I can’t say for sure why I suffer from social anxiety, but I think it has a lot to do with my very sheltered upbringing. My parents were extremely loving and supportive, and I never wanted for anything. But we led a very safe life. We lived right out in the countryside, and I went to the tiny village primary school – at its peak, it had 34 students.
My family never travelled abroad, and we had few family friends – I rarely saw anyone outside of school. I never had a lot of the experiences the other kids had; to this day, I have never been on an aeroplane or even a rollercoaster! And we never ate at restaurants – my mum cooked from scratch every night. Though I had aunts and uncles nearby, we rarely saw them either. As a kid, it didn’t really seem like a problem, but it grew very isolating as I got older.
When I was a very young kid, I was quite outgoing, even talking back to teachers if I felt they were being unreasonable! But by the time I was six or seven, this was being replaced with crippling shyness and self-consciousness. I think on some level I was aware that I hadn’t done many of the normal things that those around me had done. Academically, I was a very high achiever, but I already felt socially ignorant.
And with that came shame. Every time I said or did something which turned out to be ‘wrong’, I would feel deeply ashamed. I couldn’t have put it into words at that age, but I obviously believed I was socially incompetent, and it felt like a terrible secret which I was trying to keep under wraps. Every time I committed a faux pas of some kind, it felt like I was giving away the secret and that people would mock me.
I became an incredibly sensitive, nervous, jumpy kid. I hated asking for help at school because it felt like admitting my incompetence – but this just lead to more humiliation if I misunderstood the work. Tiny things were enough to push me over the edge emotionally. Once, my teacher spoke sharply to me for putting my exercise book in the wrong place, and it upset me so much I started crying, desperately trying to hide my tears.
I detested PE because I was sure that I would mess up and everyone would see how useless I was. And of course, if you believe that you’ll be bad at something then you probably will. With team sports, I struggled to remember the rules and wouldn’t ask to have them explained. So then I made mistakes and felt ashamed of those! It was a minefield. And drama lessons were an almost equal source of dread.
The older I got, the worse it became. When you’re constantly self-conscious, people pick up on that, and often treat you in a way that makes you more self-conscious. When I moved from a primary school of 30 pupils to a secondary school of 1000, I was an easy target for both the kids and the less compassionate teachers. I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but I was definitely picked on to an extent.
From when I was 7 or so, teachers expressed concern that I wasn’t raising my hand in class. I never did so if I could avoid it! I was so scared of being wrong, even when I was sure of the answer. It was always mentioned in my school reports. I didn’t see what the big deal was. My grades were perfect, so what did it matter whether I participated in class or not? My parents mostly shared my view, and didn’t try to do anything about it. It’s only now that I understand why participating is important – it’s about learning social skills, communicating your ideas and building confidence. But my non-participation continued all the way to university.
My social anxiety manifested in other ways too. I didn’t know how to get a bus or order a drink. I sometimes struggled to make eye contact, and turned into a complete mess around people I had a crush on. That lead to me staying firmly in my comfort zone whenever possible. If there was a party on, I stayed home with a book. I somewhat envied the experiences others had, but would never have admitted it. It was easier to frame my actions as a personal choice and make them part of my identity rather than addressing the underlying cause.
Going to uni forced me a little out of my comfort zone. I had to learn how to get the bus (though I still struggled to make eye contact with the driver!) and do the other things that come with living independently. But there were still some serious issues, like my inability to ask for help. At home, I’d ask my dad if I was really struggling – he could figure out almost anything! But now, 100 miles from home, that wasn’t an option. I avoided the tutorials where I was supposed to ask for help, convinced that I wouldn’t understand the tutors’ explanations and they would think I was stupid. So I relied on friends for help, or stayed home trying to battle through the material on my own. It was extremely stressful – far more so than it need have been.
It made relationships difficult as well. I was so deeply sensitive that the tiniest things would really hurt me. But because they seemed so trivial, I was ashamed of my emotions and did my best to suppress them, locking them away inside me. When I was upset about something, I became cold and withdrawn – emotionally unavailable, as I called it. At the time, I didn’t really understand why it happened. It made life very difficult for my then-boyfriend, and ultimately resulted in a messy breakup.
Something had to give eventually. And it did, in the shape of quitting uni and more relationship difficulties. That chain of events led to me getting out of my comfort zone in a big way and overcoming a lot of fears – a story I told in this post. Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve been discovering that I’m not naturally a closed off, shame-ridden person; I don’t think anyone is! It’s something I must have developed as a coping mechanism, but it’s not serving me and I can choose to let it go. These days, I feel much more confident, open and loving. I can order food in a cafe without worrying about messing up, and get the bus without a second thought – even smiling at the driver instead of avoiding looking at them! These are things many people take for granted, but not me.
Better still, I’m able to be completely open and vulnerable with my partner, without worrying that he’ll think my emotions are invalid. This has done wonders for our relationship.
But I won’t pretend I’m cured. It’s getting less frequent, but sometimes, out of the blue, something will happen to trigger those old feelings of shame. A few months back, I went into a health food shop looking for lunch. They had a deli in another room which I’d never used before, but I was feeling brave and decided to try it.
When I picked what I wanted and tried to give the guy the money, he told me I had to pay in the main shop. No big deal, right? I’m sure people make that mistake every day. There were no signs telling you where to pay – how could I have known? And yet for some reason, I felt deeply embarrassed, convinced that the server and everyone behind me in the queue thought I was an idiot. The feeling persisted for ages, even though I knew it was completely ridiculous. Even if they had been judging me, who cares? It would have been their problem, not mine. And in reality, I’m sure they thought very little of it. But I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling.
I once tried to explain this to someone who had (presumably) never suffered with social anxiety, and he said I just needed to care less about what other people thought. But this wasn’t exactly helpful advice, because it’s much easier said than done!
As I’ve become more interested in spirituality, I’ve come to realise that social anxiety is very egotistical in a way. It comes from thinking everyone is watching, analysing and judging everything you do. In reality, most people are far too wrapped up in their own problems to care what you do. At least half of them are probably worrying about what you think of them! Realising this has been liberating, and I’m finding this change in attitude naturally makes embarrassing situations arise less often – and when they do, I tend to get over them more quickly.
It has also helped me to realise that we are all connected, and that everyone struggles with feelings of shame sometimes. And if, like me, you believe we are all manifestations of the same consciousness, it no longer makes any sense to worry about what others think!
It’s easy to feel like I’m the only one who ever feels this way, but I’m sure it’s actually pretty common, with different people experiencing it to varying extents. If you’re one of them, then I’d love to hear your story in the comments. You are not alone.