It is a paradox of sorts. I have extreme social anxiety, and I need to find a way to communicate this anxiety to those around me. Yet, I have anxiety about communication in general. It almost seems like a cosmic set-up: I need to take action to better my life, but that which I need to take an action on is the very thing prohibiting me from taking such action.
So I’ve come up with a cheat sheet of sorts. Something that I could maybe give to those around me who are affected by my social anxiety so that they may understand the nuance behind it all.
Here are the things I wish for others to know about my social anxiety because my social anxiety makes it difficult to discuss this in person. I’ll often use the term “you” as if I am communicating this to another person who may not understand.
1. All social situations create (pretty much) the same level of anxiety—a lot. We all have some point where we feel anxiety about communicating with people, which can be a good launching point to understanding mine. I feel the worst of it always, in pretty much every social situation, even with people I consider close friends… and down the line from there in terms of unfamiliarity with others. You may understand social anxiety as the fear you feel if you need to give a speech to an unfamiliar and large group of people. I feel that too, but I also feel the same anxiety when mingling with a few friends. And I feel this always.
2. An upcoming social situation can consume me, in my head, for up to a day in advance. When I know I am going to have to socialize with someone or some group of people, I begin to feel anxiety about this well before the time this has to happen. Sometimes a full day before. I will obsess over the situation, I will play out all of the potential awkwardness in my head for hours and hours beforehand. I can’t stop this, this is how my brain approaches socialization. I may seem like I am in a bad mood for no reason—because you may not understand that I am anxious today at 9 pm about interacting with people tomorrow at 5 pm.
3. I do not dislike the people that I have anxiety about being around. I often get the sense that others think of me as antisocial in a way of disliking specific people or people in general. Most specifically, those whom I have anxiety about interacting with (which is pretty much all people.) I feel others conflate social anxiety with anxiety about interacting with people they do not like. That is the most common form of social anxiety, but mine is global, and it has nothing to do with liking or disliking the people I am anxious about. I do not, most likely, have bad thoughts about these people. I quite literally feel anxiety about hanging out with friends I’ve known for over a decade. They are still my friends. They may be family, and family I like. My social anxiety has nothing to do with my opinion of others, and that is what makes my anxiety different than what others think of as social anxiety.
4. Pointing out how my awkwardness presents itself to others I’m now socializing with is going to hurt me a lot. The worst thing you can do—and I don’t necessarily see a reason to even do this, though people do—is to point out how awkward I am with social situations during social situations. I am already losing energy, this breaks open the floodgates of my energy store. Not only am I having a difficult time already dealing with “regular” social interaction—I am now having a doubly difficult time with everyone now observing my difficult time and commenting on it. Even if they are trying to be understanding—there is just no need for me to have to explain my anxieties while facing said anxieties.
5. Any social situation—any—is going to suck up a lot of my energy. And it will take time to recharge this energy. There is a classic maxim that could deserve a hundreds-of-words exploration on its own, but to summarize: people with social issues expend energy when interacting with anyone. Extroverts—or even just people without this disorder—tend to gain energy from interacting with others. Without understanding this fully, social anxiety becomes an enigma. People that gain energy from socialization tend to assume that when anyone else is in a social situation they either gain nothing or have a hit to all of those pleasure centers in the brain. They don’t understand that this scale does not go from 0 to 100, for example. But rather it goes from -100 to 100. I experience socialization in the negative part of the scale, always. Negative not being always bad—but always losing energy. And with that, a bonus point: My wish to be alone has everything to do with recharging my social battery. After dealing with a social situation, or any time I can get it—I need to be completely alone. During this time I am re-charging from the negative energy situation. I have a social battery of sorts that dwindles as I interact with others. The only way I have to recharge this is to be completely alone—and know I have a set time alone without having to socialize at all.
I’ve come up with these items in hopes to have something I can use to communicate to others about my social anxiety. I’ve put this in a form that I can quite literally cut and paste into an email to others who may not understand or misunderstand my issues with socialization. That may seem standoffish, but often it is easier for me to communicate in writing. Thus, here it is: that what I wish others knew about my social anxiety to maybe have them approach it in a way that helps everyone. Complete with shared energy expenditure. I can be social. I just want others to understand what goes into that for me.