Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Social Anxiety: An Personal Account

Entry for 12 December 2006:

In Heuristic Inquiry, Clark Moustakis’ approach to qualitative phenomenological research, researchers begin by studying their own experience. (In some cases, they end there also, a practice I find highly dubious, but that is a matter for another day…) When the Social Anxiety Study Group had its first meeting, we agreed that this would be a good starting place, so we undertook to write about our own personal experiences of social anxiety, trying to answer the following questions in 2 – 4 pages:
1. What was the experience was like for me?
2. What do I understand to have been the sources or causes of my anxiety and related difficulties?
3. What have I found useful in helping me cope with SA and related difficulties?
4. What have I found to be not helpful or even hindering for my dealing with SA and related difficulties?The following is my own account:

Description of my experience of social anxiety: I remember being painfully shy as a boy. I don’t remember when this began, but my clearest memories of feeling anxious around other people – especially other kids – are from ages 6 to 13. In retrospect, I suspect that a large part of the problem was that I was also a show-off who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so I often put myself in embarrassing situations in which I was made fun of by other kids or just felt like I stuck out.

In its worst, most paralyzing, form, I experienced this anxiety as a painful self-consciousness. I felt like I was standing outside myself, watching myself and everything I did. In particular, I was aware of how awkward and strange I looked to others: Glasses, big ears, funny hair, runny nose, pigeon-toed, awkward, thin, no muscles. I imagined that others looked at me and judged me as odd and not belonging. I felt cut off from other people, and it was hard to believe that others might want to be my friend or ever be romantically interested in me. I felt like I was performing a role, in an obvious, awkward manner that was obvious to everyone. I was terrified of doing really stupid things, like committing social blunders such as going to the wrong classroom or saying something stupid. If I wanted to say something in class, my heart would pound while I waited to be called on, and I would sometimes find that my anxiety drove whatever I wanted to say out of my mind by the time I was called on, leaving me gasping like a fish out of water, with nothing to say.

Perceived sources of social anxiety. Most obviously, I was anxious about people judging me as inadequate in various ways: stupid, funny-looking, awkward, weird. As I said, it might have been OK for me to have been all these things if I hadn’t cared what other people thought of me, or if I hadn’t wanted them to like me. Then I could have just ignored them and been content to do my own thing, which was to read voraciously and to act out elaborate scenarios with my toy animals and soldiers.

Unfortunately, I also wanted to be liked to and to have friends, to part of a group of people, or, failing that, to impress them with how smart I was. Since I was very bright, I often tried to gain adult approval by showing my peers and teachers how much I knew. This of course resulted in my being socially isolated by other kids as a “brain.” (To this day, I am highly ambivalent about others’ praise, both desiring it and being uncomfortable with it, perhaps because it is linked to social rejection in my experience.) As a result, I often felt lonely and friendless. (In fact, I did have a few friends with whom I played regularly, but didn’t seem to matter.)

In short, I felt miserable and didn’t like myself at all, while at the very same time secretly harboring the idea that I was somehow special and maybe even better in some way than most of my peers. All of this tied me in knots of conflict and led to considerable feelings of anxiety about interactions with other people, especially other kids.

I have often wondered where these feelings came from. At one time, during my early adulthood, my parents guiltily held the theory that they had somehow made a mess of me because of their own inexperience and inadequacy as young parents. However, this theory never appealed to me; in fact, I found it insulting! On the other hand, there was a strong value put on being different in my family, and we tended to believe that we were somehow different from other people. Actually, we implicitly believed that we were better than other people, but never admitted this explicitly, as it would have been arrogant to do so. This ideology of nonconformity now seems to me linked to my anxiety about being judged and rejected by my peers: I wanted to be different (in good ways), but at the same I was afraid I was different (in bad ways). I wanted to be liked and accepted, but I was awkward and tended to act superior to others, which put them off.

Some of these feelings of self-consciousness and perceived/feared judgment and rejection by others lasted into adult situations in which I had to present or perform in front of other people. Thus, I was especially anxious when I first began doing public speaking and teaching, and when I first began presenting at scientific conferences, in my late 20’s.

What helped me deal with my social anxiety. What kept me going and sustained me during this difficult period of my middle childhood was my pride in my intellectual ability and the sense that my family was somehow special. One turning point occurred at age 9, when a psychologist gave me an intelligence test, and recommended me for the gifted program. In my mind, this validated the sense of specialness that had been communicated by my family. I felt that I had been “discovered”, and for years felt a special sense of gratitude toward this psychologist. Another turning point occurred when my grandmother took me to Europe with her the summer I turned 13. I came back feeling more sophisticated and special, and immediately started high school, where I encountered and became an active part of a group of kids who were like me in many ways (and who would be called “nerds” today). At this point, I finally found a group that I could be part of. This activated the intellectually and socially ambitious part of me, and I organized my first social-intellectual organization with my friends, called “United Terrans”.

Later milestones included taking public speaking during my senior year in high school, developing a peer research group in graduate school, beginning teaching, and being introduced (by David Shapiro) to overhead transparency technology for presentations and teaching. The later technology enabled me to stop reading presentations and to begin interacting with my audience. (I am always more comfortable if there is some kind of interaction with my audience, even if it’s challenging.)

What didn’t help me deal with my social anxiety. What didn’t work for me was telling myself not to feel anxious. (Although looking myself in the mirror and telling myself I liked me did help a bit.) My parents’ suggestion that I would “grow out of it” the one time I tried to explain it to them also didn’t help, but only made me feel more isolated. From where I am now in my life, I also don’t think that exposing myself to social situations before I achieved an adequate level of self-esteem would have been helpful. Afterall, I continued to do things that caused me embarrassment throughout this period, without it really affecting how I felt. Instead, it seems important that I developed a sense of legitimate, socially-validated ‘specialness” and social belonging first.

Concluding reflections. It is clear to me now that my deep need to connect with other people and to be part of a group was both the source of much of my misery, and the eventual route of my overcoming my social anxiety. In other words, through it all, I still felt this deep hunger for connection, which made me feel lonely when it wasn’t happening, but which continually drove me to seek to connect with others until I at last succeeded. Although the idea of retreating from the world and becoming a hermit always had intellectual appeal to me, I continually found it to be impossible for me. So I continued to be anxious until I felt truly validated and became part of a community of people like me.

In the end, there seems to be something in me that always tries to connect to others. This is of course why I eventually became a therapist, and why I always want to know the client’s experience in my research. In other words, in spite of being afraid of being judged by others, I continued to try to connect with them until I eventually succeeded. And when I succeeded in connecting with others, my individual self receded far enough into the background that it didn’t occur to me to be anxious about what they would think of me. I was too busy being with them!

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