Part 2. Social Anxiety.
I left the last blog promising something about my social anxiety.
There are a few reasons for this anxiety, one of them being that I think it stems from things that were said to me as a child, things I now know are not true. I am only just working this out for myself and I expect there will be a lot of emotions around it, but I’ll try my best.
As a child I was painfully shy. I remember being afraid of almost every adult I met. And as I got older I became awkward around other children too.
Part of it is to do with feeling different. I have been told a story about my attitude when I was 3. I was attending what was called in the 70s a Play School, which would probably be termed today as going to a Childminder. Because of my developmental issues I was still in nappies. I must have been aware that everybody else was a similar age to me but none of the other children were wearing a nappy. Apparently, one day I told my mother that I didn’t want to wear nappies any more because no one else did. I knew at 3 years old that I didn’t fit in. As I got older my differences became more apparent and more upsetting. I distinctly remember riding a tricycle when all my friends had ditched their stabilisers and were riding bikes properly. I was always aware of why I was different, I had been told the story of my illness many times, but I don’t think I understood. All I saw was that everyone around me could do things that I couldn’t do.
Then I went to school. We had Physical Education where we had to do a balance exercise. PE was held in the school hall which was also the dinner hall and the gym. At lunch time everyone sat on benches, and in PE these benches were used to practice our balance. I would watch all my classmates breeze through it. Then it came to my turn. Balance was one of the things which didn’t come naturally to me. I would only walk the bench if the PE teacher held my hand. Which was the exact opposite of what they were trying to achieve. I might have been able to do it but I was scared and everybody was watching. The older I got, the more excruciating PE and Games became.
Another thing which made me feel different was my absences from school. As a young child I had quite a lot of physiotherapy. Once or twice a week I would be taken out of school to go for private physio lessons. Which I hated. My school friends would naturally ask where I had been, and I would tell them that I was ill as a baby and needed to do these special exercises. All of which reinforced the feeling of not being like other children.
Is it any wonder I used to drift off into space and just live in my own little world from time to time?
Now this is the tough bit to explain. I have always believed that I was loved. My family life was full of hugs and kisses and happiness. But at the same time it wasn’t happy. Only I didn’t realise. Till now.
Things were said to me as a child that I believed to be true. I was innocent and trusting and believed everything that was said by people that I loved. Those insights became the core of my personal belief system and even though I am starting to challenge it, my belief system is still integral in my thinking and behaviour.
I was instructed in everything. What to say, what not to say, how to behave, how not to behave. I was told that something I did or said could have the consequence of nobody wanting to be my friend. I was told that if I was feeling sad or troubled “don’t tell your friends about it, put on a big smile and pretend”. Apparently, no one wants to hear my problems, no one will be interested. Another thing I believe because of these words of wisdom is that people are only doing things for me out of kindness or pity. Never because they love me and want to help and are generous and giving. I learnt instead that people take pity on me. Which makes me annoyingly grateful. All the time.
I have a theory that the person who told me these nuggets of wisdom wasn’t maliciously or knowingly misguiding me. I think that she was passing on her own ways of thinking and behaving without realising the implications. I think she genuinely thought she was being helpful and was shielding me from harm.
But it backfired. An important part of growing up is to try to do new things and to fail at them. That is how a child learns. It is hard for the parents because they can see what is going to go wrong. But a child has to find out for itself. “Ok, that didn’t work, next time I’ll try it differently”. I think that because of my limitations and my fears, my parents didn’t want me to get upset about failure. So I’d be told “you won’t be able to do that”. So I didn’t try, and then it turns out that they were right, I can’t do it. But maybe, if I had tried I might have found a compromise that suited me. I was always too scared to try anything.
So how does all of this fit in with social anxiety? I see now that I was scared of being and scared of doing. I wasn’t allowed to be myself because I had to follow the rules of behaving properly, otherwise I wouldn’t have any friends. And I didn’t talk much because I was probably too scared I would say the wrong thing, because then obviously, the world would explode. And I hadn’t been primed for every conversation the world had to offer, so I actually had no thoughts or words of my own. I so desperately wanted people to like me, I tried so hard to be…. actually I have no idea what I was trying to be. It sounds like I was a puppet doesn’t it?
But none of this makes sense. As a person, in my natural state, I am kind, loving, a good listener. I realise that I collected friends who were outcasts. Children who were flawed, different. I gave them love and a shoulder to cry on and they gave me friendship. I stood up for them when people were unkind and I listened to all of their troubles. It never once occurred to me that other people could do the same for me. I lived in my huge smile and everything is wonderful attitude because I wasn’t allowed to say “actually, I’m feeling a bit sad today”. There was so much sadness and fear and confusion going on inside, only I hid it so well that even I wasn’t aware of it.
I am beginning to realise how harmful the words “nobody wants to hear your problems” are. I spent my life feeling unimportant outside of the family unit. I was always less than, not good enough, I didn’t matter. So when I worried about something I didn’t tell anybody because it’s not important, it’s only me.
I hated parties because when you got to a certain age you didn’t play games anymore, you had to stand around and talk! At senior school, break times didn’t include playing, they included chatting. I was completely out of my depth because I had nothing to talk about. The puppeteer wasn’t there to pull my strings. And I was (and probably still am) a chronic people pleaser. I find it hard to make decisions because I’d rather do whatever makes other people happy, even if I hate it. The other option is to do something I want to do, and that is insane, unthinkable. Because I don’t matter.
But that’s daft. Because I do matter. Despite myself, people love me and enjoy being with me.
I’m the only person who doesn’t enjoy being with me.