Disclaimer : The following thoughts are based on my own experience of living with social anxiety and the observations I have made. These thoughts are not intended to serve as any form of mental health advice.
If you are currently receiving professional care for anxiety or any other mental health condition please be guided by your medical professional(s) and continue the use of any medication or treatment plans you currently have in place.
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Oh the unfinished business that lays dormant in a writer’s draft folder, patiently waiting for the final finesse before seeing the light of day!
Yes, social anxiety is one of those pieces of “unfinished business”, sitting 95% complete in my draft folder since November 2018.
All I can say is that some pieces of writing take a great deal more courage than others to share with the world — even for a heart on sleeve over-sharer like me!
You know, sometimes I even have this overwhelming feeling that “The Fates” are pulling some strings as to when, or even if, any piece of writing should ever see the light of day.
So without any further procrastination — as if over 45 years of procrastination isn’t enough — this is the day I finally admit openly just how much of a hold, and an impact, social anxiety has had on my life.
While at the same time sharing my rather unconventional views on how I see social anxiety as far more a by-product of a narrow-minded dysfunctional society, than merely some kind of flaw or dysfunctional behaviour to be addressed within each socially anxious person themselves.
And quite honestly, as someone who has wrestled with this demon since the first day I started kindergarten and felt what I have called for the majority of my adult life, “My Differentness” … I strongly believe I have well earnt the right to weigh in on a subject that I have far more first-hand experience with than I would prefer.
The Creation of A Public Persona
Yes, I am actually well aware of that “Differentness” I just mentioned!
Much to the surprise of many I would assume!?
Nevertheless, it is a sense of being different that must be acknowledged in the context of the social anxiety I grapple with.
Because, as content as I am with my own individuality and quirks these days (Finally as I have now hit 49!); I simply cannot express my thoughts on the topic of social anxiety without explaining my need to spend a lifetime concealing as much of my differentness as I could, and still do, behind an array of carefully curated public personas.
My awareness of somehow being different to other people, in particular my peers, began with my earliest childhood memories of my traits and behaviours consistently being portrayed to me as my — flaws — by both adults and children alike.
Obviously, some of the latter, was without a doubt well intentioned and coming very much from a place of misguided love.
On the other hand though, much of the consistent highlighting of my supposed flaws also came from a place of peer pressure, childish cruelty and many adults in my life who simply did not like what they could not understand or control.
A pattern that has continued throughout the entirety of my life within a society that did, and still does, expect my conformity rather than any amount of authenticity from me.
More often than not that awareness that I was, and still am, somehow so different to other people has routinely placed me in a position where my only option has ever been to push my innate inclinations and quirky — apparently unacceptable — behaviours deep down within myself.
Suppressing my true self to appear as “normal” as I can, in an attempt to “fit” within a world and society to which I have never felt any true sense of belonging in any way.
All of which has created a hiding away, or rather covering up, of all those traits and behaviours that have, and continue to be pointed out to me as unacceptable.
Traits and behaviours that I was taught as a young child, one by one, would apparently hinder all my social interactions and personal growth if I allowed them to continue to show themselves to the world.
That differentness aside…
Not only have I spent a lifetime denying myself the right to be authentically who I am, and was created to be, but I have also spent a lifetime of denying the reality of the social anxiety that I have lived with year after year throughout my life.
Social anxiety that at times has profoundly impacted my life for extended periods of time, along with significantly impacting the lives of those closest to me, especially my husband and my children.
You see in my little corner of world, I had begun to learn from my first day of kindergarten that to express, or even feel anxiety in any form was a weakness all on it’s own.
Just another flaw to be concealed and carefully managed like all the other flaws that made me feel different and extremely awkward!
The very presence of anxiety in any form, being just another unacceptable character trait that required me to suck it up and pull myself together; while pushing through every ounce of the discomfort that it brought my way.
And thus, the masks of my public persona were given life!
Masks that I began writing about in the form of poetry some 20 years ago.
Poems such as my simply named Masks and a poem I titled Please Be Patient If You Can, just to name two of many such poems.
Looking back in hindsight, even as a very young child I had begun to unwittingly cover over the differentness I felt through wearing various masks in each and every facet of my life.
Sadly, feeling the need to cover over more and more of myself in different ways with different people. A subconscious need I felt within myself to wear a different mask in front of each and every person in my life; based upon my personal relationship with each one, along with the expectations that were placed upon me by each and every person I had any kind of personal relationship with.
Mask upon mask, layer upon layer, my public persona hiding away some of the most uniquely wonderful, potentially life fulfilling and beautifully inspired parts of myself. —All hidden away behind the ever present mask of a an outward beaming smile!
A lifetime of accumulating one mask after another to cover up each differentness I have felt and experienced, all the while hiding away each and every one of my social inadequacies as best as I possibly could, or rather … Still can!
Not only did I create masks to cover up the personality traits, quirks and any innate leanings I had toward various curiosities and interests I knew would be viewed as objectional or ridiculed by other people in my life…
But, I also found the need to teach myself physical restraint as another kind of mask all of it’s own.
“Physical restraint as a mask?”, I hear you ask!
In the most basic sense, physical restraint as a mask — for me — is simply controlling all of my physical behaviours that have brought negative or unwanted attention my way since childhood!
Behaviours such as leg shaking, rapidly swinging one leg while crossed over the other, rocking on my feet or swaying from side to side when standing still talking with someone or waiting in a queue, along with talking expressively with an abundance of hand gestures and facial expressions — just to name a few.
The majority of which where often deemed as my “nervous behaviours” by other people.
Supposed nervous behaviours, that actually never were nervous behaviours at all for the most part!
Natural … Comfortable … Benign, yet visually evident manifestations of my character that I was forced into suppressing behind a physically rigid facade!
Ironically however, the rigidity I painstakingly taught myself to hold within my body in the company of other people, to suppress and hide my natural inclination of any of those movements, that was far more a display of nervous behaviour than the actual behaviours themselves.
Rigidity, as a means to enforce stillness throughout my body, that has always been far more a product of nervousness than any amount of my leg shaking, leg swinging, rocking, swaying or hand gesturing ways.
Which absurdly enough, are all behaviours I tend do when I am actually more relaxed, content with my life and quite at ease with the company I am in, rather than when I am nervous or stressed!
Oh, don’t get me wrong!
Sometimes those movements and physical behaviours have indeed been, and still are, very much present as a result of discomfort! —Physical, metal and emotional discomfort, that may appear on the surface to exhibit the same function or characteristics of outward behaviour, but in actual fact is anything but the same behaviour.
And as if all those masks have not been enough to contend with, there are also the masks I wear to hide the pain and physical dysfunction brought about by episodes of unrelenting chronic illness since the age of 12, along with having been involved in multiple serious car accidents from the age of 17.
Pain, illness and physical dysfunction that I learnt — long ago — no one has any wish to visibly see in any context, much less hear the full extent of.
Not even anyone with a medical degree, apparently!
Which finally brings me to the masks I have worn throughout my life to hide social anxiety — especially from myself!
You see, when it comes to wearing masks, I even wear masks as I metaphorically look at myself in the mirror, all in an attempt to continue to hide the truth from myself that social anxiety was, and continues to be a dominating adversary within my life.
An Acceptance of Social Anxiety
Come 2018, hiding the truth of anxiety from myself was just an everyday part of my life, a learnt and finely crafted behaviour that had been a part of who I was for the overwhelming majority of my life.
I mean, please don’t misunderstand me here … I was well aware of the snarling torment of social anxiety within myself, along with the profoundly traumatic experiences in my life that caused it to grow exponentially at times, well beyond the confines of the name “Social Anxiety”.
Especially whenever Social Anxiety chose to invite all of it’s opportunistically parasitic cousins to come out and play!
And, I was even more aware of it’s ability to paralyse me with fear; as if it were a vicious predatory creature hiding in the shadows of darkness that I dare not acknowledge the existence of for fear of it’s unwarranted savage attack.
That was until…
November of 2018, when I was forced to confront this lifelong demon within myself after having stumbled upon a TEDx video of Jordan Raskopolous talking about High Functioning Anxiety.
It was then, that I could not deny the presence of social anxiety in my life any further!
Honestly, it was a video that packed one almighty relatable kick in the guts from a personally earth shattering perspective that left me reeling.
And for the life of me, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I ended up at this YouTube video!?
I mean I started out watching one of my favourite morticians, Caitlin Doughty, talking about the history of Santa of all things … Next thing I’m sitting back utterly speechless with tears streaming down my face, having watched a video I could relate to wholeheartedly, by a person I would never have imagined I could have so much in common with.
Throughout this TEDx Talk Jordan spoke about the experience of living with high functioning anxiety. Giving notable mention to issues such as…
- Life Fright
- Self Talk
- Fear of Failure
- Perfectionism & Procrastination
- And … “The Paradox of The Shy Loud” (Which I just love the terminology of, I think it is brilliant!)
Quite frankly, listening to Jordan speak on these issues was like listening to someone break down significant aspects of my own life and character.
(Nothing like feeling as if a complete stranger has crawled inside your head and is now outing one of your most annoying demons to the entire world in a TEDx Talk with pin point accuracy!)
Which got me to thinking far more deeply about my own thoughts on living with high functioning, and at times socially debilitating anxiety; along with where I believe the rise in this form of anxiety stems from.
Now obviously, in stating how much I can relate to Jordan, it is clearly not so much in experience exactly, but more so the thought processes and reactions involved when feelings of anxiety decide to make their presence felt.
For instance I am the opposite to Jordan in that I do not do public speaking because that is what terrifies me. —But, very much like Jordan I have been known to hide in the lady’s room or some other quiet out of the way place when feeling overwhelmed in social situations or experiencing sensory overload, especially in chaotic and crowded environments.
Likewise, I also empathise greatly with Jordan’s examples of “Life Fright”, and especially Jordan’s explanation of how perfectionism and procrastination mesh together with fear of failure in over-thinking tasks to be completed.
Which is all … Extremely exhausting!
All of which I might add, I was already well aware of within myself long before having watched Jordan’s video on the subject.
Prior to watching this video however, it was simply a case of my refusal to call this insidious little demon by name or give acknowledgement to any of it’s tentacles that were pervasively chocking the life out of my soul.
But you know, there has never been any of Social Anxiety’s play mates quite so insidious as “Self Talk”!
Oooooh! … The processes of torment and doubt that Self Talk employs to play mind games with me. Meshing together perfectionism and procrastination, while at the same time dragging me down dark rabbit holes of the all the memories and knowledge held within my mind.
Self Talk – It’s A Dark Twisted Path
My goodness! … “Self Talk”! … Just where DO I begin with this curiously twisted, sometimes entertaining, often cruel, occasionally quite pleasant and all consumingly intrusive demon!?
A demon with an alluring appeal, who knows it’s charms can easily seduce me into taking a seat in the darkest recesses of my mind.
Or for that matter…
Where do I begin with all the twisted little demonic sycophants that ride the coattails of Self Talk!?
Some of whom can be deviously naughty and cruel intentioned, while others are delightfully nice and I actually enjoy the company of when they choose to spend time with me!
It is a reality I live with on a daily bases, that no sane person really wants even a glimpse into!
However, here we go with that glimpse nonetheless…
Self-talk — for me personally — is an unfathomable expanse of never ending replays of conversations, events and tedious blow by blow analysis of every word spoken and each action taken throughout any and EVERY SINGLE social interaction I am a part of!
No matter whether it is interaction with family members, friends, acquaintances or strangers … Nor does it matter how inconsequential, brief or pleasant the interaction with any other person or group of people may have been.
Blow by blow analysis that is always followed by a meticulous process of curation and archiving of memories, in the unending recesses of a mind that resembles an archival warehouse of knowledge and memories so vast that the parameters of it’s boundaries could never be found!
(I mean honestly, not even my husband of almost 25 years is brave enough to venture into that weird and wonderful treasure trove of heaven and hell colliding within the confines of this all consuming — never resting mind!)
When I say self-talk, think of it in these terms…
Alice in Wonderland meets Nina Proudman from Offspring to go for a stroll through The Twilight Zone, taking brief moments to reflect in The Lost Room before re-emerging endlessly on Groundhog Day in a room at the Bates Motel!
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it!?
Did I just mention a moment ago the word “exhausting”!?
Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically and relationally — EX-HAUST–TING!
Prolonged periods of exhaustion brought about through the fact that any form interaction I have with any other person or event I choose to attend, never begins or ends in the moment of that interaction, much less my arrival or departure of an event.
You see for me, and many others like me, the preparations for any routinely scheduled interactions with other people or planned social events begin the moment I know the date, time and place.
Preparations that begin with the involuntary process of wandering through that unfathomable expanse of filing cabinets in the archival warehouse of my mind.
A process then takes over, extracting files detailing past experiences with those specific individuals, mutual social connections, locations and the experiences of past similar events, etc, etc…
- Past conversations replayed
- Potential conversations rehearsed
- Likes, dislikes and interests noted
- Past social faux-pas playing ad-nauseam
- Location researched
- Environment studied
- All potential outcomes explored
- And … The list goes on!
Then, immediately after any interaction with any other person, albeit a family member, friend, acquaintance or stranger — routine, impromptu or planned — the self-analysis, debriefing and cataloguing begins!
An intensive process that can continue for hours, days, weeks, months, even years!
And in many cases, never fully ends depending on the level of emotional engagement that I experience within any and all social interactions, along with the the intensity of sensory stimulation I felt within an environment.
No matter whether the experience was uplifting and positive, downright negative or somewhere in between!
Ironically though, I do not remember people’s faces!?
I simply have a terrible time recognising people outside of the location or environment I know them from.
Admittedly, I have had many extremely awkward — socially anxious — moments of having an unexpected meeting with a person I have known for years or even recently met, outside of where I know them from, and not been able to physically recognise them at all as someone I actually know, much less put a name to their face, as they approach me!
Now in saying that, I may not recognise a person physically or their face as such, to put a name to them or what our actual connection is. BUT, I still know without a shadow of a single doubt that I do actually know them, it’s just a matter of keeping calm and allowing my brain to find the right information.
That is, until the moment I piece together the correct information in my mind and I can bring the game of “Faking It Until I Make It” to an end; hopefully before the other person realises I have actually been covering up the fact that I have not had any idea as to who the hell I have been talking to up until that moment! (For whatever period of time elapses before the realisation kicks in, sometimes not knowing at all until we have gone our separate ways and I can quietly say to Daniel, “Who was that we were just talking to?”)
However, what I can tell you about the person who’s face I am unable to recognise or name I cannot recall in those unexpected meetings, is what I remember of past conversations, interactions and my experience of our relationship, going way back. —Such as our involvement, the details they have shared with me about their life, their likes and dislikes, how I felt in their presence and details of the environment I was in with that person at various times.
I remember the little details other people may miss and retain the facts of other people’s lives, that I am still learning, most other people apparently do not.
And, I live with a long term memory that refuses to let go of the past in any way, other than faces that is, whether or not my experiences of those past memories have been heaven, hell or at a crossroads somewhere between the two.
I also feel every emotion at an intensity that takes an enormous amount of energy to contain behind any of the masks I wear to uphold the persona of calm and normality as best I can!
An intensity of which I have no words to explain the full extent of to anyone!
Still, as if all that isn’t enough going on behind each of the masks I wear…
Being highly empathic, I also experience the feelings and emotions of everyone around me; coupled together with an acute awareness of the sensory input and energy of each environment I find myself in.
An awareness of my environment and the feelings, or energy, of other people that frequently overloads my senses!
Often, causing me to become so overwhelmed in crowded, noisy or energetic environments that I find myself close to tears and routinely fading into the background, before succumbing to my NEED to disappear for a few moments of composure in a quite out of the way location.
Inevitably, all social interaction and time spent in a crowded, noisy or energetic environments ending in debilitating fatigue requiring prolonged periods of isolation to recover.
And when I use the word “crowded”, I mean that even hours spent in the company of one single other person — leisurely conversing back and forth over a cuppa or a meal — inevitably causes me to fade into exhaustion that requires prolonged recovery time.
Additionally, when I say “crowd”, I really mean anything more than five or six people is a crowd for people like me, never mind a shopping mall or function of any kind! … That’s a whole-nother level of exhaustion and recovery to try to explain.
Heck! … I can even become overwhelmed and completely fatigued just spending an evening with my adult sons, their significant others and our grandchildren, which are some of the most precious, wonderful, happy and wholly rewarding moments of my life.
And yet, utterly exhausting from an emotional, empathic and sensory point of view!
But I suppose worst of all for me, is that in conjunction with having an exceptional long term memory of lived experiences and conversations, I also bare the burden of being able to hear the unspoken words in conversations and pick up on subtle perceptions that many people think they hide so well.
Ultimately, leaving me to carry a burden of being able to recall every flaw within me that has been point-blank highlighted by any other person!
Whether or not they are subtle hints or overt tactless criticisms, they are the perceptions of others that have been quite clearly pointed out — rightfully or wrongfully — which cannot be undone.
All of which culminates in frequent self-therapy sessions!
Impromptu! —Self-guided therapy sessions that I never scheduled an appointment for, or chose to willingly attend.
Unscheduled self-analysis sessions of recent conversations and events playing over and over until I can be sure I have not made a fool of myself; or even more so, that I have not caused offence, discomfort or harm to any other person.
Involuntary regressive therapy sessions that sift through a lifetime of memories and experiences!
The catalyst for each of these little “therapy sessions” often being extremely benign in nature, files extracted from that great warehouse of filing cabinets in my mind through a single fleeting memory that is often engaged by…
- A recent event
- A sound
- A smell
- A taste
- A physical sensation
- A song
- A visual cue
- An image
- A video scene
- Or simply … An emotion I have felt at any given moment.
One filing cabinet drawer after another in my mind spontaneously opening and extracting related files!
Seemingly unconnected experiences connecting one to another, conversations and time periods linking one to the next throughout my lifetime in a manner that visually resemble the piecing together of a crime board.
An archival process of examining information and piecing together of that information which finally concludes with the closing of the final drawer. —Or a much welcomed distraction, should the memories and replays have taken me to the pits of my own personal hell.
And yes, I am most certainly aware that what I have just described also smacks of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD or indeed C-PTSD) — which is entirely valid and certainly overlaps with social anxiety.
However, the nature of that potential PTSD or C-PTSD, and the many experiences that created it throughout my life, are completely off topic in this particular instance. Although, I may choose to open up about my speculation on either of these in my life, along with that little doosie’s creation in a post yet to come.
But I digress…
The Fallacy of “Social Norms”
There is no denying it any further … Evidentially, I do live with high functioning social anxiety!
Nevertheless, in admitting I grapple with social anxiety, and it even impacting my life quite severely at times, I also see social anxiety from a very different point of view to the supposedly unexplainable mental health crisis that many forms of anxiety have been washed over with.
In making that statement, please do not misconstrue what I am saying, anxiety in all it’s varied forms irrespective of causation, along with the current mental health crisis in general is very real, and gravely concerning — to say the very least!
I will also say, that I am not entirely opposed to medications. —There are most certainly people who require medication to address physiological, or chemical / hormonal factors involved in the causation of their mental health challenges, including anxiety.
As well, there are some people who very much benefit from the use of short term psychiatric medications during their recovery process from anxiety and many other mental health concerns, whatever the root cause is behind that anxiety or mental illness.
Social anxiety from where I stand though — is a different point of view — a view in which “Different“ is THE keyword!
You see, pondering my own experience with social anxiety quite a number of years ago I came to this personal conclusion…
As people we are all extremely unique, with unique personality traits, talents, abilities, characteristics and thought processes in all varied combinations. —Each one of us extraordinarily one of a kind in our purpose, function and the path that had been set for each of us to journey along through our individual lives! (No matter whether you believe that path is a spiritual journey, a meaningless cosmic accident or whatever else that gels with your personal belief system.)
And yet, we live in a world that demands every person conforms to some kind of narrowly defined “normal“ way of life!?
A normal that really is just a fictitious means to control human nature for the sake of a societal or community structure.
The expectations of a minority influencing the majority to conform to their vastly restrictive ideas of what normal human behaviour should look and sound like. —All the while, the conditioning for every person to conform becomes the destructive force to all those amazing little traits and eccentricities that make us so wonderfully unique as individuals!
The end result…
That the most precious gems of personality and life’s purpose within each of us is disabled and broken down to lay dormant — often forever — to vanish as dust swept up and blown away by a gust of wind.
Think about it for a moment!
All those little parts of your own self that you may have felt the need to hide away behind closed doors, or sadder still — outright reject!?
Now for the person who is viewed as “different” — The misfit, outsider, loner, eccentric, introvert, non-conformist…
That person who is seen as unwilling to follow the rules and touted as aloof, weird, lost in their own little world or disparaged through euphemisms that suggest a lack of intelligence or laziness — like being a daydreamer or that child in school who could have achieved so much more if only they had just applied themselves!
This is where I believe the seed of anxiety is sewn for a good many of us!
A seed sewn by a world that demands unreasonable standards of conformity from people who could not be more different from the narrowly insisted upon societal norms if any of us tried.
Thankfully there are those of us different folk who were and are encouraged to allow their differentness to shine brightly.
And, there are also those of us who eventually learn to walk to the beat of own drums. —Because rejection by other people is painful enough without feeling the need to reject one’s own innate individuality, traits and quirks for an entire lifetime. (Believe me, I know!)
Unfortunately however, some of us don’t learn that it really is okay to walk to the beat of our own drum until we have lived through multiple decades in this oppressive world of manufactured normalcy.
Supposed normalcy, that quite frankly, could not possibly be any more abnormal!
Anxiety As The Only Logical Outcome
What those who do fit within the narrowly defined normal of this world don’t realise, is that the person who is viewed as different is actually far more aware of their own “differentness” than those who whisper of that differentness behind their backs.
Sideways glances with condescending attitudes or ridicule, are vastly more overt than is ever calculated.
The rolling of eyes intended to be concealed as a silent release of disapproval or bemused mockery, is more often far less discreet than those in the act realise.
And as for the the hushed tones of words thought to be whispered ever so softly, carrying a sentiment of, “She’s just a little bit different!”… They are never hushed at all! … But rather attitudes of disapproval, bemusement and even ridicule that speak with a deafening volume of the differentness that is already felt so strongly within.
All further heightening and validating the knowledge of that differentness and all the awkward feelings within that scream, “You do not belong!”.
For the person who feels every bit of that differentness, there is a lifelong battle of choosing what parts of themselves to break down and assessing the extent to which their true self is required to be suppressed in the presence of other people.
In some instances bringing about a need for what can only be described as a metaphorically amputation.
All in order to become at least partially acceptable!
Because the person who knows they are different is acutely aware that being wholey acceptable — for who they really are — is nothing more than a fantasy that will never become a reality.
Concealment and suppression of innate characteristics, traits, talents and socially unacceptable physical behaviours are just the beginning.
Personal interests, career focus and innate leanings toward subjects or spiritual inclinations regarded as weird, disrespectful, evil or taboo are defined as unacceptable or open to subtle if not outright ridicule.
Breaking with the beliefs and traditions of serving whichever god or religion any person is born into is often viewed as a damning abomination.
The inability to express, much less openly explore, what is at the core of who they are deep within themselves inevitably brings about the derailing of a person’s unique, and wholly fundamental right, to walk their own spiritual path guided by their own innate intuition and personal spiritual calling.
These — and many more — are the parts of ourselves cried for in secret because they are misunderstood and labelled as defective.
And yet, more often than not, these wrongfully perceived flaws are actually the most valuable attributes any person who knows they are somehow different has to offer.
Tragically, these are the parts of us “different folk” that are required to be broken from who we are.
Discarded as worthless!
Regarded as mistakes and non-conformity in need of correction!
Any person who knows the “differentness” I am speaking of, knows exactly how young the concealment and suppression of the true self begins, along with the fullest extent as to how deep and vast that suppression must go to live in this world of manufactured normalcy.
I obviously can’t speak for every person who has felt their differentness as a lifelong companion. But at a guess, based on my own experience, I would think that in general the majority who don’t quite fit or don’t fit at all, have been well aware of their misfittedness since their earliest memory within society, and even maybe within their own family.
Please, someone tell me where anxiety has no place in any of that!?
Or for that matter … Exactly how it is acceptable to continue to deny the reality of the harm being done to so many people through the misguided notion that some fallacy of normal should continue to be given value and upheld!?
ESPECIALLY! —When it comes to the damage that continues to be done to our children within the educational systems that choose to not only uphold, but tighten the grip of the ever increasingly narrowing of the definition of normal!
For people like me, who could never break ourselves in just the right places to fit within the expectation of what normal was supposed to look like, according to the rules of that manufactured normalcy and the expectations of others … A life involving some level of anxiety should not be any surprise at all!
In fact, a life involving heightened anxiety should be the only valid — and quite logical — expectation!
I strongly believe this, simply because every person is expected to conform to the narrowly defined normal of their parents, extended family, birth place, culture, religious associations, educational institutions and even the era we are born into.
The correction, conditioning and discipline involved including disapproval, punishment, shame, humiliation, fear or a combination of any of these and many others…
Anxiety should be nothing but a forgone conclusion!
The Broken Shards of Conformity
Speaking further from my own personal experience … My inability to fit within the confines of “normal” is exactly how I believe the seed of social anxiety was given life within me!
From those earliest childhood memories I spoke of in the first few paragraphs, to the misfittedness I felt so intensely as I began kindergarten and found my inability to gel within an educational system that ran against the grain of every fibre of who I was, and am, as a person — both socially and academically — it did not take me long to figure out I simply did not belong.
In short, my nature was more introverted than extroverted. I was often called shy and told regularly by everyone around me that I was “overly-sensitive”.
And while I may have been naturally more introverted as a child while being touted as shy and overly sensitive … I was also viewed as impulsive, boisterous, over-reactive, at times aggressive and a motor mouth who never knew when to stop talking once I had begun.
Yet, above all of these I was very much the daydreamer that I was so often labelled as. —A little girl so often lost in her own secret world of daydreams, creativity, enchanting curiosities and the other worldly fascinations of eras gone by.
A daydreamer who became a woman far more comfortable in a world of deeply inquisitive thoughts within her own mind, or the sanctuary of exploration, learning and creativity she created for herself within her own home — far away from the supposed normality of the “real world” and all the pain filled chaos therein.
Physically, I was abnormally tall for a girl, genetically prone to chubbiness irrespective of my diet or activity levels, had zero coordination at all when it came to doing girly things like dancing, gymnastics or aerobics, and my body had no flexibility to it like the other girls around me … I was far more muscular in build than other girls, had strength that at times surpassed the boys in any of my year levels and very much preferred to play footy, british bulldogs or any other rough and tumble games with the boys to netball, skipping or red-rover-all-over with the girls.
While I did, and do, love girly things and dressing up … At the heart of it I always was, and will be, a tomboy!
All these things and far more, I was everything that no socially acceptable girl was supposed to be!
And so, even as a very young child I was acutely aware that every part of how I was created to be different was viewed as a flaw that was required to be concealed, corrected and in some cases metaphorical amputated.
Of course, I never really understood it at the time — not until much later in my life — having lived well into my forties with excessively low self-esteem that held me in a submissive people pleasing role with every person in my life.
I also believed, well into my 30s, that I was too intellectually stupid and characteristically flawed to deserve any higher standing amongst family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.
Socially, having never quite fitted my entire schooling life, while having my differentness pointed out, ridiculed and viewed as character flaws in need of correction by both my peers and teachers alike, year in and year out during each and every year of my schooling life … It is little wonder I had excessively low self-esteem by the time I left school.
Especially having endured two, year long periods, of intense harassment and outright bullying so severe it caused prolonged physical illness. —Those two years being the worst of what I experienced during my schooling years.
The first by a teacher who could not understand me as a person and simply did not like what she could not understand, so chose to employ social humiliation and excessive punishment to “correct” me as a person. While the second, was a fellow female student who’s own self-esteem issues had her believing it was her right to socially humiliate me and control every aspect of my life, both in and out of school hours, in an effort to boost her own ego, at my expense.
Likewise, from the academic perspective, by the time I left school I had formed a belief about myself that I was on the lower end of the IQ scale — somewhere between a tad behind the eight ball and overtly stupid I suppose!
All of which was never a hard conclusion to come to based on my consistently low grades at school and the ever present insinuations of my lack of intelligence through the kinds of disparaging euphemisms I spoke of earlier … In particular was my reputation as a “daydreamer”, both in and out of school, as well as the commonly written sentiment in my report cards of, “Rebecca has the ability to achieve a far higher standard, if only she would choose to apply herself!”
As far as my education went, other than my passions of English, History and Art … I struggled to complete the work that was set, had difficulties keeping up in class, was frequently distracted by my own thoughts, felt tortured by the pressure to complete homework assignments that I had zero interest in and dropped out of school half way through year 11 to pursue a career in baking.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I learnt I am actually quite gifted in the art of writing and had a natural lean toward being highly adept at in-depth research, especially when it came to my lifelong passions of ancestry, genealogy, history, folklore, spirituality and occultic fascinations.
I also discovered around the age of 25 that I had natural abilities to effortlessly operate any electrical devices I came in contact with, including teaching myself how to use computers and work in IT.
Sadly though, it wasn’t until I was well into my 30s before I began to view myself with any form of intelligence that put me anywhere near the level of intelligence I saw in other people — even though deep down somewhere within me — I knew I had far more to offer and a much higher intelligence than most people have ever credited me with.
Basically, my learning style and the way in which I am hardwired was simply not conducive to an educational system created by such restrictive criteria.
The expectations I had been asked to conform to from the perspectives of both education and societal norms — so that I would fit within those narrowly defined parameters — were detrimentally unnatural to the innate core of who I was and am as a person, rendering my most valuable assets to lay dormant.
Figuratively speaking, I could never seem to quite fit into any of the boxes that were consistently supplied for me by each and every person in my life.
Not without becoming broken in the process of being forcefully fitted into those boxes created for me through other people’s expectations. —Expectations often based purely on their own wants and needs, rather than seeing any value in who I was, or could become as a person through the nurturing of all that was, and is, different about me.
Broken shards laying dormant, any yet cutting to the core of all that has been lost.
Sadly enough, this is a story and an analogy that I fear far too many people could understand personally.
And a topic that ties in with a post I wrote a while back about the value of being true to ourselves, For All Your Infinite Worth!
Where To From Here Personally?
Obviously, in my case, as with anyone who battles any form of anxiety, there is a far greater complexity to my story that simply cannot be covered in a single blog post. —The multi-faceted creation of social anxiety in my life coming from an array of sources throughout what is close to a 50 year journey, with an incomprehensible amount of adversity along the way from far too many aspects.
Meaning that the true depth and nature of my personal experience with social anxiety, and all that gave birth to it, is something that no other person will ever see more than a glimpse of.
That said, where I finally go from here … Dare I say it!
Is sitting in psychologist’s consultation room!
I mean, now that I have no other option but to accept that social anxiety — amongst many other things — has been wreaking havoc on my life for far longer than I have ever been willing to admit.
For me, choosing to see a psychologist is something I have avoided for far too many years as a direct result of my forced engagement with teams of psychologists after my First Car Accident during 1990 … Being placed in the WorkCover system, leading to a horrendously damaging WorkCover Experience in which I was not only accused of being a compensation fraud repeatedly by that team of psychologists, doctors and lawyers, but also endured the threat of legal action by a man who worked as a “cognitive therapist” of all things.
A team of supposed mental health professionals — along with doctors and lawyers — who refused to see that the 17 year old girl in their “care” was anything other than the compensation fraud and liar they made her out to be.
That team of “Trained Mental Health Professionals”!?
They were wholly instrumental in forcing my hand to create a new collection of masks to hide behind!
Only this time, it was a collection of masks that would prevent any medical professional from being able to see the true depth of not only my psychological needs … But worse still, the true nature and extent of the physical symptoms that I have lived with as a result of decades of chronic illness and ongoing symptoms of injuries from 3 serious car accidents during 1990 to 1996.
Masks which I have no idea how not to hide behind every time I see a doctor or am in need of medical care, often preventing me from accessing the level of care I require due to my inability to let the true extent of my pain, discomfort or symptoms show visibly.
So when I say, “Conceding defeat!” … What I really mean, is that it is time to overcome my justifiable fear of a repeat performance by a community of “medical professionals” who should have been able to help me remove some of my masks. —But instead, chose to ensure that I would create more masks to uphold the the newly crafted public personas of, “She’ll be right mate!” and “I’m fine thanks!” while portraying myself as physically and mentally well … Even when I am near on collapsing from debilitating illness, covering torturous physical pain and mentally engulfed by the all consuming fires of my own personal hell.
But I digress, once again…
Obviously from all I have written, there is far more going on here than social anxiety. —Which really is just the very smidge of the iceberg breaking the water’s murky surface of the life I have lived and the damage that has been done mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally and even very much physically from a psychological perspective.
Clearly, I have a process ahead of me now that I have finally reached a stage in my life that I can focus on not only healing some of what has been so profoundly wounded, and inevitably will leave painful scars as a lifelong reminder of all that is behind me … But this process will also allow me to get to know who I am behind the masks I use to hide the truth of my own life, even from myself.
It may just be what I need to rediscover and reattach many of those parts of myself that I have felt the need to either hide away or metaphorically amputate through the insistence that I conform to the narrowly defined societal norms of this chaotic, messy and wholly abnormal world we live in.
At the heart of it, I suppose my aim is to become “A Different” in which I can confidently embrace my own worth and allow all that is unique and valuable within me to shine brightly, rather than be hidden away for fear of rejection, ridicule, shame or humiliation.
Sadly, the biggest wound in my life that will no doubt be the scar that will never fully heal over in this lifetime, is the wound of my mother’s heart … The heart of a mother who broke her own children’s differentness, teaching them to metaphorically amputate parts of themselves through the misguided belief it was her job to show her children how to conform to the manufactured normalcy of this world.
In my defence I never knew any other way, because all I had know was the pain that came with my own inability to “fit” within a world I did not belong … All I knew was that I did not want my children to feel the pain I felt through supposed non-conformity and all that came with it.
But shamefully, what I taught my children was that some of their most valuable — worth beyond any human measure — characteristics, traits, talents and uniquely innate leanings, along with their own personal spiritual paths were their greatest flaws.
And while I very much have a wonderfully unique relationship with every one of my sons, in a way that quite often brings me to tears of pride as I watch their characters shine and lives unfold as men … I still wish every day I could turn back the hands of time and encourage each one of them to embrace those parts of themselves that I asked them to discard for the sake of conformity.
Yes! … There is a very long winding path ahead of me. —In which I hope to shed at least some of the dead weight of both baggage and masks, in much the same way a tree sheds it’s leaves during Autumn!
But isn’t this journey we call life just one long winding journey from one season to the next anyway!?
To be perfectly honest, I am not sure where any form of therapy will take me … I mean living with anxiety in general for pretty much all of my life, I have created many of my own personal coping strategies and gotten myself through some horrendous ordeals without seeking professional help.
I’ve also come to realise just how strong I really am as a person and how in some ways I reluctantly owe some of the credit for that strength to the anxiety I have lived with all these years; in amongst many other challenges and all the adversity that has forced me to grow in resilience and strength during the years.
So, we’ll just have to wait and see where this leads as I not only explore the issue of social anxiety in my life, but also the high probability of C-PTSD … And so much more.
Don’t you just love that as humans, we never cease to be a work in progress!
Societal Normality – My final Words
In conclusion, from a societal point of view I do believe the tide is turning for those of us who battle social anxiety due to our differentness, but in saying that there appears to be just as much ridicule heaped on the “normal” people by the “different” people these days in some kind of push back … Which is equally sad really!
In an ideal world we would all be valued for our unique characteristics, traits, talents, innate leanings and the personal spiritual paths each of us feel led to follow, even encouraged to embrace and expand upon all of those things in our lives and so much more.
Unfortunately however, the reality is that we don’t live in an idea world!
The world that we live in is messy, chaotic, opportunistically cruel, self-serving, oppressive and has the power to destroy the very core of any person’s soul … Just as much as it is beautiful, inspirational, curiously fascinating, wonderfully weird, strangely amusing. —And has the capacity to illuminate the human spirit with love, passion and a hunger for life with an abundance of strength that can overcome the most soul crushing of heartbreaks, despair and profound adversity.
And somewhere in all of those opposing and contradictory elements of the world we live in, I suppose I wish our society wasn’t so rigid in it’s definition of normality.
Along with my wish that our schools would embrace and nurture every child in their uniqueness, giving way to an educational system that is accommodating of all learning styles. With each child learning at their own pace according to their own interests, talents, innate leanings and the way in which their brain is hardwired.
As it stands now, just like it did when I was at school … Our educational system is more like a menagerie where all the different species of animals are housed in the same cage and expected to simply get along.
It doesn’t work!
If you put lions in with meerkats, it’s pretty obvious who is going to be worse off at the end of the day. Likewise if you put mice in with owls or any other combination of animal where one is far more dominant in vastly incompatible ways … And yet, that is exactly how our school system is set up for our children, and has been for far too long.
Added to which is the enforced curriculum in which children are expected to throw themselves into learning what they have no interest in or desire to know, while at the same being taught to ignore or abandon what comes naturally to them.
Now don’t take me wrong here, I am not advocating a society without rules or structure where anarchy is given the freedom to conduct the proceedings.
The fact is, we do need a structure within society … One of common sense laws and interpersonal rules (both spoken and unspoken). Laws and interpersonal rules making way for measured functionality, but more so for the sake of safety and civility.
Likewise, parents also need to teach their children how to do things for themselves and stay safe, such as learning life skills and things like road rules etc.
Rules, correction and discipline most certainly do have their place within society!
But what should never have a place within society though, is any form of manufactured normalcy that damages not only people, but the entire structure of a society … Much less, a manufactured ideal of normalcy that creates an educational system which shuts down the most valuable assets within our most impressionable and vulnerable people, our children.
As I wrote in my poem Masks almost 20 years ago, “I look around me and I’m starting to see, a world of hurting people just like me.”
I know I say it often, but I really am far from alone in my experience, and as I look around me and I listen to other people’s stories I can’t help but wonder where we really do go from here as a society from a mental health perspective, in this case with social anxiety.
And so, I suppose all I can do, now that I feel strong enough to take on the demon of social anxiety in my own life head on … Is tell the story that no one else but me will ever know to tell … In the hopes it may just give someone else the courage and strength to embrace all they have felt the need to reject within themselves because the demon of social anxiety felt entitled to impose on them.
In wrapping up, I should really give Jordan Raskopolous some well earnt credit and share a link to the TEDx video that forced me to accept and confront just one aspect of my own challenges of living with anxiety … All those 3 years ago now!
So do check out the video below, it is well worth a look-see … I’m off to gnaw on my nails and “anxiously” await the fallout from this rather long winded overshare now!
Featured Image Background by Moerschy at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Background in “Self Talk Image” by Michael Gaida at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Face in “Self Talk Image” by Sammy-Sander at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Background in “Fading Image” by Sammy-Sander at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Background in “Closed Doors Image” by Qimono at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Background in “Cry In Secret Image” by Mylene2401 at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
Background in “Long Path Ahead Image” by Valiphotos at Pixabay.com via Be Funky
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