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Forget your preconceptions – this is what social anxiety is really like

There are people who scoff at the mention of social anxiety, passing it off as being ‘introverted’ or ‘shy’. It is neither of these things.

Image: Shutterstock/KieferPix

SOCIAL ANXIETY IS painfully debilitating. It wrests your voice from you, and leaves you extremely isolated. Seeking help is almost out of the question, as it results in a Catch 22 situation developing: I need help, but asking for help requires me to interact with people.

The personal frustration that develops in response to this is incredibly strong; it is corrosive. I know how this frustration feels because I have social anxiety. I have had social anxiety for seven years.

There are people out there who scoff at the mention of social anxiety. They posit some harebrained conspiracy theory that social anxiety is a 21st century construct. They will argue that I am shy or extremely introverted. They will propound these thoughts without due care, forgetting that I am an individual who has lived with it for seven years. I have known people who are shy, who do not suffer from social anxiety. I have known introverts who have grown very angry when accused by others of suffering with social anxiety. Social anxiety is not a personality trait, it is a mental illness.

I am crippled by the pain of humiliation

I would call myself as a person who is a “functioning” social anxiety sufferer – I have a job, but I do not have any friends. Forming friendships requires an ability to verbalise your thoughts in a clear manner and to engage in social situations. My job requires basic communication skills. I can successfully communicate with colleagues on work-related issues. I cannot successfully converse about anything other than this at work, aside from the anodyne topics we all rely on to generate conversation from time to time – the weather or what we plan to do this coming weekend.

If a conversation were to arise where I might have to speak about something other than work, I shut down or, even worse, attempt to speak and end up jumbling words. They fall out of my mouth with such alacrity – no order, odd pacing – that I am both astonished and embarrassed. In cases where this occurs, I am so crippled by the pain of this humiliation, that it reinforces my belief that I need to avoid people. It forces me back to my redoubt and I wait there, until I can no longer hear myself stuttering through a sentence or no longer see the pain in my co-workers faces, as I drown in my own wasteful verbiage.

My fear of speaking has infected my ability to interact with groups of people. At all costs, I will avoid groups. The larger the amount of people, the greater the risk of humiliating myself. There have been many times that I would have loved to join a particular society or engage with a certain group of people, but my social anxiety always draws a firm line under these types of engagements. It is a large and brutal demarcation line. I cannot pass beyond it.

Social anxiety has cost me so much

Social anxiety has cost me a job, actual friends and potential friends, a partner and worst of all, it stopped me and continues to stop me from becoming the kind of person I want to be: an engaged and active member of society. Most recently, it prevented me from talking to me father at his birthday party.

I became so distressed by the amount of people around me, I made my excuses, walked calmly to the nearest bathroom and watched myself silently cry in the bathroom mirror, because I couldn’t talk to my own father. I can still see the look of confusion in his eyes, as I sank back down into my chair, and remained almost silent for the rest of the night.

It is no mean feat telling anyone – even a family member – that you cannot bring yourself to talk to people. Social interaction is a basic human skill. When my social anxiety was not as severe as it is now, I did attempt to express to those close to me that I was experiencing irrational and unpredictable bouts of social anxiety. People were almost incredulous in their response to my admissions. No, they would argue, you’re just shy. I would nod and no more would be said about that matter. I understand that they were trying to provide me with reassurance, but truthfully what I required was a receptive, an attentive ear, and not a curt dismissal.

Social anxiety exists. I raise my hand in evidence.

Recently, I read The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I wanted to be Hester Prynne – a woman reviled by her community for bearing a child outside of wedlock. I wanted to be a woman who was a social outcast because at least her “shame” was openly acknowledged. My self-identification with this woman sums up my attitude to social anxiety: it is shameful and I am shameful.

Paradoxically, Hester Prynne had nothing to be ashamed about, and neither should I. It was her community’s reaction which placed a mantle of shame upon her, and it is society which places a similar mantle on the shoulders of those who suffer with mental illness. We have come a long way to accepting mental illness as a norm, yet like light hitting a prism, it fragments into a variety of different illnesses, all of which are not given equal weight.

Social anxiety exists. I raise my hand in evidence. If there are people out there who have it too, please raise your hand. We are here. Please acknowledge us.

William Dunphy is a pen name. The author wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of this issue. 

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About the author:

William Dunphy

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