I have a dirty secret. And I’ve decided to blog about it. As one does….
I’m scared of people. Like, literally. “Social Anxiety” is the technical term.
I’ve always been an introvert, though my parents were quite shocked to discover I was shy. My mom says I was a total clown at home, pretty much from birth. One of her favorite stories is that I would be in my high chair at dinner and without warning bonk my big brother on the head with my bottle. I was constantly doing silly things for a laugh (I’m the baby of the family. It was my job).
But outside the safety of my tight family unit, I was a very shy kid. I was always tall for my age, and I loved learning. I was the Hermione Granger of my class. Hand always in the air, begging for homework…I had buck teeth, glasses and a lazy eye.
The only thing cool about that picture is the horse.
I was also 5’6” by the age of 11. All these things combined to make me a target of dislike and bullying. I literally have no good memories of childhood socialization before the age of 13. I was 16 years old before I realized that people my age could actually like me. I went to theatre camp at what later became my college, Stephen F. Austin State University. I was surrounded by kids just like me…and I made friends. All on my own. It was a revelation.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Those formative years took their toll on me, and now at the age of 31 I’m only just starting to see how much.
I first started to realize I had a problem at the age of 25. I was in New York City and had been auditioning quite a bit and doing shows. I had used up all my “dentist appointment” excuses for daytime auditions, so it was time to start waiting tables. I got a job at the Olive Garden in Times Square. This was the first time I’d worked outside of a fairly quiet office. When it came time for me to start serving, I had serious trouble. A table would be seated by the hostess in my section, and I would freeze. I couldn’t walk up to these strangers and start a conversation. I would hesitate for so long that my manager actually told me he thought I was lazy. I’m probably the least lazy person on the planet. It’s wasn’t that at all.
I was scared.
But bills had to be paid, so I made it work. I honestly didn’t think about these things much until October 2010. By this time, I had been in LA for a little over three years. I never socialized. I mean, never. My only socializing was rehearsing with the theatre company I belonged to for a while, but I skipped quite a lot of gatherings outside of post-rehearsal drinks. I really liked everyone in the company, and remain friends with many of them. But I just…wouldn’t go to social functions. I made excuses to myself, but I started to wonder why.
Later, after I left the company, I started writing and producing my own content. A web series, called Awkward Embraces and by October 2010, the first season of the show was up and running. I had been promoting it for many months using social media, conveniently from the safety and comfort of my home. But that fateful month I met some new friends (through the internet) who were quite established in the web series community. Steph Thorpe was one of those people, and she remains one of my dearest friends. Steph especially convinced me that I needed to get out of my house and start going to events and meeting people in order to promote the show.
I poured over a year of blood, sweat and tears into my show, but I couldn’t bear the thought of going out to promote it. The thought of going out to a gathering of people I didn’t know and having to talk to them absolutely terrified me. And that’s not an exaggeration. I always have anxiety about an event for WEEKS prior. What do I wear? What do I say? Just picturing a room full of strangers makes my heart beat faster and my stomach tie itself into knots. I have had many sleepless nights worrying about upcoming events. Hell, I’ve had sleepless nights worrying about writing this BLOG for heaven’s sake!
It’s funny, when you live with something your whole life, it’s easy to never recognize it as being wrong. I marvel at the fact that I’ve always been this way, but never thought about it being a hardship that I shouldn’t have to deal with. It wasn’t until I started having to go out to networking events that I realized I have a problem.
A lot of people don’t get it. The most common thing I hear when I talk about it is “Everybody is too concerned about themselves to care about what you’re wearing or whether you just said something stupid.”
Yeah. I know. I’m not an idiot. I’m irrational. There’s a difference.
I’m an intelligent girl. I know that all the fears I have about people aren’t based in reality. I know that most people don’t think twice about excusing themselves to go to the bathroom at a function. I will worry about it and hold it FOREVER. That’s not rational. Everyone urinates! EVERYONE. Why should I feel self conscious about going into the ladies room? Nobody is sitting there thinking “Ew, gross. Jessica is PEEING right now.” But I wait. And wait. And worry. About nothing. But knowing that, doesn’t make the anxiety not happen.
When I’m in a crowd of people I don’t know, I feel like there is a constant buzzing in my brain. I have to concentrate really hard to even have conversations, but later, rarely remember what we talked about. If I remember someone’s name later, it’s like a miracle. I tend to dart around from one familiar face to another, never really processing anything discussed. I’m just trying to find a safe harbor, but there is no safe harbor. So I just bounce around trying desperately to look normal. And then after it’s over, I freak out about what I said and what I did. Did I talk to enough people? Were my conversations too short? Was that awkward silence with the dude in the red shirt and the lady in the flower dress because of something I said? Did I ask enough questions? Did I talk too much about myself? Round and round the mulberry tree until I drive myself even more nuts with all the self doubt.
The past 8 months I’ve socialized more than I have in years. In the process, I’ve met some of the best people I’ve ever known and made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I feel so incredibly lucky to have them.
But I’ve also been under so much pressure, anxiety and strain from constantly having some sort of “event” to go to. It has finally made me realize that this thing I have, this problem, isn’t necessary. There are actually people in the world who LIKE going out and talking to strangers! I may never be one of those people, but I’ve gained SO much in these past few months that I never, ever would have found if good friends hadn’t encouraged me to do what is so hard. If Steph hadn’t held my hand, literally, and gotten me through countless social occasions. If the League of Ladies hadn’t listened to my crazy back and forth event fashion stress and reassured me that I would be fine no matter what.
Thanks to those ladies, those dear friends that I never would have met if I hadn’t faced my worst fear, I now feel like I’m strong enough to really make a change. To make my life better.
And I want all of you to come along with me. Thus begins the Great Social Anxiety Experiment of 2011! Twice per month, I am going to do something that really scares me, and blog about it. Thanks to an awesome suggestion from my mom, and advice from my good friend Andrea (a bona fide PhD), I will be using: Managing Social Anxiety, Workbook: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach By Debra Hope and Richard G. Heimberg.
The experiment begins with Harry Potter! Normally I go to the movies alone at 11am on a weekday. I also drive 20 minutes out of my way to go to a cinema that I know is totally dead at that time of day. Barely any people. I will also wait a few weeks to see a big film until I’m sure no one will be there. But on Friday, July 15 I will be going to see Harry Potter…by myself. Oh dear god, I’m SO nervous about it. I’m dreading it. But I will do exercises from the workbook, I will leave my phone in the car, and I will brave the crowd of strangers! And then I will come home and blog about it. I’ll tell all of you about how I felt, what I was thinking, the exercises I did, and if they worked for me.
If you are like me, then feel free to join in! Order the book and do the exercises right along with me. We can go on this journey together. The League of Extraordinary Ladies is all about creating connections everywhere, but we won’t make those great friendships unless we are brave enough to leave the house. So let’s get brave together.
Also, if there is something you’ve always wanted to do, but have been too scared, leave a comment! If it’s not too out there (I’m incapable of crashing a party. I’m for realsies here, guys), then I’ll do it first! Ask me to strike up a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop, or sing karaoke or whatever. If I can be brave enough, I’ll do it first, write about it, and maybe you’ll see that it’s not so bad after all.
The goal isn’t to cure myself. I know that might not be possible. The goal is to teach myself that it doesn’t have to be this bad. I can be better. Someday, I’d really like to look forward to a social function. I’d like to look forward to talking to strangers.
Just writing those words…well, it feels impossible, but every great journey begins with one step, so let’s see where this one takes us.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment or e-mail me at Jessica@thelxl.com!