Living with Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. Probably a few years by now. I think it’s probably about time to out myself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve dealt with mental illness. But I’ve never gone in depth about it. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest one is just that it’s really frightening to reveal that kind of personal information.

I’ve had trouble with two related things. I’ve written before about the fact that I’m being treated for depression. What I haven’t talked about is the fact that I’ve got very severe social anxiety.

To me, the depression isn’t such a big deal. I’m not saying that depression isn’t serious. I’m not even saying that in my case, my depression wasn’t/isn’t serious. But for me, depression is easily treated. I’m one of the lucky people who respond really well to medication.

Back when I first realized that something was wrong, and I realized that what I was feeling (or, more accurately, what I was not feeling) was depression, I went to see a doctor. On my first visit with him, he wrote me a prescription for Zoloft. Two weeks later, I started feeling better; between 5 and 6 weeks after starting to take the medication, I was pretty much recovered from that episode of depression.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever totally recovered. There’s always a lingering residue of depression, which I’m constantly struggling against. It doesn’t go away, but it’s manageable. As long as I’m aware of it, it doesn’t have a huge impact on my life.

On the other hand, social anxiety. For me, that’s a really big deal. That’s the thing that shapes (and warps) my entire life. And as hard as it is to talk about something like depression, talking about SA is much harder.

As bad as people react to depression, the reaction to social anxiety is worse. Depression is commonly viewed as more weakness than illness. But social anxiety is treated as a joke.

It’s no joke. For those of us who deal with it, it’s a huge source of pain. It’s had a huge effect on my life. But I’ve always been afraid to talk about it. The thing is, I think that things like this are important to talk about. Our society has a huge stigma against mental illness. I really believe that needs to change. And the only way that it will change is when we stop treating it as something to be ashamed of, or something that needs to stay hidden. And that means that I’ve got to be willing to talk about it.

Social anxiety is part of who I am, and I can’t escape that. But I can talk about what it is. And I can, publicly, say to kids who are in the same situation that I was in 30 years ago: Yes, being like this sucks. But despite in, you can live a good life. You can find friends who’ll care about you, find a partner who’ll love you, build a successful career, and thrive. Even if your SA never goes away, even if there’s always some pain because of it, it doesn’t have to rule your life. You can still be happy.

The first thing I need to do is to explain just what SA is. But I need to be very clear here: like anything else that involves peoples’ inner perceptions, I can only talk about what it’s like for me. Different people experience things differently, so what it’s like for me might be totally different from what it’s like for someone else. I don’t mean to in any way cast any shade on anyone else: their feelings and perceptions may be different from mine, but they’re just as valid. This is just my experience.

So. What is social anxiety?

It’s very difficult to explain. The best I can do is to say that it’s the absolute knowledge that I’m freak, combined with a terror of what will happen when anyone finds out. I know, on a deep physical level that if people figure out who/what I am, that they’ll hate me – and worse, that they’ll actively turn on me, attack me, harm me.

It’s not true. I know perfectly well that it’s not true. I can feel like this even with my closest friends – people who I know will always support me, who would never do anything to hurt me. But deep down, on a level below conscious thought, I know it. It doesn’t matter that intellectually I’m aware that it’s not true, because my physical reaction in social situations is based on what my subconscious knows.

So every time I walk into a room full of people, every time I walk into a store, every time I pick up the phone, every time I walk over to a coworker to ask a question, that’s what I’m feeling. That fear, that need to escape, that certainty that I’m going to mess up, and that when I do, I’m going to be ostracized or worse.

What makes it worse is the fact that the way I behave because of the social anxiety increases the odds that other people will think I’m strange – and when people see me that way, it increases the stress that I feel. When you’re putting a substantial part of your effort and concentration into squashing down the feeling of panic, you’re not paying full attention to the people you’re interacting with. At best, you come off as distant, inattentive, and rude. At worst, you’re seen reacting in odd ways, because you’ve missed some important social cue.

It’s not a small thing. Humans are social creatures. We need contact with other people. We can’t live without it. But my interactions are always colored by this fear. I have to fight against it every day, in everything I do. It colors every interaction I have with every person I encounter. It’s there, all the time.

When people talk about social anxiety, they mostly talk about it as being something like excessive shyness. I hope that this descriptions helps make it clear that that’s not what it’s really about.

Where’d this craziness come from?

For me, it’s really a kind of PTSD, or so a doctor who specializes in SA told me. I feel really guilty saying that, because to me, PTSD is something serious, and I have a hard time putting myself into the same basket as people who’ve gone through real trauma. But in medical terms, that’s what’s happening.

I’ve written about my past a little bit before. I had a rough childhood. Most of the time when you hear that, you think of family trouble, which couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. I had a really wonderful family. My parents and my siblings were/are great. But in school, I was the victim of abuse. I was a very small kid. I’m fairly tall now (around 5’11”) when I started high school, I wasn’t quite 5 feet tall. At the beginning of my junior year, I was still just 5’1″. So, I was short, skinny, hyperactive geeky kid. That’s pretty much the formula for getting picked on.

But I didn’t just get picked on. I got beaten up an a regular basis. I don’t say that lightly. I’m not talking about small stuff. The small abuses would have been bad enough, but that’s not what happened to me. This was serious physical abuse. To give one example, in gym class one day during my senior year, I had someone tackle me to the ground; then grab my little finger, say “I wonder what it would feel like if I broke this?”, and then snap it.

That was, pretty much, my life every day from 5th grade until I graduated high school. Everything I did became a reason to abuse me. If I answered a teachers question in class? That was a reason to beat me: I’m making them look bad. If I didn’t answer a question in class, that was a reason to beat me: I should be satisfying the teacher so that they don’t have to.

It wasn’t limited to school. My house was vandalized. The gas lines on our grill were cut. A swastika was burned into the street in front of my house. We had so many mailboxes destroyed that we literally build a detachable mount for the mailbox, and brought it in to the house every night. Then in retribution for depriving the assholes of the privilege of smashing our mailbox, they set the wooden mailbox post on fire.

Hearing this, you’d probably ask “Where was the principal/administration when all of this was going on?”. The answer? They didn’t really give a damn. The principal was an ex-nun, who believed that you shouldn’t punish children. If one children hits another, you shouldn’t tell them that hitting is wrong. You should sit them down and talk to them about “safe hands”, and what you need to do for your hands to be safe.

After the finger-breaking incident, my parents really freaked out, and went in to see the principal and assistant principal. Their reaction was to be furious at my parents. The AP literally shouted at my father, saying “What do you want, a god-damned armed guard to follow your kid around?”. (To which, I think, the response should have been “Fuck yeah. If you’re doing such a shit job protecting your students that the only way to stop them from having their bones broken for fun is to hire armed guards to follow them around, then you should damn well do that.”) Unfortunately, my parents didn’t believe in lawsuits; they wouldn’t sue the school, and they just didn’t have the money to move me to a private school. So I got to suffer.

(Even now, I would dearly love to find that principal… I’d really like to explain to her exactly what a god-damned idiot she is, and how ashamed she should be of the horrible job she did. A principal’s number one job is making sure that the school is a safe place for children to learn. She failed, horribly, at that – and, as far as I could tell, never felt the slightest bit of guilt over all of the things she allowed to happen in her school.)

So now, it’s literally 30 years since I got out of high school. But it’s very hard to get past the things that were pounded into you during your childhood. The eight years of daily abuse – from the time I was 10 years old until I turned 18 – basically rewired my personality.

The effects of that are what made me the way I am.

How does social anxiety really affect my daily life?

Socially, it’s almost crippling. I don’t have much of a social life. I’ve got a small group of very close friends who I don’t get to see nearly enough of, and I have a very hard time meeting new people. Even with people that I’ve known for a long time, I’m just not comfortable. Sometimes I really need social contact, but most of the time, I’d rather be alone in some quiet place, where I don’t need to worry about what other people think. I’d really like to be able to socialize more – in particular, there are a lot of people that I’ve met through this blog that I think of as friends, who I’d love to meet in person, but I never do. Even when I have the change, I usually manage to muck it up. (Because I always believe that people are looking for some reason to reject me, I see rejection in places where it doesn’t exist.)

Professionally, it’s been up and down. It definitely has held me back somewhat. In any job where you need to promote yourself, someone with SA is in deep trouble.

At one point, I even lost a job because of it. I didn’t get fired, but that’s only because I quit when it became obvious that that’s what was coming, and there was no point sticking around waiting for it. My manager at the time found out I was getting treated for SA. From the moment he found out, he stopped trusting anything I said about anything. To make matters worse, at the time, he was in trouble for a project that was literally 2 years overdue, and he needed a scapegoat. The “crazy” guy was the obvious target.

As an example of what I mean: one of the times he accused me of incompetence involved actors, which is a programming model that I used in my PhD dissertation. Actors are a model of concurrent computation in which everything is asynchronous. There are no visible locks – just a collection of active objects which can asynchronously send and receive messages. (I wrote a post about actors, with my own implementation of a really silly actor-based programming language here.)

We were working on a scheduling problem for our system. Our team had a meeting to discuss how to implement a particular component of that. After a lot of discussion, we agreed that we should implement it as an actor system. So I wrote a lightweight actors framework on top of our thread library, and implement the whole thing in actors. My coworkers reviewed the code, and accepted it with a lot of enthusiasm. My manager scheduled a private meeting where he accused my mental illness of impairing my judgement, because what kind of idiot would write something like that to be totally asynchronous?

So I left that company. Fortunately, skilled software engineers are in high demand in the NYC area, so finding a new job wasn’t a problem. I’ve had several different jobs since then. SA really hasn’t been a huge problem at any of them, thank goodness. It’s always a bit of a problem because my natural tendency is to try to disappear into the background, so it’s easy for people to not notice the work I’m doing. But I’ve mostly learned how to overcome that. It’s not easy, but I’ve managed.

When job-hunting, after that terrible experience, I learned to be careful to learn a bit about what the work culture of a company is like before I go to work there. I’ve tried to work something into conversations with people at the company after I have an offer, but before I accept it. It gives me a chance to see how they react to it. If I don’t like their reaction, if it seems like there’s a good chance that it’ll cause trouble, I’ll just take a different job someplace where it won’t be a problem. Like I said before, it’s a good time to be a software engineer in NYC – I can afford to turn down offers from companies that I don’t like.

So, yeah. I’m kind of crazy. Writing this is both difficult and terrifying. Posting it is going to be even worse. But I think it’s important to get stuff like this out there.

Despite all of this, I’ve wound up in a good place. I’m married to a lovely woman. I’ve got two smart, happy kids. I’ve got a great job, working with people that I really, genuinely like and enjoy working with, and they seem to like me back. It’s been a long, hard road to get here, but I’m pretty happy where I am.

This has gotten to be quite long, and I’ve been working on it on and off for a couple of months. I think that I’ve got to just let go, and post it as is. Feel free to ask questions about anything that I can clarify, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments. If you want to post something anonymously, feel free to email it to me (markcc@gmail.com), and I’ll post it for you so that theres nothing on the blog that could identify you.

Also note that I’m going to tightly moderate replies to this post. I’m not interested in having my blog turn into a place where jerks can abuse people sharing painful personal stories.

28 thoughts on “Living with Social Anxiety”

  1. Amazing! I have something similar, and you are one of my role models because if you can do it, reach success and manage, so can I.

  2. I am so impressed by your honesty and courage. Congratulations on having learned how to live and thrive with mental illness.

  3. I have always known I was particularly lucky genetics-wise, but it’s a bit scary to contemplate how lucky. (I’m now about the same size as Mark, but have been ~ this tall, and not a beanpole tall, since 7th grade)

    A friend of mine was diagnosed with PTSD triggered by the similarly horrid environment that was his public middle school (before the magnet high school). He, by the way, swears by EMDR and as with anyone who’s found the thing to treat their long-standing symptoms that they couldn’t even diagnose for years will promote it to anyone with similar symptoms.

    I literally cannot imagine regular physical student-on-student violence, and I have no idea now if that was because my school suppressed it or if I didn’t notice it because no one messes with the kid wrestling one weight class down from heavyweight.

    1. I think school administrations have a significant ability to control violence among students.

      I’m watching my kids go through school. At their school, it’s simply not tolerated. Put a high enough price tag on it in punishment, and it stops.

  4. Interesting.. Thank you so much for letting it out. At least now I know what is happening to me. I wish someone had told me that, like, 35 years ago.
    Oh well… now I feel so stupid.
    But thank you so much.. I had no clue that’s a medical condition. Honestly.

  5. Excellent post. I wish you continued success in dealing with your SA.

    I always enjoy the apocryphal story of someone telling a depressed person to “just be happier” and having a 6 year old respond, “that’s like telling someone with asthma to simply breath better.”

    I hope that society can begin to accept mental disorders as legitimate health issues and that people can fell more secure in seeking treatment.

    I was fortunate in high school to go to a parochial that did not tolerate violence*. My class went from 400 to 300 over one summer and suddenly there were no more fights in the hallways (among other improvements).

    [* I say lucky, in reality my parents paid a lot of money to allow me that opportunity and I thank them every chance I get.]

  6. Wow. FIrst of all, I applaud your courage and your self-awareness.

    Secondly, it breaks my heart to hear the stories of your getting bullied so badly. Actually, it’s even much, much worse than bullying. You were assaulted – the broken finger brings out a rage in me that would be hard to contain, were I your father… he is certainly a better man than me. What a shitty school you had to endure.

    My sister’s son is 12 years old, a little under 5 feet tall, very thin, and perhaps very mildly autustic. He’s a little shy, doesn’t little to be touched (or even hugged by relatives), and he gets picked on. I live 2,500 miles from him (I’m in southern California, he’s in upstate New York) but I’m very protective of him. I walked him to school a couple times during a visit, and I gave some of the kids who pick on him a look that said, “If you mess with Henry, I will find you.” (I know, tough guy!!) I can do that because I’m the rough and crazy uncle, not the parents 😉

    I hope you aren’t marginalized because of your SA. Bravo for writing about it.

  7. Hi Mark,

    I read your posts just occasionally. But this one I just had to read. I want to say that I wish I could give you a bear hug and tell you that you are an awesome person and we are thankful that you did not give up, like many other young kids do. Its really saddening to hear what happens. We appreciate that you fought through it, built a career for yourself and share your knowledge and wisdom with all of us through your very thoughtful posts.

  8. Mark, thanks for sharing,very powerful. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to open up and share this. Wanted you to know it’s as if you’re describing one of my sons, one of your relatives. I too suffer from depression and anxiety. But the commonality between the 2 of you is a difficult childhood with peers. I’m going to share this with him, I think it will help him to know that he’s not alone in this feelings of being “different”. Wonderful job of painting a picture of SA. Much love, Sue

  9. Mark, thanks so much for writing about this. I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which I almost certainly inherited from my father. Although my anxiety disorder has triggers different from yours, I can absolutely identify with your struggles of functioning normally while feeling terrified. And it took many years for me to understand that my relationship with my father was difficult because our anxieties tended to explode on contact.

    You are indeed an inspiration. Kudos!

  10. I am genuinely sorry that you feel this way, and I don’t want to kick you when you are down but…

    I only hope that you can understand that some of the people who you feel it necessary to ostracize and ridicule may feel the same way you do when being bullied.

    The cranks and crackpots do not choose to think the way they do, and a little understanding on your part would go a long way in reaching some understanding and healing on their part as well as yours.

    May God bless you Mark.

  11. Here is a poem I write about my social anxiety.

    But I Can’t

    If I could I wouldn’t care
    The way that you affect me

    But as I see you standing there
    My fear’s that you’d reject me

    Paralyzing indecision
    Floods my entire being

    The thought of your blasé derision
    Makes me consider fleeing

    But this time I won’t run and hide
    This time towards you I’m walking

    Though I am trembling deep inside
    Somehow I will be talking

    And now I’m here in front of you
    Only one more step to go

    It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do
    Open my mouth and say “Hello”

  12. I was picked on in school and I know how this feels. In some ways, the world is a very horrible place.

    I look forward to reading your posts. I hope that makes you a little bit happy.

  13. I read your description feeling like you’d been sitting inside my chest writing it. You captured the way it feels so very, very well – and how it makes it harder to interact normally so that people don’t discover that you’re actually weird. I only really worked out a couple of years ago that “social anxiety” was the name for what I felt – and that actually it wasn’t totally rational no matter how certain I was that it was real. I’d sort of thought it couldn’t be completely rational before that, but it got brought into focus for me by a good counsellor I was seeing about something else. Before that, I managed it by being a performer – I focused and enhanced all the social skills that involve reading and channelling crowd mood. That had started as a survival skill but turned out to make me an excellent show performer too, with good reflexes for dealing with chaotic and unpredictable situations when live shows go a little pear-shaped or just not the way they were meant to. Still couldn’t talk with most people easily, but dressing weird and ensuring they thought I was just “eccentric” and the “good kind of nuts” meant a lot of the little things got overlooked.

    I wish you luck with it all, and the ability to keep the demons tamed when you most need them to be.

    1. I also didn’t realize that what I was dealing with had a name for the longest time.

      I’m turning 50 at the end of July. I first heard about “social anxiety disorder” when I first got treated for depression. Before that, I just assumed that I was defective.

  14. Thank you Mark.

    Do you have practical advice/rules of thumb for how to interact with someone with social anxiety, e.g. in the context of a workplace?

    Or more generally, how to make society and workplaces more manageable and less intimidating to people who deal with all kinds of anxieties, diagnosed or not?

    1. Gosh, that’s a tough question.

      It’s hard, because every person’s experience of things like anxiety is different. I can’t really speak to what makes sense to anyone but me.

      I think that, in general, it comes down to providing multiple ways of being a successful contributor to the workplace.

      I once worked at one big company where there was really one way to be successful as an engineer. You needed to actively go out and find people more senior than you, and recruit them to be your advocate in order to advance. If you didn’t do that, not only could you not advance in your career, but you couldn’t even be successful in your current rank.

      For some people, that worked. But for people who weren’t comfortable doing that, there was simply no other way. You were dead in the water.

      Some people will be comfortable being their own advocates. Some won’t. Some people will be comfortable getting up and giving talks or teaching classes, others won’t. Some people will be good at doing 1:1 mentoring; and some people will like having a personal mentor. Others won’t.

      And you aren’t always going to know what’s comfortable for people. For example, given what you’ve read here about social anxiety, odds are you’d guess that I would hate public speaking. But in fact, I love it. As long as I have a setting where I know what I’m going to talk about, and my audience is coming to hear me talk about that, I really enjoy getting up and giving a talk.

      The point of all this is that you can’t decide what path to put someone on, because you don’t know what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. Instead, you need to be open, and to provide multiple paths for people, and allow them to find what’s comfortable for them.

  15. Thanks so much for sharing, the post and your comment about on providing a more open workplace is exactly what I think many people need in terms of being better at interacting with people with various levels of social anxiety.

  16. What would your ideal manager be? This is something I ask myself every time I am flirting with a new job, because the concept of “ideal” for me changes on a semi-regular basis. At my previous job, when I was a hardcore consultant who was paid to be the best in the game, my ideal manager was someone who would just let me go and do my thing in my own time. I’d get burned out sometimes, but more often than not, I’d come back with what they wanted, more or less.

    Now that I’m back in a product-focused industry, I’m finding I like managers who are more likely to give good feedback and, rather than agree with everything I say, give me a reason to learn and grow.

    I also have social anxiety (never diagnosed, but I think anyone who knows me even remotely well would agree with that statement), and I wonder how that affects my ideal manager.

    I don’t mean to turn this reply into anything about me, apologies. What traits would your ideal manager have?

    1. I have a hard time answering that, largely because I’ve had a very hard time picking out who’ll be a good manager.

      Let me think about it for a while, and I’ll add a new comment later on with as close as I can come to a well-thought-out answer.

  17. Thanks for sharing this Mark! I didn’t know what social anxiety feels like before. Now I’m wondering if any of my friends/co-workers maybe have it. Is there anything we, as your friends/co-workers could do to help you feel better in social interactions with us?
    I feel like searching you out and making friends and giving you a hug to make you feel better, but of course that just makes it worse in a way!
    I also wondered whether this affects your relationship with your wife and children? You said you felt unease even with close friends. As a parent I know you always doubt yourself anyway (and depression can make this harder as well), does the SA make it more difficult or does it not affect it?

  18. I’ve had similar problems: fear of peoples, bad childhood. Worse: I’m 26 now, and ≈6 years ago I had to start life again, and until a few months ago I didn’t even understand how much it is “again”. Basically, my life experience before 20 years is non-existent: skills, knowledge, math beyond “multiplication table” — nothing. Additionally ATM — in 26 — I have no sexual experience with girls, I even have to learn to excite. My past social experience doesn’t make sense anymore, because I’ve got recently diagnosed “schizotypal disorder”, which, in my case, in short, is that I had to drop everything I could think of peoples, except the most basic social situations.

    See: in my 26 I am like 16 both socially and skillfully. And peoples keep asking me «where’s your girlfriend?», «haven’t you married?», «what about childs?»… The worst: I can’t even get back to society, because I seem odd to peoples; worse — I don’t even see why! It’s possible to learn people’s behavior again, but not in my 26. I am an outsider, and only a miracle could make me 16.

    I don’t believe in miracles.

    I fought the fear by imaging myself being a maniac. It completely changes the perspective: you’re a hunter, adrenaline and a danger are your best friends, you think of how you going to kill the victim, could you even capture the prey without killing, what you gonna do after that… You don’t have to actually kill/torture anyone for this to work.

    That’s not enough though. By being an outsider, sometimes the jealousy to others’ lives, the loneliness, the past, the peoples’ oddness, and their unpredictable to me behavior strikes me down; I blackout in waves of pain and hatred. But I found how to fight it either. Instead of being *with* peoples, it is much easier and more pleasant to be *against* peoples. Just, do something that makes other peoples to suffer at least. Think: how could you turn your hobby into something antisocial, anything that other peoples would call “bad”. If you don’t appreciate your life much, you could actually become a maniac. It is a nice hobby, its downsides are that you could get killed or caught. I started appreciating my life 6 years ago, so I’d not choose it. The important but subtle detail: you don’t have to be objective here, be subjective, only your feelings matters!

      1. You mean, like, being a comic, and making fun of other peoples? On the first sight I don’t think it’d satisfy me, the more that I found what interesting could I do with my hobby. Anyway, I’ve had a similar idea, and may be I’d implement it after getting a number of pending personal problems solved.

        See: despite almost not having an experience with computers 6 years ago, and a pressure from the environment, I managed anyway to become a good programmer with well-established generic workflow/environment, and a wide (though may be not deep) understanding of OSes internals. I am just a curious person. And a thing I do often see, is awful problems in most operating systems and software, whether they’re caused by attempts to implement something “just because” (e.g. design changes), or politics (e.g. OpenGL nuances of NVidia), or just carelessness (e.g. firmware in devices).

        So I thought it’d be funny — at least for me — to make a video-blog, like Nostalgia Critic, or AVGN, but to ridicule software problems. But it’s still an idea for a future, so I won’t get offended if anyone going to do the same.

        1. I said IMPROV, not standup. In improv, you are part of a team working together to create scenes from just a suggestion. You have to work together to be successful.

          Really – look it up and try it. It will get you out of yourself.

          1. I’ve just discovered your comment – I assume that you’re part of the clique at westsidecomedy.com that decided that the best way to handle me being anxious was to set up an “improv” that consisted of people telling me that I’m stupid for getting anxious in social situations, and that I should go die in a fire?

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