By Kortney Sweeney
In elementary school I skipped my best friend’s birthday party because a lot of kids were going whom I didn’t know. I spent the first month of middle school eating lunch by myself in a secluded corner because I was too nervous to talk to anyone. Even now, my heart pounds and I have to mentally prepare myself anytime I’m asked to read in class. I avoid eye contact with strangers and sometimes even friends. When I drop something or accidentally trip in public, the shame that washes over me usually stays there all day. I lie awake at night scrutinizing every social interaction I have and criticize myself for all of my actions that I think went less than perfect.
I’ve always been like this. When I was younger, I assumed I would grow out of it one day, and in some ways I have, but my social anxiety still affects me every day. It’s a constant internal battle between wanting to conquer my fears and timidity, and feeling terrified that I will screw up somehow and be harshly judged by everyone. At times it’s even painful in a way, and I often become frustrated with my inability to get out of my comfort zone and live my life despite how much I scream at myself internally.
Social anxiety is normal, and in some scenarios it can be a positive thing. But severe social anxiety can cause a person to shy away from social interactions and miss out on opportunities for making friends, learning, finding new interests and talents and just living their life in general. It can make even the simplest of familiar social interactions seem completely uncomfortable. People with social anxiety disorder aren’t unsociable because they want to be; they’re unsociable because their extreme fear of messing up in front of people and making a fool of themselves keeps them from being outgoing.
I wish I had some insightful, mind-blowing, cure-all advice to give, but I don’t. I’m still struggling with it myself. But over the years I’ve realized a thing or two that definitely helps me to think about whenever I’m in a social situation.
Nobody’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one knows how to navigate every social situation flawlessly. Reminding myself of this helps me whenever I fumble my words or do something less than gracefully. I try to brush it off as best I can, even though I know I’ll be dissecting it afterwards.
Strangers on the street and around campus don’t know me. They don’t know who I am or know anything about my life. So if they are judging me for social blunders, they aren’t really judging me, just the person they think I am. For some reason this helps me.
I also try to learn from my embarrassing moments and social interactions. Obsessively reviewing my social situations has one benefit: It allows me to figure out how to avoid the same blunder in a similar scenario. Any small victory or avoided mistake in public feels like a huge accomplishment, and it’s this feeling that I hold onto whenever I feel myself shying away from social settings. I truly believe I’ve come so far, and I can’t wait to see the progress I’ll make in the future.