor and not taking myself too seriously by the time I got to fifth grade. Unfortunately, my only friend, who I had just made in fourth grade, moved away half way through the year and middle school was just around the corner. I was at a loss, didn’t play sports, couldn’t catch or throw and my hand eye coordination hadn’t developed (still hasn’t). This disconnection from most of the other kids that played sports really took a toll on my already fragile, underdeveloped sociality, and insecurity and anxiety seemed to set in rather quickly.
It continued into high school a bit but I hid behind my smile. This seemed to work out with the lunch ladies and I learned to woo my teachers into liking me. (I still claim to this day that my smile got me through high school, does that sound conceited? I’m sure, but it was a coping mechanism and I’m not apologizing). But I still had trouble feeling comfortable around people. I learned to ignore this and kind of blew past any sense of listening to my heart. If anyone knows me they know I am pretty big on connecting with your heart and having a relationship with yourself, something I’ll discuss more later. So I was people-pleasing. I did whatever I could to make people happy; that was my role- if you weren’t happy neither was I. My happiness and outlook on life depended on the well-being of others. Now, while that may not sound completely horrible, I will tell you I was living in complete torment. Being alone felt terrifying. My thoughts would run rampant, wondering why people wouldn’t hang out with me, and if they did, why would they? The insecurity, the people pleasing, and the constant overthinking ruined me. I would be able to muster up enough courage to be with a group of people for a couple of hours but then would crash somewhere towards the end to go be by myself because I was trying to read everyone’s minds, body language, tone etc. I couldn’t process it all in the moment and collected my observations for further review.
The point is I had learned to perform for certain reactions. I had learned that if I acted a certain way people would like me and also feel happy. I got the reactions I wanted. It was kind of like control or manipulation of sorts. The whole thought process of unravelling what I was actually doing to others and to myself has taken years to pull apart. Again, just for review, I was people-pleasing, performing, overthinking, and overall just insecure.
This equation led me to anxiety.
I wasn’t aware that it was leading to this outcome but this is where I ended up.
I’m gonna tell you another quick story.
I moved to Colorado once. I thought I was meant to be there… maybe I still am. At some point in my life I’ll go back. It was one of the riskiest decisions I had ever made. It was a fun year! I broke my ankle trying to do a backflip off of a wall, ended up wearing a boot and crutches for about three months, moved back home for two of them, my body got addicted to pain killers (luckily my dad threw them away), I did other drugs that year, went on vacation, then another vacation, a friend attempted suicide… I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I was kind of alone and didn’t know how to talk about what was going on inside of me with my friends because I still had this performance thing going on. My smile was still convincing enough that no one ever thought anything was wrong. I had convinced myself that nothing was wrong. It was that “ignorance is bliss” kind of thing.
I was so wrong.
When I finally made it back to Colorado after being home to care for my friend, something was different. My heart would beat too fast, my mind would fog up a lot, and I couldn’t think straight. On top of that I had nightmares. Now I’ve had nightmares before but there was something about these nightmares that marred my soul. I would wake myself up screaming, my bed soaked in sweat, and my lungs burning from hyperventilating in the middle of the night after watching one of my family members die… really gruesome stuff. The dreams felt like premonitions, which in turn evolved into this eminent fear. This fear sat on me for a week and I knew something was coming. Fortunately, it wasn’t the deaths of my family. It was anxiety. The screaming and sweating and hyperventilating translated into my days, with the addition of crying. Full on anxiety attacks were part of my life and I didn’t know how to stop the thought process. I didn’t know how to stop freaking out. I didn’t know how to stop the crying. I didn’t know how to stop the irrationality of it all. It was so frustrating and I couldn’t talk about it. Not because I didn’t want to… I literally didn’t know how. It felt like the most stupid thing in the world because the nightmares went away but the anxiety had a strong grip on my neck. I hated it. I hated not being able understand it and then attack it.
Here is where we get back to listening to your heart.
Long story short it lasted for about another year and a half. It dissipated but the real success came when I had a breakdown in the beginning of a church service one day. All these people were praying around me and it just seemed to get worse. One of the pastors (thanks Ben, if you’re reading this) pulled me out into this cafe and told me to tell him everything. In that moment I spilled anything and everything that I could. Still sobbing, Ben told me to look at him and said (in his Australian accent), “Andrew, your heart is screaming for attention.” To this day I’m still learning about this sentence. It wasn’t that my heart wanted narcissistic attention, it wanted love and I was the gate keeper not letting any in. Didn’t think I deserved it, so I created a belief system that allowed me to survive without it. I don’t believe in survival though; that’s a sad lifestyle. I believe in thriving. Maybe that’s contradictory to your belief system; I’m O.K. with that. Let’s talk about it.
All these years of performance and people-pleasing had buried my heart under what everybody else needed and wanted. Whether they needed or wanted it from me wasn’t part of my thought process. I just took on the responsibility of caring for others. While aspects of this are great, I believe in giving out of this place of abundance and wholeness that you receive from interacting with love itself and letting others be responsible for themselves.
Over the past few years I have been learning to listen to what is going on inside me. It’s not necessarily easy. At one point my anxiety subsided to social anxiety. Because in the midst of all this my performance got stripped from me, or at least a part of it. Every few weeks it feels like I find out some way I was performing and it gets ripped away. As I actually talk with my heart and find out what I am feeling whether it’s crazy, sad, happy, excited, distrustful, safe, peaceful, angry, furious, hateful, jealous, loving, warm, anxious, nervous, lonely, bored, sleepy, hostile, hurt, guilty, ashamed etc. I find out that talking to my heart instead of telling it to shut up has made my life so much easier. I am much more gracious with myself, I give myself time to process, and I feel so much less torment and craziness that I cause myself. I talk to other people about what’s going on inside me, I’m vulnerable (or at least trying to be) and my people love me where I am.
One last story.
I decided I wasn’t going to let social anxiety get the best of me. I wasn’t going to let anxiety back into my life. I started working at this restaurant as a dishwasher, just to have a job and make some money. The staff saw an aspect somewhere in there that actually wanted to be with people and they asked if I wanted to become a server. I initially said “no,” but a couple of weeks went by and they kept pushing. So I said, “Eff it, I’m in.” That was the day I said “no” to letting this ruin my life. Granted, I am a terrible server. I get yelled at by the kitchen, my boss, and other servers but when I took overthinking out of it everything started flowing. I love serving. It doesn’t freak me out anymore and neither do people. I actually no longer muddle over if a person likes me or not. I don’t give time to unhealthy thought patterns, insecure thoughts, or ridiculous and unreal scenarios. Well, not as much time as I used to.
I’m not sure it will completely go away; I kind of like the challenge if it comes up. I like to tell this thing in my life that it doesn’t control me… I can beat you. I’m stronger than you. It’s different every day but I stay in communication with my heart and with others. I keep the conversation going. I have to, otherwise I miss out on all the actual good stuff going on around me. I actually get to live.
Anyway, this post is a mess, my thoughts are splattered across page, and frankly I don't necessarily care how organized it is. I hope you can follow. I hope you can hope. I hope you can listen to yourself and others.
If you’ve had anxiety or social anxiety or you are dealing with it now, let’s talk. Let’s get you connected. We’ll find the right people for you.
Are you talking with your heart?
What do you think it looks like to interact with your heart?
Are you talking with others?
Do you have a facade up?
Are you pretending?
You don’t have to anymore.
Are you medicated for it? Totally fine.
Do you think you have to be?
We really want to talk. We hope that Give Ear wouldn’t just be a place where we are learning to listen to each other but also learning to listen to what is going on inside of us.
If we understand what is going inside of us, maybe what’s going on around us might not be so daunting.