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To the Kid in High School With Social Anxiety

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When I was in high school, I was so shy that it took effort to look someone in the eye. There were lunch periods I spent by the lockers or in a bathroom stall because, in the cafeteria, it felt like there were so many eyes on me. With close friends and family, I was actually funny, but I could barely muster a smile when I passed acquaintances in the hall. Some called me shy. Some called me a snob. But what I remember most is how suffocating high school felt. I felt squeezed with the expectations of others — some real, some in my own mind. But the pressure around me was so suffocating that I could barely be in my own skin, let alone figure out who I really was. I felt like one person at home — brave, funny, genuine — and a shell of a person at school.

At the end of my sophomore year, I learned from a psychologist that what I had was called “social anxiety.” In some ways, the label made it easier to cope. But, in many ways, I didn’t gain the perspective and confidence I needed to live confidently with the condition until I was in my late 20s.

You will have your own story. Your condition might not look exactly like mine. But my heart is full of so many truths I wish I’d known during the long days of high school. Can I share them with you?

1. Muster a smile and eye contact.

That might feel like a lot. For me, it was. But people want to feel like you like them. A smile can go a long way in making a positive connection with another person. And I mean, what bad thing can they say? “Dude, that guy totally smiled at me!” If they did say something like that, well then, they really need to get a life.

2. You don’t need to do what “everyone else” is doing.

Don’t feel guilty about doing what you enjoy. I wasted so many Friday nights watching a movie with a once-close friend and wishing I had more of a social life. As a tired mom, I wish I would have enjoyed every. last. minute. of that movie! Try to enjoy the moments you can be yourself, instead of wishing you were someone else.

3. It’s quite possible you’re an introvert.

Introverts are creative, intuitive, deep thinkers and good listeners. This means you get more energy from being by yourself reading a book, or listening to music, than grabbing pizza with a group of friends. Take the time you need to refuel, so you have more energy to be around other people. Relax, and let yourself enjoy the quiet!

4. Express yourself in other ways.

I started writing more because it was a way I could express who I was that was empowering. Lean into your unique talents and see them as your gift to the world. Maybe you make music, bake, or snap awesome photos. Maybe you paint, or hand letter, or dance or play football. Find the thing that makes you feel known. Embrace it, and be fully you with it.

5. Enjoy your people.

Maybe it’s your mom, or your brother or your best friend. These are the people who make you feel like yourself. Laugh with them, be silly, tell them your secrets and hold their hand as they tell you theirs. These are the people who will be there, even in your worst moments. They are the people who will help you see who you are, even when you can’t see it for yourself. They will give you hope and courage to find your voice in a noisy room.

6. You’re not broken.

People might tell you there’s something wrong with you. Their opinion hurts, but it isn’t the one that matters. Don’t let them tell you who you are. Maybe you don’t have it figured out yet either. That’s OK, you have time. Who you are might be shaped by your social anxiety, but it doesn’t define you. Dwell in the uncertainty, and the question, and trust you will find the answers eventually. Maybe down the road, you will see being “shy” as your superpower. Life would be so boring if we were all the “life of the party” or the “class clown.” You can’t be boiled down to a label. No one can. You can be loud, funny, quiet, introspective, passionate, confident and shy, all wrapped into one complicated package called you. Because that role hasn’t been taken yet.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: September 1, 2017
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