The Social Anxiety Serpent
In this world there are people born with ample confidence to propel them through life’s social interactions with grace and ease.
I am not one of those people.
For a good three-fourths of my currently 33 years of being alive I shouldered the burden of irrational social anxiety. This equated to 25 years of avoiding conversations, 25 years of imagining people didn’t like me, and 25 years of not answering calls from my best friend for fear that she would have to go and I would feel rejected.
That’s messed up.
It began innocently enough with my Asian rearing allowing me to hide behind my mother’s skirts and be labeled as “shy”. Shy was accepted, coddled, even embraced. Shy meant I was not required to articulate at an audible volume or look folks in the eye or behave like a well-adjusted human. Shy was a safe harbor where I could be socially inept, possibly forever.
The problem was, I didn’t want to lead an existence isolated from the rest of humanity. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be fun. I wanted to be exciting and spontaneous and full of life, but every time I attempted to appear socially well-adjusted I would be thwarted by a vile creature I had inadvertently befriended on the Isle of Shy. I call him the Social Anxiety Serpent.
The Social Anxiety Serpent was smooth, cunning, and a damned bastard. The Social Anxiety Serpent’s sole purpose in this world was to, under the pretense of helpfulness, cripple me with reasoning so ridiculous the sheer lack of logic could have birthed a religion.
Deep down I knew the serpent’s reasoning was flawed. Deep down I realized my behavior seemed un-normal to other human beings and that I should act differently, but he was just so suave and convincing with his comparisons:
But worse than all of those things was the Social Anxiety Serpent’s terribly sinister book of memories, which he used to ensure that I would never, EVER forget why I avoid social situations like the plague:
Suffice to say, the constant presence of the Social Anxiety Serpent rendered me a rather peculiar teenager who was often sitting alone on the bus or hiding in the music library (which is, you will be surprised to hear, NOT the coolest place in high school).
Then later, as these complexes hemorrhaged into my burgeoning adulthood, I evolved into a nervous young woman wandering her college campus with twitchy, anxious eyes.
Despite the Social Anxiety Serpent’s brainwashing, deep down inside I still harbored a strong desire to NOT be stunted and lame. This would occasionally inspire me to interact with my peers in an effort to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. I would engage, observe, and draw conclusions that would ideally assist me in advancing socially. However, the Social Anxiety Serpent insisted on aiding me in the interpretation of my findings and formulated depressing conclusions every single time.
Now as though that weren’t bad enough, the Social Anxiety Serpent was not merely interested in preventing my entry into functional relationships, he was focused on MAKING EVERY SINGLE SOCIAL ASPECT OF MY LIFE SHITTY. His constant refrain of “They’re judging you” turned me into a paranoid wreck, which bled into every situation involving myself and another human being.
I realize that this attitude was a bit narcissistic and rather contradictory as I thought no one liked me but ALSO thought everyone was keenly interested in the angle of my elbow and the color of my socks. However, the Social Anxiety Serpent was quick to assure me I was not a self-absorbed lunatic and quite in touch with reality.
It was a little like living in a box.
And one serpent.
The Man is not shy. The Man is not afraid of offending anyone. Some might even say The Man delights in making people fidget uncomfortably. Also, the Man used to be a bit alcoholic-y, and with every drink his awareness of comfort zones would decrease as his vocal volume and belligerence level increased.
How we wound up together in the first place is a subject for another post. Just know that I spent the first three years of our relationship in a nearly perpetual state of mortification. He talked to EVERYONE. Everyone. Cashiers, people in elevators, the mail man, the hostess, and complete strangers who inadvertently got caught in his piercing stare. His words would often be confusing because he seemed to rarely consider what he was going to say prior to saying it.
And if some unsuspecting fool got caught in an argument with him? He would furrow his brow and lean all the way in to their face, crashing through every invisible but very real boundary of personal space. Then he would vociferously, as though they weren’t one-half centimeter away, express his opinions while staring them straight in the eyeballs without blinking.
It was terrifying.
And the Social Anxiety Serpent HATED him.
It became increasingly clear that I had a choice to make. I could either allow the Social Anxiety Serpent to completely destroy my relationship or I could… change. I could stay in my spiky box of shame and anxiety forever, or I could attempt to live a life where I was not in constant emotional agony AND be happy with the man I loved.
After much thought and a lengthy internal battle that caused me undue torment, I chose change and told the serpent I no longer required his services.
However, the creature did not agree with my decision and instead of slipping quietly into the night he was a complete jackass. There was no graceful transition involving saying “Hi!” to strangers and vocalizing my needs with dignity. No. I would be forced to wage an all out war with the reptile until I, frazzled and frustrated, erupted in a violent outburst.
Eventually I leveled out and could interact with people without yelling or appearing deranged, but while I was now able to engage with human beings in a normal-esque fashion, it was still profoundly challenging to motivate myself to do so. The darned serpent was quieter but still holding me back.
After a while —a loooong while— I realized my progress was being hampered because I was still scared. I was scared of the opinions of others, I was scared of being judged, I was scared of looking stupid or being humiliated or feeling awkward. I had trained myself to act IN SPITE of those fears, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to get RID of them.
I discovered that I could shrink the fear by collecting good results from interactions. Every time I could overcome the serpent, socially engage, and come away victorious, the seemingly bottomless pit of terror would shrink just a smidgen. But that method was limited as not every interaction ended splendidly and it put me at the mercy of other’s responses to my social overtures.
I needed a solution that lived inside of me, unaffected by the outside world. I needed a solution that would render me stalwart and strong, able to weather storms and criticism and rejection like a BOSS. I needed to, according to several self-help books I ordered from the internet, LOVE MYSELF.
And I did.
And everything became SUPER AWESOMELY GRAND.
Loving myself? HARD. To my great disappointment I discovered that not only did I not love myself, I wasn’t even particularly fond of myself, and a lot of the time I HATED myself. What I had been doing was projecting my seriously shoddy self-worth onto everyone around me and accepting what I PERCEIVED to be their feedback as fact.
So when I was hiding in my spiky box from the rejection and judgement of others, I was really just trying to hide from… myself. That is stupid. And ineffective. And as long as my self-regard lived in the gutter, the Social Anxiety Serpent would always be there —a cruel manifestation of my unconscious feelings, a crippling version of me.
He was not a damned bastard.
I do like myself more than I liked myself two months ago. And two months ago I liked myself more than I liked myself two months before that so… Progress. I have aims to be an arrogant prick by mid-2016.
No I don’t.
However, I have managed to become a socially adept adult. Possibly just last year but who’s keeping track, right? HAHAHA. Yes. So now I can comfortably do all sorts of AMAZING things like make phone calls and ask for more water and go to places all by myself. I can even talk to strangers, and some of them have become my most favorite friends.
The spiky box is gone and I hear the serpent less and less. While I don’t know if he’ll ever be out of my life for good, I do know that as I grow to like myself more, life gets better and better. And consistent better-ness is, for now, good enough for me.