A Socially Anxious Puppet
I am an anxious puppet. A very anxious puppet. I sometimes don’t even realize anymore when I am being restless because of anxiety, when I am making decisions based on anxiety or when my anxiety is giving me physical symptoms. Anxiety has become such a huge part of who I am, I don’t even know who I would be without it. So every now and then, I become really confused about why I am unable to sleep, why my body is acting weird or why I am unable to do something. And then I remember: ah damn it, this is anxiety again. To say which of my anxiety disorders is the worst, would be very hard. I think they all sort of overlap and sometimes just turn everything into a huge mess. There is the generalized anxiety disorder, there are the trauma disorders, the panic disorder and the agoraphobia, and there is the social anxiety. Ever since I have been in touch with psychiatry, social anxiety is the one diagnosis that has followed me from the beginning.
Agoraphobia and Social Anxiety
Due to the intertwined web of anxiety disorders in my mind, it can be hard to sometimes determine which anxiety is leading to what behaviour. Agoraphobia and panic disorder can definitely be a little bit the same as social anxiety. But then, they are not. Agoraphobia is the fear of having a panic attack or anxiety when being in public. It is this fear of losing it, of losing control, while being in a setting where there is no way out. The very first panic attack that I have ever had caused me to develop agoraphobia and panic disorder.
I was at a friend’s place. I had some coffee and cookies with him in the garden, before we went inside to have some beer and watch a football (read: soccer) game. Suddenly, I was starting to feel a bit weird because of the combination of alcohol and coffee and way too many cigarettes. We went out for another smoke, I saw a bee sit on my beer bottle, waved it away, drank the beer. And then wondered if I had actually swallowed the bee. I felt a lump in my throat, and I panicked. I thought I would lose it, faint, die, in front of my friend. And I wanted to run away, away from the panic. So I rushed out and ran to the subway station to get home. On the subway, the panic attack totally broke out and I was feeling absolutely terrible. I thought I was going to faint and lose it in front of everyone. My panic was definitely both mental and physical at that point. I felt trapped, like I couldn’t run away because I was in this place, stuck with people, and I would make a total fool out of myself. Terrible, terrible moment.
This was starting point for my agoraphobia. At times I can’t leave my apartment for weeks on end. There was once a period of six months that I barely left my room. I was having what is called anticipation anxiety. I was scared of what could happen: that I could have another panic attack in public. Places that I still have really strong difficulties with going to on my own are grocery stores and public transport. It feels better when I am with someone who I trust. But still, every time I either have a panic attack, or I am so tense because I am worried I will have one.
Social anxiety, on the other hand, is the fear of being judged or made fun of by other people. A lot of people confuse it with shyness or the fear of talking in front of an audience. Those can definitely be signs of social anxiety, but there is more to it. It is about constantly watching how other people behave around you. You are vigilant about their reactions to things that you have said. And you try to read people, and you are constantly misinterpreting their reactions too, because you already expect them to make fun of you, judge you, humiliate you.
You have the fear that creates the emotional truth of that others do not like you, talk about you behind your back, will make fun of you. And you are not able to see the factual truth, that most people are not like that at all, but instead look for every small thing that could prove your emotional truth correctly.
“I am so scared that people are going to make fun of me when I speak up” – “Oh god, he is smiling at me, he is probably already finding me ridiculous and that is why he is smiling. I better not say anything.” – “I can’t be around other people because they are just going to ridicule me and make fun of me.”
Social anxiety for me is just as much linked to avoidance as agoraphobia is. When it comes to agoraphobia, I want to avoid places with bigger crowds, that are closed, where I could get a panic attack and wouldn’t have a quick way to get away from. Social anxiety makes me avoid social interactions with other people. Being in a group of three people can be just as scary to me than being in a subway with two hundred people. Let me explain.
There are a lot of situations that get affected by my social anxiety. I can not make phone calls and it is a horror for me when those I work with ask for a call. I can’t be in small seminars, at dinner parties or any sort of private parties. Basically, any situation where me and my behaviour could be scrutinized, is very difficult for me. Sometimes those things are unavoidable. But I have definitely missed out on a lot of opportunities in my life because of my social anxiety. I have cancelled hundreds of appointments, doctors, lawyers, social services, job interviews. I had to be put on sick leaves when I was working in “normal” jobs because my social anxiety drained me too much and triggered a bipolar depression.
It all starts with my expectations. I expect people to judge me, to humiliate me when I do the smallest thing wrong. I don’t trust people to accept me if I am myself. So I prepare to wear a mask. What does that mean? Well, I am doing my very best to seem as human as possible. That is, for some odd reason one of my biggest fears related to social anxiety, I am scared that people will not recognize me as part of the group, as human, as someone like them.
My first choice is always avoidance, it works well for both social anxiety and agoraphobia. As a matter of fact, I have been diagnosed with Avoidant Personality Disorder, not once, but twice. My latest psychiatrist decided to just put all of my anxiety disorders under the generalized anxiety disorder umbrella. Avoidant Personality Disorder is basically one step further than social anxiety, it is when who you are, all your behaviour, is based on socially anxious thoughts.
The Social Mask
But yeah, there are times when I can’t avoid, and I need to go out and meet people. But that leads to some really odd behaviours that I’d call a social mask. I never ever leave the house without looking perfect. Perfect make-up, fresh and well-fit clothes, hair done, jewelry. That way people can’t say I am disgusting, right? When I pass someone on the street, I hold my breath so they don’t hear me breathe. Why? Well, they’d think I am weird if I breathe loudly just because I am walking. Which could lead to that they will think I am fat, unhealthy and judge me for it.
I do not seem shy around people. I am unable to look them in the eyes though. Uunless I know them well, and trust them. It is something that therapists have pointed out to me again and again: my inability to make eye contact. But other than that, I come across as quirky, loud and very talkactive. But that is really only the mask that I wear when interacting with others. In my mind, I am an anxious mess, I am just great at hiding the fact that I am terrified of other people’s judgment. I come across as confident when inside I am very much aware of that I am just faking it. So the conception of that those with social anxiety are shy is not necessarily true. A lot of times they might just come across as restless, nervous, talkactive and hyper.
Never Talking About Me & Feeling Drained
I think the worst thing with my social anxiety, apart from the avoidance and missing out on things, is the inability to form close relationships because I am too scared to actually be who I really am. I am too scared of the judgment. So I am an expert at diverting a conversation away from myself. This even happens online, and it happens even more frequently in real life. Someone asks me how I am and I just turn the question back to them. Someone says something and I lash onto that and ask a lot of questions and show interest. All done so I don’t have to talk about me, how I am doing, show someone the real me.
This of course makes me quite popular because people love getting support and talking about themselves. They see me as interested, woke, supportive, without ever realizing that I basically never talk about myself, my recent struggles or what is going in my life. My social anxiety has made me into a very skilled manipulator.
One of the worst things is the feeling of being drained. After a social event, after socializing, after having to hold up the social mask, I am out of energy. It takes a lot of strength to pretend to not be anxious, To hide who you are. And to be terrified of other people seeing through you an judging you, humiliating you and making fun of you.
My social anxiety is most likely very closely linked to my childhood trauma and my lack of confidence. Years of abuse, then followed by bullying, sort of turns you into someone who doesn’t trust people and their intentions. And it is safer to not be yourself, but to wear that mask that makes everyone assume that you are a confident, well-talented person who doesn’t need other people’s care or support. So remember, next time you hang out with someone who is talkative, loud and likes focusing on topics that have absolutely nothing to do with them or their life, watch closely. They might just suffer from debilitating social anxiety.