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The Socially Anxious Friend

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We walk among you. We look like you, talk like you and try our best to act like you. Our one wish is that you don’t notice we’re different. We are the socially anxious, low self-esteem brigade.

Truth is we’re probably not that different, but we have no way of telling. We’re too busy analyzing everything we said, did, wanted to say but were too scared, or posted on social media. And that’s before we get to analyzing the things people have said to us. Truly, it’s exhausting.

We come in all shapes, sizes, genders and identifications. Some of us have even mastered the art of appearing confident in certain situations. It’s like acting a part constantly, but we do it to try to feel like one of you. Many of us have jobs, relationships and even friends. Well, I say “friends” — this is where we come to our first problem.

We have no idea what you think of us. Truth be told, we’re a bit scared to find out. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known us 20 minutes or 20 years, we don’t know how you feel about us. You’re important to us though, every single one of you. In fact, the only thing we’re sure of is you mean more to us than we do to you.

Logically we know that may not be true. We are analytical people after all. But social anxiety doesn’t listen to logic, and neither does the self-esteem monster. That’s predominantly where social anxiety comes from, the deep-seated certainty that we’re just not quite good enough.

Every detail of our interactions will be mulled over, analyzed, broken down into so many pieces it can never be made whole again. The words you used, your tone of voice, your expression and the things you didn’t say (you can tell a lot about a person from the things they omit). If the interaction is online, we’ll even analyze the emoji. Please don’t think we’re judging. We’re just trying to understand.

Ironically, we’re good friends to have. Many of us are used as advisors by almost everyone we know. We tend to be great at solving other people’s personal problems, we’re often called intuitive and empathetic. We should be, after all, we’ve been studying you and trying to figure out how you work our whole lives. The blind spots only appear in relation to how people see us.

We’re deeply loyal as well. Getting to a point where we can converse with someone in relative comfort is a mammoth task for us. If we get to that point with you, you have our loyalty for life. Seriously, there is very little you can do to stop us from wanting to see the best in you. We’ll even make excuses for you if you treat us badly. The self-esteem monster will tell us it’s all we deserve, then it will remind us that if we say anything, you won’t want to talk to us any more and we’ll be alone.

Don’t think that means we forget anything though. We will probably instantly forgive poor treatment, being ignored or slighted or even insulted. But we won’t forget. The self-esteem monster wouldn’t allow it. Outwardly, we’ll tell ourselves you’re busy, you didn’t think, you didn’t mean it to sound like that. The self-esteem monster knows better. It knows we are getting what we deserve, and it will remind us if we ever get too cocky.

That’s another thing about us low self-esteem and high anxiety types: we crave human connection. External validation is important to us. All we want is to be important to the people who are important to us. To feel like part of a group. To be thought about. To be wanted rather than tolerated.

For the most part, we’re a kind bunch. We know better than anyone else what it feels like to be scared, unsure, hurting or lost. We never want anyone else to feel like that, and we certainly couldn’t live with being responsible for it. We know what a small act of kindness can mean.

Admittedly, we’re not always easy to be friends with. We have a tendency to need reassurance. We don’t believe it but we need it. If we make plans with you we will probably have to endlessly check the details, time, travel and what to expect. We need to know who will be there, what we’re doing and how long it will last. If you change things unexpectedly, there is a good chance we will suddenly be unable to attend. We will obviously beat ourselves (hopefully only metaphorically) for cancelling, but psyching ourselves up for a change in plans is just too traumatic.

Physical contact is another huge issue. If you are one of our chosen few, the ones we feel most comfortable with (clue, if we’ve started a conversation with you without looking like we’re going to throw up, you’re in that group), chances are we will crave affection. It’s easier to read a hug than a conversation. Your body language speaks volumes, and it all goes back to the human connection. However, if you’re not part of that set, then the very thought of physical contact can send us running for the hills. Proceed carefully.

How can you tell if we are part of your group? There’s no single answer I’m afraid. We’re masters of disguise. Some of us will be the quiet, nervous looking ones. They’re the easiest to spot. But some of us have built strategies involving apparent extroversion.

Are we worth it? Honestly, I don’t know – did you expect me to? – but I hope you’ll think we are. We’re kind, helpful, fiercely loyal and generous with our time, attention and affection. But we can be kind of high maintenance. If you take the time you may also find some of us are funny, intelligent and interesting as well.

So, how should you deal with a socially anxious, low self-esteem friend? Firstly, no confrontation. If you think one of your circle fits the criteria, give us the opportunity to tell you, but don’t force it. Many of us will open up about our issues in a safe environment, but some of us aren’t there yet.

Secondly, keep in touch. It is incredibly difficult for us to make the first contact, even if we’ve known you for years. We worry about being annoying or our contact being unwanted. Something as simple as sending a text or online message can involve hours of stress. If you haven’t heard from us for a while a quick, “hi, how’s life?” can brighten our day enormously. Especially if you really listen to the answer. And try to be consistent. If you say you will call, text or email, do it.

Finally, be explicitly reassuring. Let us know we are important. Say things like, “I’m glad we’re friends,” or “I like having you in my life,” or “I like XYZ about you.” Actually, do that more for everyone you know — everyone could do with feeling a little more appreciated. We might not believe you, but we’ll cherish it nonetheless.

There you have it. Our secrets are out. If you read this far, we thank you.

Editor’s note: Despite the use of “we” in this piece, it reflects an individual’s experience with social anxiety — social anxiety is different in each person.

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Thinkstock photo by Design box

Originally published: April 4, 2017
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