Have you ever climbed up 15 flights of stairs and told yourself: “It’s a HIIT workout; I’m working out my glutes!” When really, it was your way to avoid making chit-chat with others on the elevator?
I was officially diagnosed with “Social Anxiety” around 2008, shortly after I enrolled in graduate school, among a string of other diagnoses such as ADHD and Bipolar Disorder (Type 2). This did not come as a surprise for me, as I’ve always struggled being around others, especially large groups of people. Memories of hiding out in the library at recess and rushing to my car with my younger sister as soon as the meetings at the Kingdom Hall ended (we grew up with a Jehovah’s Witness mom) were never far from my mind.
Sometimes I’m surprised I’ve even made it this far in my life — having married, had kids (a biological son and a stepdaughter who I raised since a toddler), have friends — in fact, a large group of them, even got jobs. Made it through college and grad school. Was in a mom’s group and countless others. Volunteered, even.
I guess I want you to know that if you’ve ever struggled with something remotely like this, that you’re not alone. That you can be surrounded by friends and family yet still struggle with social anxiety. I’d love to share what I’ve learned along the way. What I want people to know is that you can come to peace with this, that there is something you can do. There are simple non-expensive and simple resources such as eating better, learning meditation, adding exercise into your life, and focusing on a sleep routine. And that therapy — good therapy, that is — is truly priceless.
CBT (cognitive behavorial therapy) can be especially helpful when you struggle with social anxiety. When I had a breakdown after I entered my MFA program in college, shortly after I had my son and still struggling with post-partum depression, I remember actually googling “Social Anxiety” and somehow stumbling onto a page that gave me hope. I read about CBT and how it can help people who get high anxiety around other people get through this. I still remember going to the counseling office at Mills College in Oakland, CA, and talking to a counselor who referred me to Dr. H in a little office on College Avenue in the Rockridge area. Even though my insurance covered 40% of my sessions, I still believe going out-of-network was worth every penny.
Some of the tips Dr. H had me do seemed silly at first. She had me learn some meditation and mindfulness tips. When I felt panicked, she had me focus on my five senses. What did the floor feel like beneath my bare feet? Was it hard? Cold? What colors did I notice around me? Green tiles? Red petals? What did I smell? What did I hear? What did I see? How did my body feel? I began learning, like Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel-san in the movie I loved as a teenager, The Karate Kid, how to change the lenses–and habits– of our lives in order to live. I told her about my fears, how I worried people were judging me, were thinking the worst of me. Especially when sharing semi-autobiographical fiction in a MFA program and frightened about everyone’s opinions, fretting about the subtext beneath the written comments they had left on the hard copies of excerpts of my novel. I remember running to the bathroom after class ended reading my classmate’s comments, barely unable to breathe. So what? she asked. So what if they thought this about you. She had me do the “So What?” exercise. I had to write out what I believed they’d think about me after any particular event, such as a literary reading, for example. So what if they think I’m narcissistic? If they think I’m a loser? If they think an Asian woman of my age should not be thinking or saying this or that? That I’m a terrible writer that didn’t belong in the fiction writing program? So effing what? She would have me write until the “so what’s” didn’t make anymore sense, had lost their logical conclusions. That was one exercise.
Another one we practiced that helped immensely was the sticker exercise. One day, Dr. H had me put on a bright green dot sticker and adhere it to my forehead. She put a red one on hers and we walked out of her office into the bookstore next door. She asked me to predict how others would react. I told her they’d laugh. They’d point. They’d be disgusted. I mean, who in their right mind would go out into a public place with a sticker on their face. Right? She wrote down my predictions. Then we decided to head out to this hipster bookstore next door. There were like four customers browsing books on the shelves. One older man looked at me. But for just a few seconds. I met his eyes, but he quickly averted them. That was it. I was surprised! Dr. H then suggested that we go out onto the sidewalk, outside the bookstore, and wave at cars driving by. She suggested we jump up and down and even kick our feet up into the air. We were both Asian American women in our 30s then with primary color sticker dots from Avery and long dark hair walking down the street in an upscale neighborhood in Oakland, California, waving and smiling, drawing attention to ourselves unlike what we would normally do on any given weekday afternoon. But here we were, and nobody even so much as honked their horn. What I realized that day was that nobody gave an absolute shit about us. And Dr. H, I thought, was actually pretty! Later, Dr. H told me the story about how her skirt got caught in an escalator at the Rockridge BART station one evening during rush hour, and even though she was left standing in her underwear and pantyhose, no one really, in the end, gave a shit. It was an important lesson. It taught her that everyone, when it came down to it, was mostly focused on themselves. Not her. All this time, she had worried that people were thinking of her, were judging her, but when this most embarrassing moment of her life happened, she was largely ignored. It taught her a lesson that we don’t need to worry that much about what other people think about us. Because people really are more worried about themselves!
Doing that exercise that day was life-changing for me. I came to realize that there was no reason to be that frightened about what others think. Of course, it didn’t solve EVERYthing. But something in me shifted that day.
Later, when I became an adjunct professor at a community college teaching English in an Asian American learning community, I had my students do that same sticker exercise on campus and come back and write about what they discovered after doing it. We also did a pre-writing exercise where they predicted what others would think, say, and react. Like me, they discovered they were wrong.