I see social anxiety tossed around a lot these days, along with a myriad of ways to “cure” it. A lot of the advice is really just not helpful, and some of it is downright harmful, just like the advice given for pretty much any mental illness.
It’s not for a lack of desire that I don’t go out and socialize. I do enjoy socializing, I enjoy being around other adults, but sometimes, the idea of it is absolutely terrifying. I am an ambivert, which means I have qualities of both an extrovert and an introvert. Sometimes, I draw energy from the people I’m around, and other times, it’s incredibly draining to be around other people.
When I’m having an introverted day, my anxiety is vindicated. See, you don’t want to be around people! See how drained you feel! When I’m feeling like an introvert, it’s shockingly easy for me to say “No, I’m just not feeling it today. It could be different tomorrow.”
But, on my extrovert days, the anxiety is loud and crippling. No, you don’t want to do this. Look at all the ways this could go wrong. You’ll probably embarrass yourself. Your friends don’t actually like you. They just humor you because they feel sorry for you. Sometimes, I can force those thoughts aside without a panic attack, and I do end up enjoying myself, not embarrassing myself, and get invited back again. Other times, the fear is so loud that the thought of even getting in the car to go leaves me feeling like I can’t breathe. The inevitable feeling of panic grips my chest and I have to be everyone’s least favorite friend and cancel plans last minute.
Believe me, I wouldn’t live like this if I didn’t feel like a slave to it. I would love to be like regular people and just go out when I feel like it. The desire is there, but the action is blocked by a sick mind that tells me it will go wrong, nobody actually likes me, that I’m a failure because I can’t force myself through it(thanks to my anxiety for being a self fulfilling prophecy).
So, why is it harmful to tell someone about your cousin’s friend’s roommate’s social anxiety and how they cured it by just forcing themselves to socialize?
Boy, I wish it was that easy. I would go out every day until the panic attacks and negative internal voice stopped! But when I hear someone say they know someone who just forced themselves to do it and cured it, I also here an unstated “why can’t you?” Now, I know it’s generally not true. I know people tend to have kind intentions, they think they’re offering help. The unstated afterthought is generally being inserted by me, giving my anxiety more fuel, more reason to tell me to isolate myself.
So, how can you help?
I don’t speak for everyone with social anxiety, but here’s things that help me:
- Make plans in advance
I used to be a spontaneous person. I loved making same day plans! Social anxiety hasn’t always been a part of me, but it is now.
When plans are made in advance, I can gear myself up and my rational voice can be louder than the anxiety. I’m not talking weeks in advance. Just a few days warning, so to speak, can give me enough time to prepare myself and often times, I can get the panic attack out of the way because I’m facing the unknowns before they happen(or don’t). Sometimes, I can’t gear myself up enough, so…
- Don’t guilt me if I cancel last minute
I promise I don’t do it on purpose, and that I try to cancel before you head out to where ever we had planned to hang out. I know you’re disappointed, and trust me, I am too. But guilt, even subtle guilt, is so painful. My anxiety tells me that I’m just a disappointment. See! It says… You’re just upsetting your friends. You should just give up.
Offer to make plans another day. Try to remember it’s not me that’s cancelling, it’s the anxiety. As much as I may want to hang out, I wasn’t able to overcome the anxiety, or I just need a mental health day I couldn’t plan.
- Meet up in familiar places
Strange places I’ve never been before bring a lot of unknowns, a lot of things I can’t plan for. Plan to meet up at your place, my place, or a favorite coffee shop or park. Routine is comfortable, and familiar places will mean I’m much less likely to cancel.
- Don’t invite other people without telling me
I feel like this should go without saying, but unfamiliar people are likely to make our time together awkward, and I’m likely to clam up because I don’t want to deal with the unknown factor I am now forced to face.
- Remember, I’m still your friend
My social anxiety doesn’t change the fact I’m still your friend. I still want to spend time with you. I just need it to be familiar and easy. An ounce of empathy goes a long way. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, but I do want you to know what I’m going through and be able to understand it.
Lastly, please don’t take it personal. I promise it’s not you. It’s not even me! It’s the anxiety, and I need my friends to help my rational voice be louder.
If you struggle with social anxiety, what helps you the most?