Confession time. This is a scary blog to put out there. I’ve dithered posting it and re-drafted it a million times because it is so personal. But here goes. I struggle with social anxiety. Some close friends and family already know this about me. Some people might be surprised I guess. It is something I have lived with to varying degrees since I was a child. Over the years I have developed coping strategies, and mostly, I get by. I can usually play the part of a functional adult. However, still, on very bad days the idea of the smallest interaction with someone else can make me feel pretty stressed.
My anxiety was probably worst during my pre-teen years and adolescence. At its peak, during my first year at secondary school, I barely talked to another person, aside from my teachers, or family. Not an exaggeration. It was a really unhappy time for me. I am amazed now, that not a single teacher spoke to my parents about it. This was during the ’90s. I hope social anxiety is more recognised now, that young people get more support than I did.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety isn’t simply shyness. It’s intense fear that can affect everyday life. Lots of people feel uneasy in social situations. However, for someone with social anxiety, those feelings can be very difficult to manage.
According to the NHS, you may have social anxiety if you:
- dread everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping
- avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, and parties
- always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing
- find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time
- fear criticism, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
- often have symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations)
Personally, my anxiety manifests in a few ways. Much of the above is very familiar to me. For example, in a conversation with another person, I am often half listening, wondering how I am coming across to the other person. What are they thinking? Do they like me? What should I say next? Did they just give me a funny look? Am I boring them!? This distraction isn’t a lot of fun for the other person either to be fair. On bad days this internal narrative is so overwhelming my mind goes blank, and I cannot think of a thing to say. Sometimes, I respond almost defensively to the most innocuous of questions. A simple, “How are things with you guys?” can send me into a panic. I desperately try to think of something interesting to say, and fail, awkwardly shrugging “Oh well, you know, nothing really”. Then I spend the rest of the day (even days) berating myself.
I apologise to all my friends who have endured these painful interactions with me. Thank you for seeing past it all and being kind. In truth, I am luckier than some. I have a loving husband and family, I have had help, my anxiety is always there, but mostly under control. I can go to a party where I don’t know people well. I have some good friends. Held down a career in freelance design. I do volunteer work that I love. You see, I do actually want to be around people. People think socially anxious people don’t want to socialise, and that’s just not true, at least not for me. It is just we also find it incredibly difficult.
Parties or gatherings of large people can be most difficult for me to navigate. I make sure these days, that I don’t allow my anxiety to control whether or not I go. I used to just turn down invitations to parties. I still get that white-hot fear though, when I walk into a room full of people even if I know most of them. How I feel the event went can have a profound impact on my mood. If I think I managed to navigate it with more ease than usual, I am happy. If I have an awkward moment, not only am I anxious about how that must have looked, but it descends into this horrible feeling of shame and embarrassment about who I am as a person later. The self-loathing sometimes lasts for days. Regardless of how the event went, I am often exhausted afterwards.
At 35, when I had my baby, I was thrown into a new world. I suddenly had to have adult conversations in a room full of parents I didn’t know, a situation which scares the pants off me. I didn’t do many classes and groups. I often found myself making an excuse to avoid them. “Those classes more stress than they are worth” (true, but not entirely the truth). I went to one baby group where not one person spoke to or made eye contact with me. It was such a triggering experience, I didn’t ever try another local village group. Despite tons of breastfeeding issues, I think my daughter was months old before I managed to get to a breastfeeding support group without a friend. The kindness of peer supporters and mothers there made that group my lifeline really. Thank goodness for boob group, NCT friends and Facebook because I think these things actually saved me from acute loneliness in the early days of motherhood.
People sometimes don’t believe me when I say I now do volunteer work yet am socially anxious. Especially when I say I also do telephone support and they are familiar with me dithering around, taking a week to call a plumber! However, my support work is so much easier to navigate than a baby group. It is like putting on a costume. I have conversational tools from my training to support women. There are some questions you always have to ask, some issues which are so very common, these things form a kind of familiar script, so I always have something to say. Silences are encouraged so it gives me time to think. I am often asked about specific issues and have a bank of knowledge I can draw from to move the conversation forward. Crucially, I am not focusing on myself, but on someone else. I can largely forget about what people are thinking about me. I don’t have to worry about making the mums I support my friends. In fact, it is actively discouraged. The tools I have gained in training have been immensely helpful to me in ‘real life’ social situations, however, and it has really built my confidence.
As my daughter gets older I now find myself often scrutinising her interactions with other children. My biggest fear is that she ends up like me. The maddening thing is, I know the more anxious I am around people in front of her, the more likely this is. This encourages me to navigate situations I would have previously avoided. My daughter drives me on to be my best self. While she is a little shy as a child and often overwhelmed in busy situations, I have seen how well she interacts with other children at nursery or smaller groups. I try to reassure myself she’s doing fine, and no different to many of her peers. Next year she starts school. I cannot articulate how worried I feel for her. I desperately hope she does ok, that she makes friends and has a “normal” experience.
If you are a parent with social anxiety but you push yourself into situations which make you anxious try to remember this: it takes guts. Finding the courage to go to that group is amazing. Even if you don’t speak to anyone, feel proud. You were brave. Being a parent with social anxiety can be hard. You may lose the “crutches” or coping strategies you had developed pre-children. On top of this, as parents, we may be dealing with a loss of our professional identity and other parts of ourselves. You are navigating a new beginning. Like many new starts, if you lack confidence, it can be even more stressful. So give yourself credit where it is due.
I still remember the girl who finally befriended me at school during my worst period of social anxiety. I don’t think she knows what she did but she made a lifelong impression with her kindness. My appeal to everyone is, please say hello to that quiet mum in the corner of the playgroup if you can. Make eye contact, smile, reach out, be kind. Sometimes, someone is standoffish because they are anxious. Please be forgiving. Engage that scared looking person in a conversation. It might not be the start of a beautiful friendship, but you might be the person who helps them get through the day smiling or encourages them to come to the group again. They may actually make a friend or two eventually. Small gestures count. Make them a cuppa. You never know the difference your kindness might make to someone.
Social anxiety support:
If you can relate to the issues raised in this blog, first and foremost, seeing your GP might be helpful. You may also have local counselling services you can self-refer to. CBT is considered one of the most effective interventions for social anxiety.
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