Many of us riddled with anxiety, and social awkwardness don’t want to disclose we have a problem. We sweat in awkward places, our voice shake as we speak, our eyes stay glued to the ground, and thoughts about how we’re being perceived occupy us entirely. We hide behind a veil, hoping that those around us don’t see the panic-stricken child beneath the surface screaming for an escape – screaming for anxiety to not prevail.
My experience with anxiety is quite the average tale – I was shy as a child, a characteristic which followed me through to adulthood in the form of anxiety. Thinking back on it now, I remember very distinctly, two instances which became a precursor to my view of society and authority figures.
As a little girl from a non-English speaking family growing up in Australia, I was very seldom exposed to other children and adults, outside of school. I kept to myself mostly, but I always had a few best friends. When my parents took me overseas to meet our extended family, I was overwhelmed at the sheer amount of cousins, aunts and uncles I had. Needless to say, I kept to myself – quiet, shy, timid, you name it. To this day, I can vividly recall the feeling of weighted pressure over that summer. My mum was questioning my antisocial behaviour,
“Why aren’t you talking much?”
“Why don’t you ever smile?”
“Why don’t you ever laugh?”
I felt so attacked, a kid with a major character flaw. For the next few weeks I was fixated on my behaviour, thinking about possible things to say, ways to look engaged – to appear happy.
In high school, I had a maths teacher, Mr Campbell, who was strict but reasonable, and great at his job. I was both intimidated and impressed by him.
He was a teacher who I looked up to, someone’s opinion I valued, greatly. One day, he called out to the class, asking if anyone wanted to see their ranking amongst the entire cohort. I was visually debating the decision to go up, but my friend who I sat next to, immediately rose from her spot and cried out, “Okay”. Deciding it was worth knowing, I slowly made my way to the teacher’s desk, keen but nervous to see my standing amidst 300 others. I suppose Mr Campbell thought he was doing some sort of good, when he pointed out in front of a class of 20 or so students how “shy” I was compared to my friend. He said directly
“Oh, you’re so shy. Be more like Mel, have a little faith in yourself.”
At the time I felt so embarrassed, having my personality flaw pointed out by a teacher, under the prying eyes and ears of my peers. I’ve had reruns of this situation many times, and each time I’m just slightly angier than the last.
It may sound like I’m playing the blame game here, but I swear I’m not. I believe we are in control, despite whatever cultural or social conditioning, I know my anxiety is something I myself am responsible for. I share these stories with you today because I want to make the case that being shy, nervous or anxious is no reason to believe you’re flawed in any way. I used to feel as though my anxiety was a sin – that because these adults would point it out to me, I was in some way acting wrong. I don’t agree with what my maths teacher did, as an adult today, he explicitly pointed out a perceived “personality flaw” of a young, maturing 17 year-old. In the same way I despised my mother telling me to stop being nervous, stop being shy, I grew heavily self conscious of my social behaviour, hence the developing anxiety.
For any parent or any adult in some authoritative position, I want to make a note that pointing out a child’s “shyness” is potentially damaging. It’s exactly the argument people make when they tell you, “don’t think of a big blue elephant,” which of course, that’s exactly what they’ll be thinking of if you explicitly point it out.
I felt as though I was being told my standing in society, and eventually I was so consumed by the trying to not look shy or introverted. This pressure to act socially in public drove me mad. I was so self-conscious about what I’d say, that I would oftentimes end up saying nothing at all.
Don’t internalise yourself like I did.
To stop anxiety from strong-holding your life, and preventing you from having the best life experience, you have to realise first that you are not a flawed individual – you are interesting, and you’re not a social outcast.
It’s okay to not be a happy beam of sunshine. Stop putting pressure on yourself, and your “social performance”.
So I leave you with this – the next time you’re in a social setting where your palms are sweating, back hunched over, eyes to the floor – take a deep breath, and don’t think. You read that right, try to stop internalising, don’t make any effort to initiate conversation. The point is to alleviate the pressure to be social. Just appreciate your surroundings, observe the couch you’re sitting on, observe the colour of the walls, listen to the conversation swirl around you. If you do this, if you familiarise yourself with being comfortable in a different setting, then the rest will follow.