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How to deal with constant social anxiety.
A SWEET, PERFECT ANGEL, WHOM WE OBVIOUSLY ADORE:
Never once in my life have I been described as casual. I've been dealing with this since as long as I have memories - disclaimer: I know childhood trauma of being the peacekeeper/jester/emotional pallbearer in my deeply emotionally dysfunctional family has deeply influenced this (have been in therapy for years trying to unpack this anxiety and rework some ideas of self worth) - but I feel like all the work I've put into trying to release this need to people please still doesn't stop me from constantly altering my existence to make sure that everyone else is having a good time or that I am seen as fun, good, cool, insert positive to neutral adjective here. To me, taking up space and being passive are what I perceive others think are desirable but my activeness and "too muchness" is bad, annoying, undesirable, the list goes ON.
It's more than a nervous habit and more of a way of existence - I will overcorrect my volume, activities, just presence in general in order to make sure that I am "likeable" or perceived as "good." I feel like this often stops me from just enjoying where I am or who I'm with and instead I am constantly replaying things I said or people's reactions to my being over and over again, seeking reassurance from my friends that they don't hate me or I wasn't annoying, and it's fucking exhausting. (And for them too - I once had a friend express to me that me asking if I should worry about x,y,z was more annoying than the instance I was referencing - big yikes).
It's become debilitating at times - struggling to let things like an interaction with a rude stranger at my barista job go, not sleeping because I am consumed with the idea that a nonchalant comment I shared with coworker might impact our relationship beyond repair because they didn't laugh at my joke or something, feeling like I'm half present with friends because I'm still stuck on a comment someone made to me a half an hour ago in a "they could be joking or they could be telling me that they never want to talk to me again" way. You get the idea.
Another friend offered the following advice, "[My name], literally no one cares." In my moment of panicked anxiety of me thinking someone hated me, simply because they didn't return my faint smile in passing, it did help me realize that people are happening outside of me and could quite possibly, I don't know, not hate me, but also maybe didn't see, or have something else on their mind, etc, but as I continue to turn this over in my head, it still feels like I have to stop being myself (someone who does care) in order to be "chill" and let go.
I'm at a loss as to how to move forward with this constant anxiety and would love any words of wisdom you have to offer.
HELLO, YOU!!! WE’RE THE SAME!!
I have had to various degrees social anxiety—the term I’m using for what you’re describing—my whole life. I could have easily written your letter a few years back. In fact, some days, I still feel exactly how you’re describing. Those days are less common now, and I’ll try to lay out below why that might be, but on the whole you and I are INCREDIBLY SIMILAR INTERNALLY.
So the first thing that I want you to hear is: it’s fine. It’s really ok. This is totally survivable. It will not kill you. It’s small and you are infinite.
The second thing I want you to hear is: IT SUCKS ASS AND I’M SORRY!!! IT FEELS LIKE A MASSIVE DEAL THAT PERVADES EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR LIFE, AND THAT’S FAIR.
Both are true. It’s huge and it’s tiny. It’s addressable and also you’re stuck with it. And it sucks.
This might be a little surprising to read if you know me from twitter where I have a strong, established Big Cunt™️ Vibe, BUT…I have tried my whole entire life to be good. My whole life. Good for my parents, good for my classmates, good for my teachers, good for men who are shitty to me, good for hot people, good for the baristas who make my coffee. I’ve tried to take up less space. I’ve made myself smaller and talked less and tried to whittle myself into the most amenable option for others. You know the whole fight/flight/freeze instinct? Mine is people please.
One time I had a nice evening with my neighbors—I live in a triplex, so there are two other couples and my boyfriend and I. We had a lovely time that involved a lot of drinking and laughing and telling stories about people we knew who had killed someone. Within the next two days, I became CONVINCED that both sets of neighbors hated me. Hated me. That they had found me loud, obnoxious, ungracious, privileged, shitty, boring, and an uptight control freak. I told my boyfriend about my suspicion. “I think the neighbors hate me…” and he was like, “What made you think that?” and I had nothing. No action that made me think that they didn’t like me at all. I had no evidence. It was just like the time that I convinced myself at age 24 that I had pancreatic cancer because pancreatic cancer often has no symptoms and I had no symptoms. (I do have a family history, but still).
So: I get you. I get you. I get you. If I had a magic solution to fix it, I would have used it on myself. I don’t, sadly. But I do have things that help. I’ll put them below, and some will perhaps work a little and some won’t at all. It’s ok.
KEEP GOING TO THERAPY. I’m sure this was already your plan, but I want to strongly, strongly encourage you to keep going. If you feel like you’ve stalled on your progress with a therapist, do not be afraid of trying another. You can tell your therapist this—THIS IS NORMAL!!! THEY ARE USED TO IT!!—with something like, “I love all the progress we’ve made together, but I feel like I’m hitting a plateau and I think I’m going to try another therapist for a while.” You can also just stop going without giving a specific reason (after letting them know!!). Either is fine. It might also be worth looking into a psychiatrist who would be able to tell you if you’re a good candidate for anti-anxiety medication. I’m not saying you need it, but one person I know who takes it describes it as taking the anxiety down about 30%. WHICH IS A LOT.
FIGURE OUT YOUR TRIGGERS (and then work backward). If you find yourself feeling especially pressured to be small or quiet around people you’re attracted to, for example, figure out what messaging you got early in your life that people want you to be small and quiet in order to be appealing romantically. Was someone in your life “too loud” and they got left? Was one of your parents always quiet? Work backward from what you believe (wrongly) to see what first gave you the idea that that was the truth. A personal example is that I grew up in a house with an emotionally abusive step-parent. Because of that, I learned to make myself still and small, and I learned to people please in order to avoid outbursts. Knowing the source doesn’t automatically undo the instinct, but it gives me good information for what I’m doing now and how I’m treating other people.
FIGURE OUT YOUR EXIT RAMPS. Exit ramps are ways to get out of the cycle of feeling anxious. They aren’t perfect, but they are strategies for deescalating rather than ramping up your feelings of anxiety. It can be things like taking a deep breath, going to the bathroom for a few minutes of alone time at a party, asking a close friend to distract you, etc. Sometimes, the answer might be that you have to leave a social situation entirely. That’s fine! It happens! Call it a night when things are too much. The exit ramps are to help you figure out ways to stop the anxiety at a Level Six instead of letting it get to a Level Ten. I don’t know what it will be for you, but start paying attention to that.
IMAGINE THE WORST. Sophia, you’re perhaps thinking, I am already imagining the worst. I am asking for help to STOP imagining the worst. What the fuck? Stick with me, though. Imagine IF all of your friends thought you were too loud/too obnoxious/etc. Ok. Does that kill you? Do you die? No. If your friends really thought that—which they don’t by the way!!!—they would probably either A) send one person who is very direct to have a frank chat with you about it or B) stop hanging out with you.
REMEMBER THAT PROGRESS ISN’T LINEAR. You’re going to feel better then worse then better then worse then better then better then worse and on and on your whole life. That means go easy on yourself when things are worse!! Certain situations are always going to trigger you because your brain is BUILT THIS WAY and she’s being a little asshole. But if you work on labeling healthy and unhealthy (or helpful and unhelpful) thoughts as they come into your brain, you will go a long way.
LET EVERYONE ELSE WORRY ABOUT THEMSELVES. As a general rule, I want to remind you that adults are good at figuring out what to do to make their lives pleasant; I PROMISE. If they don’t want to be around you, they won’t be. If they think you do something annoying, they’ll bring it up. OTHER ADULTS CAN CREATE THEIR OWN BOUNDARIES AROUND YOU. I wonder if you perhaps lived with someone growing up who did not make their needs known or who wasn’t good at taking care of themself and that made you think/feel like it was your job to behave a certain way and constantly guess/anticipate their needs. Or if you lived with someone who ignored your boundaries or pretended like you had no right to have them, which you still believe. I’m telling you: if people need something from you, they have words and can ask for it. Other people’s opinions are NOT yours to carry; they have to carry that. Think of it like if you were boarding a plane and you started taking everyone on the plane’s luggage and putting it up in the bins. Every single person’s!!!! You’re running around freaking out trying to figure out how it’s all going to work instead of just worrying about your bags. And then you’re like, “Why am I so exhausted by every interaction with people?” WELL!! Because you’re picking up their shit and putting it on your back. What other people think of you is theirs to carry!
Here are some other small miscellaneous things that helped me:
— When I’m really feeling anxious about something that I know is not helpful, I tell myself in my head “That’s not your business.” It started as a bit of a joke, but I do use this a lot. When I’m feeling worried about my body or my weight, I’ll say, “Sophia, that’s simply not your business.” As a way to remind myself to move on to things I actually do want to think about like writing or reading or how hot Harry Styles is. Worried someone doesn’t like you? Not your business! Worried that everyone is thinking about how you said “Hi” in a really high-pitched voice? Not your business! Keep reminding yourself of that. Better yet, find a mantra that works for you when you need to label healthy and unhealthy thoughts.
—When I have a memory that is particularly bad/cringey and I am fixated on it, I try to practice Leah Beckmann’s 7 seconds rule, which you can read about here.
—When I’m having a night out with lots of people and I feel particularly anxious or shitty and the night is going to last a while and there’s no way out, I try to pick one person whom I like and pretend like it’s their birthday (only in my own head!!! not out loud!!!). That puts my focus mentally on them rather than me.
Lastly, as for the whole changing-yourself-to-appeal-to-others thing, it’s not the end of the world, honestly. (Look up high versus low self-monitor and read about it). Most people do it to some extent. I think you’ve gotten so stuck on the truth that you change your behavior around people that you’re too busy beating yourself up for it for it to ever change. Give yourself a fucking break!!!!! Of course you change a lot for other people! You have anxiety!!!! It’s a coping mechanism! It’s not perfect, it will get better, but being mad at yourself for doing it is not a good tactic. I’ve used this metaphor before, but it remains true: beating yourself up for feeling bad is like punching yourself in the face because you got a flat tire. It only makes the situation worse.
Admit that you change yourself around other people, and start thinking about how you’d like to interact with people. Right now you’re ALL negative—I suck at this and this and this. There is no future thinking at all (other than worry), there’s no fantasy. Do you want to be comfortable being loud? Do you want to be friendlier? Do you want to be more intimidating? Do you want to be bubbly? Do you want to be bold? I don’t know and I don’t even know if you know because right now you simply hate everything that you are simply because you’re the one being that way.
Big picture: be gentle with yourself. No one’s opinion of you will kill you. You already think The Worst is true right now and you’re still alive. So clearly it will not kill you. You’ve got this. Progress is slow, but it will come.