A couple years out of graduate school, I worked in a large office building down town in a medium sized city. Being in an intermediate job position with entry level experience, I felt intimidated working with much more seasoned employees who had been with the department for significant amounts of time. Several months after I started, I was on my way into work, and I was waylaid in the enclosed stairwell by a colleague I barely knew.
She followed about 20 yards behind me down a long hallway, and entered the stairwell when I was halfway up the stairs to the 8th floor. I thought this was odd because most people took the elevator; I felt myself go a little on guard. Climbing the stairs, her footsteps quickened until I could see she was practically running up them. She seemed in a hurry, so I scooched over to give her room to pass.
But she didn’t pass; she was trying to catch up to me. Near the top of the staircase, she got in front of me, which stopped me in my tracks and made me lean into the wall. In an aggressive voice, she demanded to know why I never say hi to her in the hallways. She harshly detailed to me how I always look down when she passes me. Still at an elevated volume, she stated angrily that it was clear I didn’t like her even though I didn’t even know her. She obviously wasn’t actually interested in an answer because she immediately turned, stomped up her last few steps, and pushed through the door exiting the stairwell. I was startled, caught off guard, terrified, confused, baffled, and speechless. I had no idea I had even offended her.
I did have an explanation, though; I have Social Anxiety. Because of this, I inexplicably struggle with looking people in the eye when I don’t know them, and it feels unnatural to be the first person to say hello in passing. I experience other symptoms as well, but this is one that has always caused other people to misjudge me and be offended. Which, for obvious reasons, makes life difficult as an adult. Relationships, work, and connection can all be difficult, and it overall makes me feel like an awful person…even before someone verbalizes their assumptions.
I battle with the symptoms of social anxiety regularly despite actively working to improve them. It’s exhausting. Today, many years after that incident, I have learned to overcome some of my symptoms, some of the time, but they are not nearly resolved.
Anxiety happens when our brain perceives danger in normal, non-threatening situations and activates our survival mechanisms (fight, flight, or freeze). It is a fundamental, self-preservation response that is useful when we need it, but debilitating when it happens unnecessarily. With Social Anxiety, the brain triggers our survival mechanisms specifically in social situations in an attempt to help avoid possible embarrassment or judgement.
Unsurprisingly, though, fighting, flight-ing, or freezing in a social situation typically results in exactly what was trying to be avoided. What happened in the stairwell is an excellent reminder of this fact, and the experience now serves as a great tool in my efforts to overcome my social anxiety. When I notice I’m having anxiety symptoms, I think of it, and I remember that what is meant to help me is actually harming me, and to achieve the outcome I want, I need to take control, and not let my anxiety dictate my behavior.
Although the memory is useful to me now, the way I was treated that day made me feel ashamed, guilty, embarrassed, and unworthy, and for a time, elevated my social anxiety. My colleague had an opportunity to connect with me, but instead she played a role in exacerbating my struggle.
This story isn’t to encourage those who suffer to get help. It is to encourage others to be mindful.
People may not know social anxiety is the culprit of my behavior, but they always notice when something seems unusual, and this is where an opportunity lies. We can all ease a person’s burden by acknowledging the power that our responses have, and acting with compassion and curiosity.
There are things I have personally noticed people do that are helpful for me:
1. Using my name. Whether saying hello in passing or asking a question, using my name helps me know they are talking specifically to me.
2. Initiating a conversation, and taking the lead in the chat; asking questions, but avoiding “small talk.”
3. Talking with me in small groups of 3-4 people.
4. At larger gatherings, giving me the scoop on what to expect when interacting with specific people (jokester, chatty Cathy, hugs everyone, loves dogs, etc).
5. Not making my behavior personal; it’s about me, not them.
I do everything I can to manage my Social Anxiety, and I wish people wouldn’t shame me for it; it’s part of who I am, and once I get to know people, they see the rest of me.
Sarah Curtis, MA
Lakes Center for Youth and Families