The Self-Imposed Isolation of Social Anxiety
The thing about anxiety is that it does not care how strongly you’re able to intellectualize the reality of your unease. It doesn’t matter how irrational your trigger, anxiety will overcome you, even if it’s only for a moment.
At least that’s how it is for me.
I’ve been dealing with anxiety my entire life. Generalized anxiety disorder is my current diagnosis, but social anxiety is the one that has shaped my entire adolescence.
I couldn’t order food at restaurants until I was 18. I couldn’t ask for help from teachers until my second attempt at college. My perceived incompetence was debilitating.
When I entered my 20s I was faced with bearing children and forays into employment. From these experiences, I learned I was more capable than I thought at many things, but learned that socializing was not one of them.
It felt like I would never be able to grab drinks with coworkers after work. I would never sip mimosas with my girlfriends at brunch — mostly because I didn’t have any girlfriends. And I would never take selfies with my bestie and post them for 324 likes on social media.
I didn’t know how to have friends then and I still don’t know how to have friends now.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have any friends. I have 253 of them on Facebook and two I consider my best friends.
The truth is, the internet became my sanctuary. Instead of undertaking the daunting task of forging friendships in the real world, I hid in my bedroom behind a computer screen. Meeting people online has been the only way for me to create friendships that really matter.
For me, social anxiety is like glue keeping a mask on my face. I don’t have to wear a mask online. The distance and the pixels on the computer screen are protection enough. I don’t have to make eye contact with someone when I’m tapping out a message on Messenger.
I don’t even have to be paying that much attention. I can multitask in my own world. While socializing on the internet, I can play music as loudly as I want, I can spend time with my family and can layer as many filters over my socialization as I need to make it more palatable for me.
But the worst thing about social anxiety is the paranoia. According to WebMD, “People with social anxiety disorder suffer from distorted thinking, including false beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others.” This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life and has painted my perception of others from the moment they enter my life.
Sometimes I fear my friends more than I fear imaginary rebukes from strangers.
For example, if I find a friend attractive I will attempt to insert myself into their view as much as possible so I can gauge our interactions.
Do they like me back? Are we going to be best friends? Will they value me as I value them?
But then I find something small I disagree with. It could be my opinion on something that might not be important to most people, like the toilet paper over/under debate. It really doesn’t matter what it is. I fear this one tiny difference will unravel the entire friendship.
And the part that gets me the most is I won’t even perceive myself as being the one with the problem. I might feel in my heart that my differences are beautiful but my anxiety will convince me the other person will find them revolting.
With any trivial difference of opinion, I will find myself in despair. I will think about it at night. I will start having paranoid delusions and will second-guess all my social media posts over the last 24 hours to see if I said something that might anger the other person.
I am so terrified of being abandoned that I isolate myself. In these moments of social anxiety, I will have totally convinced myself that having a homogeneous hive mind is essential to having lasting camaraderie with others.
And I know this doesn’t make a single lick of sense.
Essentially, I feel that if I can’t relate to someone 100 percent, the friendship is not meant to last. So I abandon it. I do to others what I fear most will happen to me.
I impose isolation on myself and it makes me miserable.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 15 million people in this country have social anxiety, and yet 36 percent of them wait 10 or more years before seeking help for it. I have no answers for why this is, but I do wonder if it is because we fear being labeled unnatural.
Socialization is one of the first things we learn to do as babies. I know different people socialize in different ways, but sometimes I feel like an alien.
I have experienced real friendships, but even those seem to be on the precipice. I am always worried my friends are holding back, refusing to close the emotional distance because I am not a valuable friend. The projections I thrust onto my friends are not healthy in any form. It is my personal battle to find the balance between trusting my friends’ affections and expecting them to express satisfaction in our relationship.
Coping skills are essential for people with any form of anxiety. They are a way to intellectualize the fear that grips us. But intellectualizing can only go so far. I perceive it as a bit of a paradox. The knowledge about anxiety is there in my brain along with the chemicals causing the anxiety, so where are the wires getting crossed?
If you tell me the problem is all in my head, you are correct. But the solution is in there too. Why isn’t that manifesting itself as well?
Ultimately, I want to find a way to quiet the static in my mind and calm the heart that roars within whenever anxiety decides to strike. I want to find a way to make peace. I want to finally feel like a human being on earth instead of an alien attempting to make contact with people I could never hope to understand.
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