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When Social Anxiety Makes Me Believe Everyone Is Staring

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I love people watching, but I hate people staring at me. It’s one of those weird contradictions in my life, and it’s always kind of been this way. I could watch people walk around all day long at the mall, or the airport, or the bus station. I like looking at people and coming up with fun, individual stories about their lives; and I guess that’s why I like writing and creating characters so much. But that doesn’t mean I want those people looking back and having thoughts and opinions about me in their mind.

It started in high school. When I would walk down the halls, it felt like I was always being watched and everyone was thinking mean, horrible things about me. I became paranoid and remained that way throughout college. I’m still really paranoid, because at times, I honestly believe everywhere I go people are watching my every move.

When I found out that it was social anxiety making my brain believe everyone was staring at me, it made more sense. But I still wasn’t able to shut it off. I did a lot of work with therapists. I tried to train myself into thinking that no one was staring at me and that it was all in my head. I tried it, I really did, but it didn’t always work for me. I noticed that sometimes people are actually staring at you, and I didn’t know how to handle that.

Through more therapy, I tried to develop and implement the belief that maybe the people who are staring at me are all thinking positive, nice things. Once again, this belief did not help me overcome my social anxiety. But just recently, I had an experience that changed the way I think.

I was at a waterpark where there were a ton of teenagers hanging out. Teens, to me, seem to be extremely critical and can be downright mean. I was watching groups of teens at the waterpark make fun of each other and the people walking by like it was nothing. Then they turned their attention to me, and I overheard a conversation between two teens about acne.

One teen said to the other, pointing at me, “Well hopefully your acne clears up before you’re an adult because you don’t want to look like her.” They eventually laughed and walked away, but left me in complete shock. I couldn’t believe they said that right in front of me where I could hear them. It was embarrassing, and I felt like a 15-year-old again, so self-conscious about my face.

The rest of the time I was at the waterpark I felt awful because I thought everyone was looking at me and thinking what those teens had thought. I still feel insecure and anxious just writing about it now. But through my self-loathing, I was able to think about what I should do when people are actually staring at me. I came to the conclusion that sometimes people are going to stare at you and it’s not all in your mind. They might even be thinking mean things about you, because in all reality, everyone does it.

It’s hard to look at people and not judge how they are dressed or acting. I do it too, even though I know that judging other people is wrong. I’m guilty of judging the people I see in passing, and thinking, why is he dressed like that or why is her hair that color; so I know people must be thinking that stuff about me too. I have to accept that people might judge me and I have no control over that. It drives my anxiety “crazy,” but there is nothing I can do about what they think.

The one thing I can do is change how I think about myself.

I will be the first to admit my self-esteem and anxiety go hand in hand. I don’t always think very highly of myself when I’m having a panic attack or dealing with an anxiety-related issue. I am both my toughest critic and worst enemy when I should be my biggest fan and best friend. If I saw myself differently, then it wouldn’t matter if teenagers talk about me at waterparks or not. That is what I need to work on, and I would encourage everyone else to work on themselves too, because self-love is the enemy to mental illness.

My grandma used to say that people will talk about you until the day you die, and she was right. It makes it harder to deal with when your mind plays tricks on you and tells you that everyone is always talking about you, because that is simply not true. They are not always talking about you, but when they are, you have to learn not to let it affect you. It’s easier said than done, trust me, I know; I have to give myself daily pep talks before I leave the house every morning.

Even though I’m still a work in progress, I truly believe we are all stronger than the people talking about us. So the next time someone is staring at you, it doesn’t matter whether they are thinking positive or negative things about you, hold your head up high and carry on with your life, because you are amazing just as you are.   

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Thinkstock photo via BananaStock

Originally published: June 22, 2017
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