My life with social anxiety can be summed up in one word: exhausting.
I can’t remember exactly when or how it started. All I remember is being in my early teens and rushing straight home after school ended. I rejected any offer to stay back for any aktiviti kokurikulum, and dreaded the times I was forced to.
It seemed harmless right? After all, most of us don’t stay back for ko-ko. But looking back, this was how it all started for me.
Growing up, I didn’t stay back when college classes or work ended either. It wasn’t just me being a classic introvert, it was the fear of saying something wrong, worrying about others’ disapproval, and avoiding any form of socialising.
If you think you’re alone in this, think again. Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) is the third largest psychological problem in the United States today. In Malaysia, two out of five teenagers suffer from social anxiety.
For me, the hardest part of social anxiety was hiding it from others. I was afraid that people would think I’m weird.
Hell, I thought I was weird.
So, I’d put up a front and wished that nobody would notice. But in truth, menial activities such as speaking in meetings, making a business phone call, or walking in front of a crowd filled me with dread.
I know the crippling feeling that comes with social anxiety. But I also know that it is beatable, and how liberating it is to overcome it.
Today, I give presentations to a crowd on a regular basis, so I can safely say I’ve beat it. How did I do it?
Know Your Boundaries
When I was a teen, I used to be so jealous of my peers who had all the energy in the world to make friends. I looked at Ms/Mr. Popular and wished that I was as confident as them.
But every time I tried to put myself in social activities or talk to the people they talk to, I just feel fake and drained.
It took me a while to build up my self-esteem and realised that I’m not like them, but also that I don’t have to be like them.
I finally accepted that I was an introvert, which meant that I liked some time alone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But being an introvert is also no excuse to shut yourself out from the world, so it’s all about finding a balance.
Know the limits to your social anxiety and be kind to yourself. At work, I hate making business calls while surrounded by my colleagues in the office. I feel uncomfortable with people listening, and I swear there’s some sorcery involved for those who can do it so effortlessly.
So, I always take or make calls privately. I used to be ashamed of it, but it’s my preference, and I articulate better in private too.
Find what makes you comfortable.
Stop Chasing Perfection
Now, considering that there are many other more straightforward tips like joining a support group or seeking help from a counsellor, this may seem weird.
But to me, my struggle for perfection contributed heavily to my social anxiety.
People with social anxiety are always afraid of getting it wrong. If you can’t do it right, might as well not do anything at all.
When I was in secondary school, I used to see the girls’ public speaking and really admired them. I was so conditioned to see their perfection in speaking without fear, that I was harsh on myself when I couldn’t articulate as well.
It was a while before I realized that perfection really is an illusion; that I was striving for something that didn’t really exist. I only saw how well others could speak, but I didn’t see the times when they stuttered, or the constant practice it took for them to be the great communicator they are.
So, the next time you’re looking at someone either face to face or online, and they look or seem perfect, be aware of how it affects your anxiety.
The truth is, nobody really has their shit together.
Baby Steps All The Way
I’ve learnt that social anxiety is a product of years of insecurities and fear, and it doesn’t disappear overnight. When I started going for counselling, I thought that it would take me a week to get cured (HAHA).
Guess what? It took years to overcome my social anxiety, and I’m still learning every day.
Once you have learnt your boundaries, take steps every day to GENTLY push those boundaries. Do not push yourself to a breaking point where you give up or retreat even further.
During my first few years of working, I remember one of the things I hated doing was selling and networking. But regardless of which department you are in, salesmanship is one of the most important skill you can learn.
Plus, I was promoted into a position where I had to network with various industry players as part of my job. So, I slowly had to pluck up the courage to network and ask for partnerships.
It was not always easy, and I suffered a few rude rejections. But it was still baby steps in facing my fears, and I gained a new skill. Think about it as levelling up!
Social Anxiety is not a sign of weakness, and you should not feel bad for having it. But neither should you allow it to rule your life. It’s time we recognise it for what it is; just another ‘boss’ you have to defeat.
For more articles on introverts and social anxiety, read The Modern Dating Struggles Every Introvert Can Relate To, and 4 Harsh Truths Which Will Make You More Sociable This Year.