March 14, 2014

Navigating the Minefield of Social Anxiety. ~ Maya Nadeem


It’s amazing what you find when you learn to look inside yourself and unfold into your truth.

As I was exploring my crippling fear of public performance I stumbled upon, or rather fell into, its deeply mired roots in social anxiety.

I never realized I had such deep inhibitions about interaction with others. Yeah, I understood that sometimes it gets really uncomfortable and awkward to talk to people I don’t feel an immediate deep connection with, and that groups usually intimidate me but the label of social anxiety just seems so…intense.

The truth is, social anxiety is a spectrum.

For some people it is much more extreme and can be debilitating to the point that stepping out of the house becomes a traumatic experience, each and every single time.

For me, it was incredibly disabling when I did experience it, but it wasn’t my default setting all the time.

I put it down to having introverted tendencies but on some level I recognized that I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.

It got a little confusing because the truth is that sometimes it’s easy for me to get into random conversations and really enjoy them. I like meeting strangers and hearing their stories. There are people who have never witnessed my awkwardness firsthand and on some occasions I have been the epitome of social grace.

Yet there have also been times when whether it was a stranger or someone I’d met a few times, I would feel completely displaced and my inner self would be performing an elaborate neurotic dance within me. I would find myself wishing I had Dorothy’s red shoes on my feet to tap myself home.

With a masochistic sense of horror, I would watch myself say some incredibly awkward things when all I wanted to do is bolt and say see ya. There were moments I launched into a rambling diatribe that I wouldn’t know how to get out of once I started, or I’d be tongue struck, unable to get basic sentences out.

Worse yet, I would become acutely aware of my face and how it feels like it’s going to launch into some mind-bending, erratic twitches at any moment.

Group dynamics were particularly difficult for me. You cannot imagine (or maybe you can) the gnawing dread that grew inside my stomach when I’d be at an event that required sitting round a circle and introducing yourself. I’d focus a lot of energy on hoping against hope that through some mystical happenstance they’d somehow skip me.

The subconscious terrorization of my consciousness that social anxiety implicates directly puts me into separation consciousness when I’m confronted with it.

It distances me from the other person/people that I am forcing myself to interact with, or alternatively running from, and takes me completely out of my body to play games of hide and seek from the secluded vantage point of my head-space.

I understand now that I really used to care a lot about what other people thought or assumed about me. I was petrified of their judgment.

A lot of it boiled down to an extreme fear of rejection.

A lot of the time, I was afraid that people I didn’t even really enjoy being around would reject me. How much sense does that make?

Then there were others I would have loved to get to know but was too intimidated to approach or suggest further interaction with.

Now, I have to admit, I still care a wee bit, but nowhere near as much. The social anxiety and discomfort are still present in certain rare situations, but they’ve dissipated to the extent that I can work on them in a much deeper way.

This is what I’ve changed in order to navigate the minefield of social anxiety:

1. Acknowledging how I feel in these situations. Many times I wouldn’t want to admit to myself how deeply these encounters were impacting me and how much I’d resent myself after. Accepting that I feel this way helps me work on the behavior itself as well as the beliefs and emotions that feed it.

2. Stepping into my own voice. Allowing myself to actually use my voice instead of retreating inside my shell at the first opportunity I can get has done a crap-load of good. I’m not able to do this 100 percent of the time, but I’m up to around 75 to 80 percent and I recognize that I’m building the habit, which is the best I can do at this time.

3. Accepting the feeling of discomfort and letting it flow through my system instead of trying to avoid it. This way if I’m ever in a similar situation I won’t have the added baggage towed along with me.

4. Understanding how I feel helps me be more patient and calm with myself instead of trying to rage at the feeling or push it away. Understanding yields control. It takes me out of struggle and resistance and helps me settle into surrender.

5. Choosing the situations that I am drawn towards on a conscious, mindful level. I know that sometimes I will be put into tight spots but now I recognize that I have the choice to walk away, there is nothing binding me there. I have the ability and capacity to choose what and who I want to engage with.

6. Reminding myself the other person is just as human as I am, prone to the same fears and hopes and dreams. Chances are they either feel or have felt this way too at some point.

7. Learning where my boundaries are. With no sense of my own boundaries not only am I unable to prevent others from crossing them, but like Wiley Coyote chasing after Road Runner, with great speed I will constantly keep hailing myself off the cliff.

8. Building a relationship with myself so that I feel safe in my own skin regardless of where I am and who I’m with. I don’t have to live in their reality, what they think about me or how they perceive me is for them to know and experience. Getting caught up in their experience of me will just a) drive me batty b) feed into the awkwardness I feel c) give our interaction a charge that can build into relationship karma. When I’m fully in my body and present to my needs I don’t get thrown off balance.

9. Being honest and authentic with others and myself. I do not want to depend on another person and how I vibe with them to feel safe in my own skin. No group of people should be able to diminish my sense of self-worth.

So, that’s what it all boils down to, the secret ingredients to being grounded in my own body and feeling secure in it: my sense of self-worth.

Truth be told, each of these lessons is intermingled with the others. Each builds upon the other—kind of like people, huh?

The more authentic I am, the less of a desire I have to escape and the more present I can be.

By discovering and voicing my own needs and adhering to being my own caretaker instead of trying to over or under reach to meet the other person where they’re at I am able to learn healthy boundaries and how to assert them in a respectful way.

Will there ever be times when I will feel that deer caught in headlights moment rush through my body?

Yeah, I’m willing to bet on it.

I know how to handle it now though.

Oh, and that fear of public performance I was working on? Well, I went to a poetry open mic yesterday night and got up there and faced my fear full on. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience but I got through it and here I am.

When it comes down to it, I’d rather create dialogue with other people than allow my defenses and fears to build walls between us.


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Assistant Editor: Jen Weddle / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photos: elephant journal archives

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