I’ve been thinking about how to talk about social anxiety more. This recently came up at work, and I thought it would be worth writing down. As usual, I’m talking about my own experiences as a person with severe social anxiety. I think there are others who feel the same way as I do – but equally, there are plenty of people with social anxiety disorders who feel very different. I can only talk about what I feel, and what I experience – so don’t assume that I’m talking for anyone but myself.
One of the interesting facets of social anxiety is that people with SA don’t necessarily act the way that you expect us to. People generally expect us to be like one of the characters from the Big Bang theory.
In reality, most of us have an adaptive behavior that we learn, which I call masking. For many people with social anxiety, if you encounter them at work or on the street, you’d never guess that we had any kind of anxiety problem. It’s the nature of social anxiety that we want to hide the anxiety that we feel, and so we find ways to do it.
The heart of social anxiety for is the feeling that there’s something wrong with me – that I’m weird, freakish, abnormal, that I’m broken – and that when people realize that, they’re going to reject me. It doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to. I can know, intellectually, that it’s a pile of crap, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling it; it doesn’t stop my body from reacting to it. I spent years of school being regularly abused – mocked, beaten, tormented – and that got wired into my brain. That’s the way that I expect to be treated by people I don’t know well – and even, sometimes, by people that I do know.
A way to cope with that is to act like I’m a normal, functional person. I don’t believe that I’m normal. I don’t really understand what it’s like to be normal. But I’ve learned how, in many situation to fake it well enough to get by. The way that I that is masking. Think of what you do when you’re painting something. You want to expose certain areas to the paint, and you don’t want to expose others. So you cover up parts of the object with masking tape – and then you’ll only get paint on the parts that aren’t masked. That’s what I’ve learned to do. I to take a piece of myself that I think is close to normal for a situation, and build a persona around it. I mask off everything that doesn’t fit – so people can’t see the parts of me that I don’t want them to. Masking makes it much easier to interact, both because I’ve constructed the mask to only show the parts of myself that I think people won’t react badly to. I’ve created a version of myself that I hope won’t draw any attention for being weird.
A mask lets me appear to be a normal, confident person. It lets me go to work each day, and interact with people on the train, on the street, in the office, without turning into a basket case from the stress.
I try to be open with the people I really work closely with about who I am, and what I feel. I don’t hide the fact that I have social anxiety, and I do my best to minimize the mask. But I do wear a mask at work, because without it, I wouldn’t be able to function.
The people I work with think I’m kind-of loud. They think I’m really confident – probably a bit over-confident. I try to talk about my social anxiety disorder, but I’m not sure if they actually believe me – because what I’m saying about how I feel isn’t consistent with how they see me behave. My masks have gotten good enough that as long as I’m in a situation that I’ve prepared for, most of the time, you can’t see past it to actually see what I’m feeling.
The big weakness of a mask is that it’s an act. It’s not the real me – it’s a face that present to the world so that they don’t really see me. It’s something that I need to consciously construct and prepare. If I’m put into a situation that I couldn’t prepare for, then I don’t necessary have a mask ready. And that means that I’m just me – the broken person who’s paralyzed with fear.
I can get up in front of a classroom full of people, and give a lecture. I can get up in front of the congregation at my synagogue, and give a drash that I wrote – I can do both of those things without feeling overly stressed. People expect that a person with social anxiety won’t be able to do that, but that’s easy. It’s a situation where I know what’s expected of me, where I know what to do and how to behave. So I can mask myself in a way that lets me show the parts of myself that I need for that performance, and hide the rest.
But ask me to sit down and eat lunch with a random selection of people after I’m done teaching my class? That is hard. I don’t know who I’m dealing with. I don’t know how to talk to them, what they expect from me, how they’re going to react to me. That’s the kind of situation that triggers my anxiety, and that can, easily, wreck me. I don’t have a mask ready for that.