What is Social Anxiety?
I have always been a shy person. I was always on the quiet side and am a hardcore introvert. During high school, I lived in my books. I brought two books with me everywhere I went; just in case I finished the first, the second was never far. It was like I just wanted to live in fiction, and I couldn't bear to let reality creep in. At first, this behavior might seem quirky, but in fact, I was sick. I was far more than just shy or quiet; I was suffering from debilitating social anxiety.
I'm still an introvert and a relatively quiet person; that's just who I am. I'm still a little shy, and I'm okay with that. Social anxiety is much more than simple shyness. Social anxiety is shyness on steroids, and it's not pretty. When I heard people laughing behind me, I felt as if they were laughing at me. If I were late to class, I would agonize about going in and having people look at me and judge me. I always felt like there was a spotlight on me, on all my flaws and insecurities and fuck ups. I hated myself, and I was convinced everyone else did too.
It might seem narcissistic to assume that everyone was thinking about me all the time. In reality, I logically knew that people weren't thinking about me and making fun of me all of the time. Nonetheless, I could not shake the constant feeling that I was on display. I wanted to disappear, be invisible. In retrospect, I suspect my eating disorder may have had a lot to do with my social anxiety. By starving myself, I hoped to make myself smaller, take less space, and become less noticeable. I was always self-conscious about what I did and how I looked and how I always seemed never to be enough. I remember smoothing my skirts down obsessively when I was walking for fear of it riding up in the back without me noticing. I was utterly neurotic and miserable and wanted to stop feeling like I was always in a performance.
Social anxiety ate away at my adolescence; at years, I will never get back. It made me feel worthless and continuously lacking in comparison to others. Social anxiety is not quirky or cute or just shyness. It's a severe disorder that can severely impact a person's standard of living. I'm much better, but vestiges of social anxiety still creep up in my life. For example, I was always terrified of going to office hours in college or interacting with professors one-on-one. I was always terrified that I would be a bother and that I'd make myself look like an idiot in front of someone with a Ph.D. Right now, I'm in the middle of job searching and networking scares the living hell out of me. Interviews are a nightmare. Telephone calls are manageable, but still not enjoyable.
I'm much less self-conscious than I was before. I feel more comfortable in my skin and my capabilities. I no longer hear laughter and assume I'm the target. I no longer feel like life is just a long performance or that a stage light is always on me. Social anxiety can be horrible and impact all parts of a person's life: relationships, academics, careers, etc. But this doesn't mean that there isn't hope. For me, my social anxiety was intrinsically linked to my depression. Once I started working on my depression and confidence, the social anxiety began to wash away, and I was clean.
I wish I knew when I was younger that I was good enough just as I was. You are good enough as you are, too. Even if you don't see it right now, I know that you deserve to find peace in your own skin. The stage light only exists in your mind. You can turn the lights off, you can walk off the stage.