When I was a little girl, I was afraid of the monster under my bed. It wasn’t uncommon as many children fear them. Night after night, after my mom would turn off the light and shut the door, I would pull my body into a ball, and make sure that all my limbs were far from the edge of the mattress, not wanting the monster to reach up its claws and capture me. I don’t know how old I was when it happened, but one night I took control of the monster that tormented me. I started to reimagine him. And in my imagination, I decided that my monster was actually a friendly monster. I started having dialogues with him in my head. Though I was still wary of him, as he was a monster, I would try my best to be cordial and friendly with him. And once we were friends, I started telling him that he wasn’t allowed to touch me. We negotiated! I told him, “Okay, monster, you have to stay under the bed. If my legs or hands are dangling over, you have to stay under there.” “I’m a friendly monster!” he would reply, aghast. “I wouldn’t hurt you!”
I was reassured. I had, indeed, trained my monster, and I felt victorious.
Growing up with irrational fears of monsters is normal. But for me, it was a theme in my life. As I got older, my fears morphed into social anxiety.
Like the monster under my bed, anxiety is something that needs to be looked at face on so you can see what it is you are dealing with. Whether or not social anxiety is a burden for you, you might find it interesting to see what it really looks like.
The media gives us a picture of social anxiety and taught us to see it as something really… not so gravy. Social anxiety is the nerdy boy at the high school dance with sweaty palms, dodgy eyes, a needy smile, and psoriasis on his elbows. He is the guy you don’t want to be. So if you recognize some of “his” traits in you, it might feel better to ignore or deny those parts of yourself. Or worse yet,recognize the anxiety and hate yourself for having it (Side note- I also have psoriasis).
I started having full blown anxiety attacks until my senior year of high school when I was working at a restaurant. I didn’t know that they were anxiety attacks, but I can remember feeling the racing thoughts, racing heart beat and a sensation that I was not in my body completely. I wasn’t able to communicate or listen while in those attacks.
In 2016 at the age of 24, I started investigating social anxiety online and came to terms with the fact that I had it, and started working to accept it so that I could grow more into myself.
In order for you to get a closer look at what social anxiety looks like for me, I’ve created a scenario to put yourself into the “real-life-situation”:
“Imagine you are going to a dinner party. It’s for you favorite organization and there are lots of people there that you look up to. You have gotten yourself looking great and checked your reflection in the mirror about 5 times before leaving the apartment (and then again in the rear view mirror of the car, the window in the building, and the screen of your cell phone). You drive there giving yourself a pep talk, trying to take deep breaths as your heart beat is increasing rapidly. In the back of your mind you are hoping that you can somehow get through the party without having a panic attack.
Over the years, you have developed strategies for social situations. You know how to meet new people and smile for them and portray yourself as someone who is agreeable, loving, charismatic, and full of exciting life experiences and adventures. You know that there is a lot of doubt and fear in you, but you are afraid to show that. And anyway, in the moment of meeting new people, you kind of get lost in the moment and don’t really feel like you can control how you are interacting. Rather, you are focusing on the other person you are talking to and trying to read their expressions to see if what you are talking about is interesting to them. You are on a constant watch to see how they are reacting to you. On a deeper level you are afraid that people won’t like you if you show the more honest part of yourself. Even as you are telling them about your exciting adventures in a third world country, you can feel that you aren’t portraying yourself exactly as you truly are.
But you don’t know how to stop the act once you’ve started.
You feel nervous and intimidated by the people you are talking to and want to show that you are just as good as them, even if you don’t feel like it. But if you can tell them about your great accomplishments, maybe they will believe you enough to accept you.
You are also concerned with being agreeable. If these people could see the true feelings you have inside: shame, guilt, fear, sadness, then you would surely ruin the whole party! They would all hate you if they knew how messed up you really feel inside. So it’s best to put on a happy face and make yourself agreeable to everyone so that they will like you.
Now it’s about an hour into the party and you’re starting to get exhausted. You have given so much energy into smiling and agreeing and observing people that you feel empty and drained inside. You have told your story about your year studying abroad in another country, You’ve subtly assumed a sexual body language for the men, you’ve laughed at all the right times, and you’ve looked sympathetic for all the sad stories.
You start thinking about escape routes.
Find some liquor? Pick up smoking again? Hide in the bathroom?
You keep up the facade as best you can for another hour, though sometimes your expression cant help but fade to one of sadness or distress. Part of you wants to trash the whole facade and just be your truly sad and exhausted self but you feel uncomfortable with that because you just showed this artificial self to so many people…and what will they think when you completely change your demeanor? Not only that, but you are noticing other people in the room who don’t seem exhausted and fatigued and sad like you. They seem truly fine with themselves and this makes you hate yourself more.
“Why cant I be like them?” You think. “Why cant I just be comfortable with myself?”
You feel inferior to those people and notice the other people who also seem to struggle with exhaustion, fatigue or low self esteem. You judge those people and feel superior to them. You feel that at least you aren’t as pathetic as that one overweight woman who keeps hanging out by the food; or that other woman who keeps telling everyone about her cat.
After mustering a final smile for the host, you leave the party exhausted and feel a strong need to be alone so that you can reclaim your energy and your true feelings no matter how negative they are.
When some friends ask me later how the night was, you lie and say, “it was great! I met some interesting people.”
But really, the memories of that night only bring about thoughts of the anxiety you faced, the exhaustion, the difficulty in appearing in different ways with different people. Perhaps you remember the few people who you felt could see through your mask and how those people made you feel especially ashamed and afraid.
You feel that you are helpless to the facade that you feel you must exhibit in order to be accepted in public. You feel that letting anyone in on your real feelings would be a burden to them. You don’t feel that your real attitudes, feelings or thoughts are worthy of being expressed…”
Okay…so unless you enjoy torturing yourself, this is not the kind of situation you want to be experiencing, especially at functions that are designed to be fun (i.e. social gatherings).
Having anxiety like this can make you feel a concoction of misery. In the scenario, even though she is aware on some level that she is not being herself completely, she feels helpless to her own behavioral patterns and thoughts. She is afraid to show her honest self because it isn’t polished and pretty. She feels unworthy of love, and therefore behaves and speaks in a way that she thinks will be worthy of love from the person she is interacting with. She portrays themselves as someone virtuous, educated, compassionate, or anything else that to her, seems like qualities of someone who is a worthwhile human being.
The funny thing with social anxiety (And invisible monsters under children’s beds) is that there is no real threat. The anxiety comes from the fear.
If you are like me, trying to ignore or deny the anxiety just doesn’t work because it still shows itself in social situations.
In order to be free from social anxiety, something has to change:
You have to befriend your monster.
I dare you to try something:
The next time you are in a social situation, whatever it may be, and you start to feel anxious and awkward, I want you to step right into it and LIVE the awkward. Be the awkward! It’s scary to open yourself to the risk of people seeing an uncomfortable side of yourself (which is actually totally normal and human), but if you do, I promise you that your nervousness will fade away in a moment’s time when you recognize that it isn’t actually something to be feared. A large part of social anxiety is feeling the need to hide how you really feel. Let that extra limb hang out! Don’t hide it, no matter how ugly you might think it is. The secrecy of feeling anxious feeds the monster and perpetuates the anxiety.
I didn’t ever stop being afraid of that monster. I just started to have a dialogue with it and understand it. I allowed it to live under my bed, and as I accepted it being there, it stopped being so scary.
I couldn’t have opened up this much 6 months ago and been so transparent with my anxiety disorder. Having a name for it helped me to grow and accept myself as I am. To be honest, working on accepting and loving myself was the strategy that was most effective. I still have social anxiety but I have worked towards accepting that side of me…accepting the awkward and uncomfortable in me.
As we grow into ourselves, we learn about what makes us special, and accepting the sensitive, emotionally aware, creative, and anxious side of ourselves will help us to grow. Don’t deny the monster, just let it be. Accept it and you will no longer be under it’s control. So I dare you to take on the challenge of of facing yourself with all your anxiety. When you befriend the monster under your bed, he will stop being so scary.
- The first website that really turned on the light for me was anxietycoach.com.
- Learn about anxiety attacks/panic attacks here!
- Check out the patterns and characteristics of codependency. You might find that you fit in with codependent behaviors and thought patterns! (Woohoo!…sad face)
- Learn more about people pleasing from SelfActualized.org’s youtube video.