I am a bubbly, outgoing woman, deeply introverted but interested in the world around me and others. In recent years I developed something that is harder to overcome than my extreme introversion, or my moderate shyness – social anxiety.
Who knew that you could actually have social anxiety when you are an outgoing person? I didn’t. To realise that many of my panic attacks were becoming aligned with the need to socialise with others was a shock. To notice that I had withdrawn from almost all of my social circles, even those associated with my Christian worship which were incredibly important to me, was awakening.
Social anxiety developed because I became vulnerable.
There was the car accident that caused spinal damage, and made feel unreliable because sometimes I need to cancel plans due to feeling unwell from the exhaustion and pain. Being unreliable like this is not something I am comfortable with, I feel an immense sense of guilt for letting people down – I have become isolated because it is impossible for me to predict how I will feel at any particular time so it is easier to not make plans.
Add in an unhealthy dose of depression and anxiety that has fed off the above and you have a “perfect storm”. The physical and mental pain became overwhelming to the point that I could no longer even work at a job I had loved with such a passion I could never have imagined doing anything else. I became depressed to the point that I could not imaging living anymore.
It has become hard to continue to be bubbly and outgoing, but I am not someone who is comfortable showing or discussing negative feelings with people face to face. Due to this I became vulnerable, hiding behind my friendly nature and putting up a mask to hide the mental and physical pain. The more the mental pain built, the easier it was to ignore the aching of my body, to push that pain to the sidelines.
Eventually the mask started to get too heavy to hold up, it started slipping and the cracks began to show. No longer could I hide behind the smile, there was no energy left to pretend, I became vulnerable – showing those around me that I was hurting.
The problem with being vulnerable is that not everyone will care; this could be because they are not very empathetic people and think you should pull yourself together, or because they are too busy with something happening in their own life that they simply do not notice, or because they don’t understand or know what to say and instead choose to say nothing at all. Being vulnerable and being ignored causes a great degree of anxiety and pain.
Being vulnerable and feeling ignored made me deeply anxious. It made me feel that people chose to not see me. It made me question if I had value within my social circles. I was frightened and exhausted, tired of pretending to be fine, ignored and lonely. I have isolated myself because it is easier than disappointing others or making them feel uncomfortable when I don’t have the energy to wear my mask. I believe that it is safer that way, that I can protect myself from the unknown.
I became socially anxious to keep myself safe.
It is time to move forward.
Social anxiety has helped me to protect myself from being hurt but it has also caused me a great deal of loss. I have lost most of my social connections, and feel lonely and isolated. It has fed my low self esteem and convinced me that I am worthless and unworthy of meaningful relationships.
But it is not all bad, my social anxiety and its subsequent losses have also taught me some good things too. I have learned that there are some friends who hear you when you are silent, and will follow you as you withdraw – these people may be few, but they are a quality of friend that is hard to find.
I have also learned that I can enjoy being by myself, it is even essential for my own health and recovery. Being around groups of people is exhausting for me, sometimes it feels as though they are drawing energy from me – I notice a lot, that person sitting on the park bench looks sad and I want to help them, that person by the door looks angry and I must be on alert that they don’t react, should I help that old lady with her bags or will she take offense. When you have spent an hour trying to discern everyone else’s feelings you really cherish the quiet time once you get into your car and lock yourself into a solitary space for a few hours.
Social anxiety is a comfort blanket for me, a maladaptive coping mechanism that I learned when I needed to protect myself. But I am hopeful with patience and time that I can reintegrate back into society and find the bubbly, outgoing woman that I used to be. I hope that I will find more people that can cope with the person behind the mask who sometimes needs comfort and empathy.
Being vulnerable in a world that is often uncaring is strong, not weak. I need to stop avoiding participating in life.