Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Social Anxiety NOW?!

Jan's Experience
I am forty-six (wow, that’s an eye opener – almost like going to an AA meeting and being forced to face that you are an alcoholic), and I think I suffer from later-in-life social anxiety. How did I get to this revelation? Why do I think I suffer from it? And how can I overcome it? Are all questions I have asked myself.
First off, I have always been shy; it’s just a part of who I am. I was the little girl hiding behind the leg of her mother, the kid who sat in the back of the classroom to avoid being noticed or called on, and the grown-up who more than likely, wouldn’t raise her hand to ask a question for fear she would look stupid to those around her. I guess experts would call this covert avoidance. I’ll even pretend I’m on the phone or fiddle with it just to avoid certain types of interaction. Yes, shyness followed me. While I pushed through some of my fears in college, ending up with a Speech Communications degree and a teaching certificate, I still had to fight with myself to not be afraid in certain social situations. Maybe this all stems from worrying about what others thought of me; never wanting to be seen as dumb or insignificant.
Fast forward to middle-age. As a stay-at-home mom, raising three kids, I no longer had a need for my skill in public speaking. Instead, I learned how to stay awake with very little sleep, change diapers in the most inconvenient places, live through countless tantrums, learn how to deal with teenage eye rolls and the list goes on. Most of my interactions with people were either with kids (who, when they were younger, thought I was the smartest person on the planet) and in intimate settings; play dates, scout meetings, room parent duties, etc. So now, I am entering into the professional arena once again greatly out of shape.
I have been working on a couple of novels and signed up to attend my very first writer’s conference this weekend. I was thrilled to have this opportunity to learn more about the craft as well as the business side of this new-found love of writing. Yes, I knew I would have opportunities to meet fellow writers and even opportunities to meet agents, editors, publishers and published authors. People who love to read and write just as much as I do, all in one room, would be fantastic right? Uh…uh…uh, (that’s exactly what came out of my mouth the first day I was there!).
I was the proverbial deer in the headlights, scared shitless and ready to run for the door. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like anyone came after me with a machete ready to chop me into a million pieces, but I was so overwhelmed and underprepared that I felt I didn’t belong, and in return, couldn’t put together a proper sentence to save my life. I had the opportunity to pitch my book to editors and agents, but I passed because, well, I didn’t want to put myself through the agony of it all. During the Friday mixer, two agents sat at my table and I watched as others went in with their pitch, wishing I could open my mouth and get something out without sounding like I was swallowing my tongue. Yes, this was not going well for me, and I was pissed at myself. I knew I needed to sell myself and my book, but I didn’t feel prepared. What if they asked me a question I couldn’t answer? What if I said something idiotic and they made a note never to look at anything with my name on it that enters their email box EVER AGAIN?! It was just easier for me to keep my mouth shut and observe, while in my head, lash out at myself over and over again for being such a dinglebutt.
I guess it’s not uncommon for people to suffer from social anxiety later in life, but the reasons listed in the articles I read don’t really relate to me – or at least I don’t think they do. I don’t believe I suffered from any traumatic social experience unless you want to count being shy as one of them (although they do go hand in hand). Some professionals list that it could be due to society’s view of woman’s beauty or that woman are overwhelmed with the care of ailing parents or children (okay, maybe children but I still don’t think that’s it either), or both or just a lack of support while being loaded with responsibilities. And let’s not forget hormones – those damn hormones.
But I think mine stems from what I mentioned in my #Idontunderstandhashtags post. I have been out of the workforce for an extended amount of time and while on hiatus, I lost touch with the outside world and its transformation. From low to high tech, from flip phone to smart phone and from the written letter to email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and hashtags. My ten-year-old knows more about social media than I do, and she doesn’t even have a phone. This disconnect from the emerging world of social media has created the anxiety that consumes me and overwhelms me – social media anxiety.
So, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to overcome my brain farts and the inability to make a sentence when confronted with things or people I feel are intimidating or daunting? Huh, sigh. I’m told that I have to put myself out there; not be afraid of rejection or the feeling that I am coming across as a stupid, babbling idiot. Take deep breaths, create goals and keep a positive outlook. I need to jump into the arena and stare fear right in the face and give it the finger. I need to learn as much as I can about my craft. I must learn how to hashtag, Instagram, Facebook, and so on. I need to put my work out there and create a thick skin, so it doesn’t hurt too badly when the sticks and stones are thrown my way. And I must network, network, network! Yes! I am not going to be afraid or intimidated or insecure. I am going to kick this anxiety in the ass. But first, I’m going to crawl into bed for a while and pull the covers over my head, because just the thought of the above mentioned makes me anxious and exhausted!
Do you suffer from social anxiety or social media anxiety? What do you do to combat it? Please comment and share! #socialanxiety #socialmediaanxiety
Kat's Experience

I am definitely with Jan on this one. I kind of figured by the time I hit my thirties I would have “grown out” of my insecurities, and in some ways I suppose I have, although I will never be that confident put together woman who doesn’t care what people think of her. And there it is; the root of social anxiety: what will people think? My husband has asked me more than once, “Why do you care what people think?” Indeed, that is the million dollar question. Why do I care? Maybe it is his Y chromosome that inoculates him against the same insecurities that plague me, or maybe it is the fact that he has a successful career and receives validation at work. Maybe it is just his personality. I am in no way saying that men are immune to social anxiety, but I think in a lot of ways women tend to have a deeper emotional memory. Research shows that memories to which we attach strong emotional significance get stored in our hippocampus readily and can also be recalled even decades later when prompted by an emotional trigger. So, where does this social anxiety originate? Part of it is innate – some of us are naturally more introverted than others. As adults, some of it comes from emotional memories, some dating back to childhood when we were embarrassed or socially awkward.

I am both blessed and cursed with a vivid long term memory. Although much of my childhood was idyllic, grammar school was a warzone for me. Like Jan, I was a painfully shy child to begin with, which made me vulnerable to bullying. Middle school and junior high were especially brutal in that regard. I went to a small Catholic school and had the same classmates from first through eighth grade, so once I secured my reputation as that awkward, quiet loner there was no going back. Of course, there were plenty of kids who weren’t bullies and a few who even tried to befriend me, but I always shied away, never sure of anyone’s motivation. The kids that were bullies were relentless, especially at gym and recess where there was more free reign. I was often plagued with nausea and stomach aches. My parents took me to several GI doctors but they could find nothing physically wrong with me. All this was before the dawn of cyber bullying. Kids have it harder now. It almost makes me want to homeschool. But, I realize that we all have to learn to navigate the sometimes harsh social waters eventually.

I debated whether or not to share my experiences with bullying so publicly. After all, we are talking about events that took place two decades ago; shouldn’t I be over it? It is quite embarrassing that at the age of thirty one I am impacted by my earliest social interactions. The thing is, for most of us school is our first experience with peers. We begin to self actualize, or develop our sense of self independent of our parents and caregivers. For a person who is not extroverted or confident to begin with, negative first social interactions can have far reaching effects on the way we see ourselves and the way we see ourselves in relation to others.

I know, I know. We cannot rely on external factors to make or break our self worth. We have to be okay within ourselves and with who we are. It took me many years to learn this and I still struggle to put it into practice.  I am a grown woman with a husband and two children, yet sometimes I am still that awkward seventh grader coveting the “cool girls’” secrets. When I had my first child at twenty five and chose to be a stay at home mom, I found myself in no man’s land. I was in my mid twenties, fairly newly married, and out of the workforce before I had ever really become a part of it. I knew literally no one with babies or small children. I wasn’t about to sit around in my nursing bra watching the clock until my husband came home well into the evening, so I had no choice but to build my social circle from scratch. As you can imagine, this was quite an undertaking for an introvert. I started with an online meetup group. I met a few people but made no lasting friendships. Besides, walking around the mall with a stroller was not that appealing to me. I trolled story time at the library and book store and discovered that the question, “How old is your kid?” is not a very effective opener. I began to get discouraged. Irrationally, I felt like all stay at home middle class moms were part of an exclusive club that I didn’t know how to join. I was back in seventh grade again, although now I had a developing human being’s social life to worry about and I didn’t want him to grow up to be Norman Bates.

Finally, I met a woman at the bookstore who had a child only a month older than mine. I was impressed that her child could crawl and she was impressed that mine could sit up unassisted. Finally, the subtle contest of whose baby did what when seemed to melt. As fate would have it, this woman and I attended the same church and she informed me that there was a moms’ group that met bimonthly. Imagine that, I had been searching for a place to meet moms and it was under my nose the whole time. I began nervously attending the moms’ group. I almost chickened out at the first meeting but they offered child care and free coffee. What new mom wouldn’t jump at that? It was difficult to move from casual relationships to friendships, but I did make some lasting and wonderful friendships. I had a chance to make more friends when my son was in preschool. Apparently not inheriting his mom’s social awkwardness, he made friends quickly and began requesting playdates. This is how I became friend with my son’s friend’s moms. Really, he is my social coordinator. He will come out of school and inform me, “Mom, Alex and I planned a playdate at our house today”. The irony is that it took having a child to force me out of my shell and encourage me to take social risks.

Today I am still an introvert, which will never change. I still have difficulty trusting people’s motivations. I still tend to please people at the expense of being who I am and living authentically. I have had to live with the sting of a good friend who stopped talking to me for an unknown reason, and I have to trust that it’s not me. I am still a work in progress, but I learn from my boys every day. They are not afraid to go up to another kid and join in playing. They are not afraid of rejection. Today, I run that moms’ group along with a friend. I have a few good, reliable friends, and to quote my favorite movie, It’s A Wonderful Life: “No man [or woman] is a failure who has friends”.

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