Breaking Barriers: Overcoming Social Anxiety and Putting Myself Out There
I wanted to be a social butterfly, but I was honestly more of a social moth.
By nature, I’ve never really been a fan of people. I don’t want to say I ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ people, but I’m definitely an introvert that values my solitude. It’s funny to say that, given how talkative I was as a kid. So much so that I didn’t realize that sometimes I would really annoy or bother people (namely my older sister). So rather than a social butterfly, I guess you could say I was a social moth. I was friendly and talkative to the point that I was just overbearing and hard to tolerate. Eventually, I became more concerned with being a burden to someone or annoying them. But instead of finding a proper balance, I ultimately just solved the problem by not initiating conversation with people at all. Even if someone did display interest in me, or wanted to talk to me, I would make sure I gave them short answers to their questions and no elaboration. I would do everything I could to make sure the conversation ended as quickly as possible.
Social Anxiety comes in many forms, some big and some small; fear of talking on the phone, fear of crowds, fear of public speaking, fear of people in general, etc. And people react in different ways. Some people sweat, some people’s heartbeat escalates, some people will isolate themselves entirely (Hi, it’s me), etc. In my case, what I was feeling is considered pretty mild yet still burdensome to everyday life.
Closing Yourself Off Is Not the Answer
Ultimately, my communication and my confidence both started to take a hit because of this behavior. Because I wasn’t talking to people a lot, I started losing my confidence and basically convinced myself that no one really wants to talk to me anyway.
And what I’m about to say is leaning not too far from a sociopath's tendency. I was getting to the point that simple social interactions made me nervous, and even fearful. I started to fear people for no particular reason; my interactions with strangers were intensely awkward (not the ‘cute’ awkward, mind you). But I was prideful; I didn’t want other people to know about my fears so I started purposely acting in a way that repelled others. To keep people from talking to me, I tried to make myself into a person that no one would want to talk to. It’s kind of messed up, but it’s the truth. I knew that if someone did not have reason to talk to me, they wouldn’t. If someone thought I was mean or stuck up or even scary, then they would eventually stop making the effort. And I was okay with that! I was 100% okay with people tolerating me or treating me as if I were invisible because I thought that was better than putting myself out there at the risk of being judged or rejected.
Until a few short years ago, I was very much the type of person who did not want to make more social interaction than necessary. If I had to leave my house it was for a clear objective and it would be for as little time as I could make it. I’d walk around, earphones in, head into a store to get exactly what I needed, and head right back out. If you even dared to speak to me when I was walking with my earphones blasting music, you would be met with the infamous ‘death glare’. Have a question? It better require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer because you wouldn’t be getting more than five words out of me. I’d be cordial, but I was not going to change my stance or facial expression. Everything about my body language basically said: Leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you.
There are many problems with the way I was acting. For one, it’s rude. I treated each and every person like they were a nuisance and a burden all because they felt compelled to speak to me. There are too many scriptures to quote, but we can sum it up in what many of us know to be “The Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you (Matthew 7:12).
What if I had God right beside me (technically He already is because, you know, omnipotence. But let’s say a physical presence). If God were right beside me during all of these interactions, would He like what He sees? How Christ-like am I being when I refuse to talk to people? When I intentionally mean mug? When I am short with people and catch an attitude for no reason? As a Christian, I should desire for God to live within me, and I wasn’t doing that at all. Aside from that, it’s also just a pretty immature way to act. I’m a whole adult and yet I was out here acting like a cranky toddler who woke up too early from her nap.
Also, just like with any other skill, when you don’t hone in on communication skills they have a tendency to deteriorate. Imagine you started learning the piano at age 5 and became pretty advanced by the time you turned 11. However, you didn’t even as much as touch another piano until 10 years later. While you may not have necessarily forgotten everything, you’re definitely not going to be as good as you used to be. Communication skills work the same way; engaging in intentionally negative social behaviors essentially made my skill level in communicating drop.
Change Isn’t Easy, But I Keep Trying
My mom and aunts hated when I or one of my cousins pulled ugly faces. She especially hated when I would cross my eyes over. One of my aunts would yell at us:
“Keep on! Your face gon’ get stuck like that!”
As I got older, of course, I found that this is false. But what’s funny is that this claim ended up coming true for me. I had become a creature of habit and had no idea how to ‘turn it off’. Because I had walked around trying to repel others from me, with a permanent stoic expression on my face, I ended up developing what my generation calls Resting B*tch Face Syndrome (or ‘RBF’). How do you know if you or your loved one is suffering from RBF? RBF symptoms may include:
People constantly ask you “what’s wrong?” when they see you (though absolutely nothing is wrong)
You’re constantly told to “fix your face”
Acquaintances have confessed that they found you “scary” or “intimidating” upon first meeting you.
You find it burdensome to “loosen” up your facial expression because this is when your face feels the most relaxed.
Scrubs and gross old men twice your age urge you to “smile, sweetheart” when you’re walking along and minding your own business.
RBF isn’t the end of the world. But I will admit that mine caused me to be misunderstood by others on multiple occasions. I’ve even had people tell me that they believed I truly hated them, or that they were afraid of me. For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’ll paint you a visual. I’m barely five feet tall, and I weigh less than 130 lbs.
Throughout my school career, I never accomplished doing more than one single pull-up. Despite being 26, I’m often mistaken for a teenager. With that being said, there’s really nothing about my appearance that would warrant anyone to be afraid of me; nothing except my face, of course. That’s just how powerful RBF can become. This doesn’t mean we have to walk around with a crazy smile plastered on our faces like a Titan. That’s a completely different type of scary. But I got in the habit of checking myself especially if I’m anticipating a face-to-face interaction after literally hours of concentration. Sometimes my face gets stuck in “focus” mode: furrowed brow, pursed lips, fiery eyes. If you’re a Christian like me, a quick prayer could help as well. Here’s what I say to myself in prayer in the morning, as well as right before going to social gatherings/events:
“Lord, I ask that you cast out any negativity clouding my heart and mind. Anything that is not like You, that is not pleasing to your sight, that would hinder me from properly connecting with people, I ask that You please remove it”.
Sometimes something negative that occurred in the morning may lay in the back of my mind until that night! By intentionally seeking that negative and making a decision to have a good attitude despite it, I’m giving myself the opportunity to be a more pleasant person to be around.
Selfish Mentality in Social Interaction
I’ve been living in NoVA for years now, and I’m finding that people will really go out of their way to keep their distance from each other. Here’s the most recent example:
I was off work and decided to use my spare time drafting this very blog at a Starbucks near my house. This particular one has a more spacious setup on its second floor. At this Starbucks, most tables are against the walls and they are always taken first because that’s where the outlets are! As expected, when I arrived there were only a few chairs available, no outlets or wall seats. But then there’s this nice big round table in the center that can seat about seven people. Guess who ended up having it all to herself?!
During the time I was there several people entered, looked around, and ultimately cramped themselves in a spot where they don’t have sufficient space for themselves, their bags, and their laptops. Others even decided that they would just leave and head somewhere else entirely. Keep in mind that if someone shared the table with me, they would have ample space and wouldn’t necessarily have to talk to me. On top of that, there was actually two electrical outlets right beneath one of the chairs at this table! But they wouldn’t know that.
In fact, I see so many people who are exactly the way I used to be when going out and about. Intentionally angry-looking face, headphones blasting music, and very short answers to anything said to them. Ironically, this area is also very known for being heavily status-driven. People go on and on about networking, getting connected with others, securing bags, and getting the bread (the young people still say this, right?). One day, I was talking to a young guy who was manning a kiosk for some products he made by hand; still in undergrad, but had some goals for himself. He shared how he would like to have his own business. I asked him more about it and found his ambition really admirable, up until he said: “Yeah, business ownership would be great. But I cannot stand people! I really don’t want to have to talk to people”. I politely let him know that if he was serious about running his own (successful) business, he was going to have to overcome that hurdle.
Dale Carnegie once told a story about how he was able to strike up a meaningful conversation with a stranger just by giving a compliment to his hair. Someone overheard him say this and asked: “What did you want to get out him?” Carnegie had this to say:
“What I was trying to get out of him?! If we are so contemptibly selfish that we can’t radiate a little happiness and pass on a bit of honest appreciation without trying to get something out of the other person in return–if your souls are no bigger than sour crab apples, we shall meet with the failure we so richly deserve”
I truly agree with this. I feel like anyone would be turned off by someone who is only “trying to get something out of them”; another reason I kept my distance from others is that I didn’t believe they would be genuine with me. The issue with a lot of people like the man who asked him that question is that they will not interact with others unless there’s something in it for them. If someone doesn’t see the personal benefit of interacting with you, they just won’t bother. Too many people “network” with a very self-centered mindset, which means they save their people skills and manners specifically for people who they believe to be “worth” it. I’m a big believer in reaping what you sow. If you sow bad seed, you’ll reap bad fruit. If you reap good seed, you’ll harvest good fruit. I often judge someone’s character by how they treat others. If I’m on a date with someone and he’s being really sweet to me, but then turns around and treats the waiter like trash, I don’t want to interact with that person any longer. If I see someone treat their CEO like a king but look down on the maintenance staff, I can’t find myself respecting that person.
One of the traits of being “good” is to do good even when there is no benefit for you, even if no one is around to see you do it, even when there’s not enough battery on your phone to record your ‘good deed’ and post it on social media. Yes, when it comes to business a mutual benefit is crucial in order for that business partnership to work. But we’re talking about some day-to-day interactions just about everyone encounters.
You Never Know Who You’ll Meet (So say something!)
It’s so funny how some friendships and even business relationships can form from the most random spark of conversation.
I complimented someone’s dress one day at the mall, and now we’re close friends. I asked an older gentleman about his shoes while I was shopping for a gift for my dad; he opened up an opportunity for me to interview at his company. I complimented a young woman’s hair at Target; she invited me to a holiday event with her church community and now a cool friendship is developing. I stopped a guy at the mall because I mistook him for someone else, and now we’re good friends as well. A young man who wanted to work with my mentors but didn’t necessarily make it through their interview process; I referred him to a friend of mine who works in film and media production so that he could continue to fuel his dream.
A lot of my more recent friendships and connections came about for me simply because I said something to these people. I didn’t know I’d gain new best friends, I didn’t know I’d get an interview, I didn’t know I’d find someone with a service that I needed. I just wanted to strike up a conversation and possibly add value to that person. I’ve learned that with each day, with each interaction, I need to approach it with enthusiasm. So many people who are in my life now I wouldn’t know them at all if I kept that same negative energy I had a few years back.
Take Pressure off Yourself By Focusing on The Other Person
In a previous post, I mentioned how I let a couple of incidents send me into secluding myself. In actuality, I’ve always had great communication skills or at least the potential for great skills. Those skills were further refined as I got older, even more so when I started college. But because I was so afraid of bothering people or presenting myself as a burden, no one would have really known that. Even if there are moments in which you feel like a social moth rather than a social butterfly, it doesn’t give reason to just close yourself off like that. If anything, it means you may need to engage in a little more reflection:
Do I talk with people or at them?
Do I focus my conversation on the other person or do I mainly talk about myself, my interests, and my own opinions?
Do I make it a point to learn about the person I’m talking to?
Do I take into account that person’s body language?
Does their facial expression, their stance, and their overall demeanor indicate that they are comfortable or enjoying the conversation?
The number one topic people enjoy talking about is themselves. I’ve given an example: I enjoy reading manga and watching anime from time to time. However, I realize that a lot of my friends don’t have those same interests. So it wouldn’t make sense for me to go on and on about my personal analysis of Attack on Titan or hear me gush about my favorite characters’ development in My Hero Academia. What is extremely interesting to me could be painfully boring to someone else. One of the kindest gestures you can make is taking interest in another person’s interests; this is how we develop an outward mindset. To this day, the most touching thing I’ve heard someone say to me is: “Toni Morrison? I don’t really know much about her. Could you tell me more about her?”
In the end, being closed off or creating these barriers in our social life is something that we learn over time. Usually, it’s due to negative past experiences, and other times it could really just be all we know. I make it a point to not take it personally if someone doesn’t want to engage in conversation with me. They could be having a crappy day, they may have a lot on their mind, or they just might not feel like conversing. As someone who values solitude, that last one is important to remember. Don’t let negative reactions keep you from continuing to reach out and connect with people. In all honesty, if an awkward penguin like myself can overcome these challenges with social anxiety and connect with others, I’m sure you can too!
*Originally published on January 4, 2019