September 26, 2016

How I Conquered my Social Anxiety in spite of my inner Joan Rivers.


What is the worst feeling on earth?

This isn’t subjective. I’ll tell you what it is.

The worst feeling on earth is the one full minute of standing at the front of the high school lunch room looking for a seat.

Sweat starts pooling in inconvenient places, you blame everyone from your parents to your great aunt to the Pope for making you the way you are.

Your internal Joan Rivers starts in:

“Are you carrying a lunch box? No one uses lunch boxes! Why did you wear this shirt? You’re shaped, somehow, like a pear ate an apple, and are you kidding with that hair? Why are you sweating like that? What is wrong with you?”

You start shaping your identity in that minute.

You don’t even like people, you decide resolutely. You want to be alone to read. People just annoy you. You want to do yoga in silence because yoga understands you. You’ve always been more mature than people your own age…so you go eat in a classroom with a teacher. You start skipping lunch because you really need to catch up on your underwater basket weaving.

It always comes back to the last three seconds of that one minute at the front of the lunch room: begging. You beg Jesus, and the Dalai Lama, and your guardian angels, and all of the spirits they probably pray to at Mason Lodges, and the spaceship Tom Cruise lives in—you beg silently, and sweatily, for someone to wave to you. Better yet you hope someone is so passionately excited by the prospect of sitting near you, that they actually kick the person next to them off their seat so you have room.

Just somebody—anybody—please want me!

Whoomp! There it is…

I can’t speak for anyone else (which doesn’t mean I won’t try), but I know some things about myself.

First of all, I ate lunch alone or in a classroom (alone) until I was a senior in high school, and even then, Mrs. Arnold saw me in her empty math room a lot. I just wanted to be left alone because the stress of knowing I didn’t fit anywhere took too much energy. It’s actually exhausting. I nap a lot when I think I don’t fit in. I really believed it was just easier to do life on my own. Except it isn’t.

Second of all, not doing life all on my own means I need people. People are the worst. I have to have faith that people will show up for me. I also have to trust that I don’t suck as much as I’m telling myself that I do.

It’s the effing hardest thing ever. Things my Joan Rivers mind also says to me when I’m at the front of the proverbial lunch room:

“If I try, I will fail.”

These days, my lunch room is the break room at work, or being the third wheel with younger/cooler friends, or family parties when I just know I have nothing to talk about, and I won’t even start on my preemptive lunch room anxiety about my upcoming trip to Spain.

Here’s the thing, I want to be the coolest person in the room, but I don’t want anyone to talk or look at me. I want everyone to pine for me when I’m not around, but to never have to actually interact. Is that so much to ask?

It wasn’t until college, when we were all scared and leached on to each other, that I felt okay(-ish) enough to admit that I wanted to connect to people.

Twice recently I have talked to friends about my memories of being an RA in college. I glorify the pants right off of those days. I was good at something, and I could be as loud and obnoxious and bossy and fun as much as I wanted. It was awesome.

Being finally competent in something was a great mask for me. I was able to hide from myself: from that insecure, binge-eat-my-emotions-in-the-bathroom side; from the scared-that-no-one-likes-me-side; from the drinking-alone-in-my-hotel-room side; from the I-just-need-me-time side. You know, all the sides we pretend we don’t have.

Doesn’t it just feel like life is just a series of coping mechanisms lined up like a jäger shots sometimes? I kept trying to reinvent myself, like Madonna. I’d move, or change jobs, or have a job where I moved. I changed numbers, got a new car, cut my hair and shaved my beard. Annoyingly, the crap parts of myself kept finding me.

I know connection is the true way out of myself.

I also know that exercise will help my squirrel brain slow down a little. Knowing clearly isn’t doing, because I’m writing this on my living room floor alone, eating mint cookie crumble ice cream.

Connection with someone has apparently been scientifically proven to cure addiction. I should add, that it’s connection to someone who isn’t fueling your addiction. But hey, connection is connection, man. I have nothing to base this on because I’m too lazy to look for the evidence, but I would argue that the kid who connects with someone at church is using the same brain meat as the kid who is doing heroin in their friend’s garage.

Sitting across from someone who says, “yeah, me too,” is like the heavens opening and hearing Lionel Richie’s “Hello” being played just for you. Yes, it is me you’re looking for.

Connecting is liquid vulnerability, but I’m straight up telling you, it’s the only way to survive.

There’s no scarier moment than looking at someone across the table drinking their merlot, and saying, “so yeah, I have this thing about me…” and waiting to see if they tip their chair backward and Cirque du Soliel tumble toward the door.

I joined a woman’s group last year (well, joined is a kind way to say I went under threat of execution by my therapist), and although I don’t think I did anything but make jokes, and sometimes I felt like I was forcing myself upon these poor unsuspecting souls, those girls mean the world to me. The actual world.

The connections I made there have given me an anchor to tether to when I’m bungee jumping into things like blogging, or even scarier, going to the mall. It’s helped me get closer to my other people, and helped me weed out the ones who needed weeding.

I’m safe in the world because I’ve connected.

My lunch table is slightly less scary (sometimes) because I practice looking up and telling someone that I want to get to know them. Sometimes it comes out more like an anxious/self-conscious, “Hey, I like your earrings,” but because people like being noticed it has yet to fail me.

I don’t like to promise things I can’t actually follow through on, but I feel like I can say this one thing to everyone else who has ever felt the worst feeling on earth: I promise that you are wanted.

Let’s go get ’em man. We’re worth getting to know.


Author: Erica Leathem

Image: The Awkward Yeti

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren


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