Social Anxiety

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Dear JT,

I’m not going to make any requests, but I did want to chime in with a thank-you.

I have a pretty severe case of social phobia. It is taking a lot out of me to even write this. I have been reading you for quite some time, though.

Over the past couple of months, I have forced myself to get up on stage at karaoke night at my local pub on Saturday nights. It’s getting better, but it wasn’t always.

At first, I would get up and sing something easy, something that I have known forever, something that I would sing in the shower. That first time, at was devastating! I walked off shaking so hard that when I picked up my beer to take a sip, I spilled it on myself and had to go home.

That was just about the time that you had presented your talk on mental illness from Skepicon. I watched it, and I saw the pain in your face. The anxiety, the shakiness in your voice. I went back and read some of the earlier posts on how you are still struggling, but you soldier on. And how you love to sing.

And you inspired me.

Since then, I have made it a point to try do at least one more song than I did last week, time permitting. I’m up to 5. I still can’t form a complete sentence when speaking to a woman I’m attracted to, and if I ever disagree with something you (or anyone else) writes here, you will not hear about it. Baby steps, though.

So I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for fighting the good fight. Thank you for teaching me that it’s OK to be afraid.

Most of all, thank you for standing up and speaking out on behalf of those of us who cannot.

Very much respect,

-Anthony

First, thanks for all the praise.

I remember the first play I was ever in.  I was 16 and landed the role of the Narrator in The Canterbury Tales.  I had my lines memorized before the first rehearsal.  I ran my monologues at home constantly (and in my head everywhere).

On opening night when the cue came for me to enter, I froze.  I literally couldn’t make myself go on stage.  Thankfully I had a stage manager who saw what was happening and shoved me out onto the stage.  Everything went pretty stellar from there.

Even today though I still get stage fright.  I still have to pee ten minutes before I go on stage whether its to sing or give a talk (at a conference you can watch me pace nervously and take big breaths before it’s my turn to speak).  I am comfortable singing now after years of training, but even as a voice student I did speaking/silent roles in operas for a few years before I sang a single note.

And, as any of my friends will tell you, I get super quiet when there are girls around I’m attracted to (more quiet than usual).

Like anything else it gets more comfortable with practice, which you are experiencing.  You’ll find that it’s like a rollercoaster: after the big drop it’s really not that bad.  Once you get past the fear and open your mouth to talk to someone or once you get the first note out, you realize that it’s the fear that was bad, not the singing or the speaking.  At least, this is what I have found.

And here’s the honest truth: you’re going to fail.  Sometimes you’ll miss a note or embarrass yourself in front of an attractive woman.  Learn to celebrate failure: it means you had the fortitude to try (and often if means you had the guts to try something new).  It also means you probably learned something and became a more complete human being for the effort.  It’s the kind of thing that inches you closer to success.

And lastly, this is your homework assignment: the next time I say something you disagree with, leave a comment.  Tell me.  Trust me, I love having commenters unafraid to tell me when they think I’m off base.  Karaoke, though fun, doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.  Ideas do.  Very much.  Do me the respect of telling me why you think I’ve missed something.  You might be wrong, but so might I.  Give me the chance to celebrate failure.  *hug*

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Cynthia

    Damn it, you and your readers made me cry AGAIN. Good for you, Aidan, keep fighting. My partner is also a really quiet guy who had a lot of trouble finding the courage to speak. And, while he may now tell you when he disagrees, he’d never get up on a stage and sing! So you’re already miles ahead.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jubydoo Juby

    I appreciate you addressing this issue, though I feel like you’re underestimating social anxiety a bit. It’s more than just nervewracking to deal with social situations when you have this condition. For people like Anthony and I, being in foreign social conditions carries with it a feeling like something utterly catastrophic is going to happen at any moment. From what OCD people have told me, I think the sensation is similar to the one OCD sufferers have when they don’t complete their rituals.

    Shit, I even felt that way a little when Ellise and I went out to STL, and it was a friendly environment.

    But you’re spot on with how to deal with it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works very, very well here. You just have to push yourself into situations where you are uncomfortable until you learn how to deal with it. I know that I will probably be burdened with social phobia for the rest of my life, but at least now I know that I can handle it enough to have a functional existence.

  • jacobfromlost

    I have this problem also, but its a lot better now than it used to be. I went into teaching high school–so have had a lot of exposure therapy. Strangely, though, it only partially generalized to other situations. Talking in front of students who I know is a breeze (even if they are difficult students). Talking in front of students I don’t know is a little harder, but I can fake it pretty well. Talking in front of peers/adults is hard (and is increasingly harder the less I know them, such as parents).

    I can’t tell you how many times I DREADED an evaluation day (when a principal or vice principal comes in to observe your teaching and judge it). One year I got the vice principal that everyone was afraid of (including other teachers) and I didn’t fully appreciate that element. I told my students Mr. So-and-So was coming in to observe on Date X (as I always did so they wouldn’t get freaked out), and more than half my class didn’t show up. The few who did show up were off task and unfocused because, get this, it was Halloween. I got so nervous I thought I was going to pass out.

    I spent the rest of the year butting heads with this administrator, who ruled with an iron fist and tried to scare the crap out of everyone (the absolute worse possible scenario for me and my social anxiety). I simply took his suggestions and pointed out when I thought he was wrong. By the end of the year, he gave me a glowing review even though he really didn’t have one good thing to say about me all year long (until after the school year was over). He was an “old school” guy who thought there should be no positive feedback (not even a smile) until everything is over, because apparently telling someone they are doing a good job may make them stop trying hard to do a good job, or something.

    Having gotten through that, everything else is a breeze even when it is difficult. (I had to leave my job a year or so ago to help take care of an ailing mother. The open teaching positions near home were very few, but I did get an interview. While sitting in a strange office in a strange school, waiting for an interview by strange adults…both my hands went numb, and portions of my field of vision went blurry, just from anxiety. As soon as I entered the interview room, it all went away. It was the best interview of my life, although I didn’t get the job. The next interview should be a breeze.)

  • Mark

    Everything I’ve read about introverts recommends against forcing extroversion, but instead, focusing on the introvert advantages, i.e. ability to delve deeply into a topic to get an answer, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, close attention to detail, being a good listener, etc. Introversion is not something that should be “fixed.” Western culture glorifies extroversion putting undue pressure on introverts. Think actors, sports stars, activists striving for the public’s eye. Inversely, introversion seems to be more valued in the East, think gurus, monks, craftsmen alone in their remote mountain-top sanctuary.

    I used to feel like I had to oblige when asked to give a speech, now I just say that it is not my thing. As an introvert, the way I function best in social situations is to think of the needs of others instead of how uncomfortable I feel.

    This is a handy-dandy little myth buster post by Carl King:
    http://www.carlkingdom.com/10-myths-about-introverts

    This is a great article about Thriving as an Introvert:
    http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Dunn32.html

    • http://jubydoo.wordpress.com/ Juby!

      Don’t mistake introversion for social anxiety. While most social anxiety sufferers are introverts, the two are quite different. An introvert is someone who emotionally recharges from time alone as opposed to time spent socially. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a condition where social situations are highly stressful and difficult for the sufferer.

      For me, it’s a constant fear that the person I’m talking to is just going to laugh at me, or become angry with me for some irrational reason. A stranger coming up to ask me for the time can send me into a miniature panic attack.

      The best way to deal with it is to intentionally put yourself in these difficult situations and learn to deal with them (see: cognitive-behavioral therapy – you do it enough, your brain begins to re-wire, in a way). You’re also advised to get yourself out of them once you feel like you can’t do it anymore. You still spend a lot of time by yourself recharging.

      • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

        As an introvert without social anxiety, I will have to agree that they are not the same thing. I require time alone to function (one reason I usually stay up later than my wife — it gives me that time), but I don’t get especially anxious in social situations. I don’t like large groups (and will sometimes leave parties early as a result of the “claustrophobia” I start to feel after a while), and I do get stage fright, but it’s generally not debilitating. And one-on-one or in small groups, I’m at ease (unless I’m trying to flirt).

        Introversion and social anxiety ARE different. I see no reason to “fix” my introversion -you’re right about that, Mark- but if I had social anxiety, I would desire help and treatment, just as I did when I had depression.

  • ash

    “waiting for the faithful to stop being silly because we’re so friendly.”

    You know…That’s it really, isn’t it? They call us violent, strident, and rude, then totally take advantage of our generally kinder reasonable natures to steamroller us into shutting up. The tenor of atheism has changed over the last few years, thankfully. It really is starting to feel “over” for the religious bullies

    • ash

      wrong thread woops

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila Crosby

    Anthony, you’re awesome!

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    Go, Anthony! As a fellow social anxiety sufferer, I’m glad to hear of your success :)

    I’ve definitely found that exposing myself to social situations over and over helps. Gradually, things that used to terrify me have become routine.

    Today I needed a tire fixed on my car and I *called* the place to make an appointment. And it didn’t even take a tranquilizer. Then I went and talked to the man at the counter while herding my three-year-old son. And the other day I had to call my homeowner’s insurance to discuss additional coverage.

    Of course, talking to someone you’re attracted to is the absolute hardest thing, I think. I wish I had some advice, but I got married so long ago, I barely remember what it was like. Oy.

  • anthonyallen

    Don’t mistake introversion for social anxiety. While most social anxiety sufferers are introverts, the two are quite different. An introvert is someone who emotionally recharges from time alone as opposed to time spent socially. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a condition where social situations are highly stressful and difficult for the sufferer.

    Agreed.

    I have social anxiety (not officially diagnosed, mind you, but I possess all the relevant symptoms), but I am by no means an introvert. In fact, one of my favourite places to be is on stage, performing live theatre. And that is topped only be managing a show. Both are highly visible, and being a stage manager means that I have to deal with (sometimes difficult) people regularly. My job is the same: I am one of only 2 people that look after a university library overnight. We’re on our own with no immediate back-up, so I am called upon to sometimes make hard choices.

    I think I understand that you might be a bit confused by those seemingly contradictory statements. I am socially phobic, I get a lot of enjoyment from performing. JT said: And, as any of my friends will tell you, I get super quiet when there are girls around I’m attracted to (more quiet than usual). Incredulity was my own reaction to that statement as well. But as I thought about it, I came to understand that in that way, JT and I are very much alike (part of the reason I wrote to him, I guess).

    For me, I can be on or backstage in the theatre and I can be an authority figure at work because those things aren’t who I am. They’re just roles that I have to play. The character I play knows what he’s going to say, the stage manager has specific duties that he has to take care of during every rehearsal and performance, the lighting designer/technician knows where to point his cans and when to push his faders, the tech support librarian is more than a decade older than even the eldest grad student and knows when and how to dispense wisdom. These people are all named Anthony, but they’re not me. Not really.

    I suppose that one could argue that life is really just a series of roles that we have to play, “[a]ll the world’s a stage,” and all that. I agree with that, actually, because it’s true. I’ve lived that life for as long as I can remember. Tony-at-work[*] is different from elder-daughter’s-dad-Tony, who is different from younger-daughter’s-dad-Tony and is different still from who husband-Tony used to be. And so on, and so on. It got very confusing, but it was how I coped. But one day I realized that none of it was me. None of it. I had not grown up, I had only pretended to, played the role, if you will, of being an adult.

    Having that finally hit me and truly understanding it was by far the most difficult thing I’ve gone through in my 42+ years. I didn’t (and still don’t, really) have an identity of my own. It’s all been just a series of roles that i’ve played. And while it did get me this far, I am left with a sense of emptiness and deep-seeded unfulfillment.

    And a lot of growing up to do.

    [*]My name is Anthony, and I prefer to be called Anthony. But I still self-identify as Tony, because that’s what I was called from birth.

    • anthonyallen

      One more thing.

      JT, if there is ever a time when you are about to go on stage and not have stage fright, that’s when you should be worried. Once my acting coach pounded that into my head, going on stage was a breeze.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karla.kearney Karla

    Anthony,

    First let me tell you that you are not alone. I have struggled with SA for (at least) 20 years. It has gotten better but I still have my difficult moments. Secondly, I think you are really courageous to talk about it and face your fears. It is awesome since I have known too many people who have let SA get the best of them.

    JT,

    Thanks for having discussions about mental health on your blog. There are too many misconceptions about these sorts of disorders and I hope by talking about it people can see we are normal, or at least not as abnormal as they imagine we are:)

  • Draco Malfoi

    Wait, what? I knew you in high school. You were that kid who wouldn’t stop spontaneously bursting out into song in public. People knew you as ‘that guy who sings all the time’. This is when you weren’t doing magic tricks…if there was ever a time you had social anxiety, it must have been before we met…

  • anthonyallen

    And lastly, this is your homework assignment: the next time I say something you disagree with, leave a comment. Tell me.

    I just wanted to let you know that I’m failing my assignment.

    Miserably.

    • anthonyallen

      I’m not saying that I’ve disagreed with anything that you’ve said, mind you. But I have disagreed with others, and even though the person I disagreed with was actually banned (rightly) for trolling, I still couldn’t bring myself to do it.

      I’m sorry that I made you waste your time on me.

  • anthonyallen

    So, maybe no one is listening, but I’m writing just the same.

    I called for help.

    Seems that the mental health system is quite different here, in Alberta, than I’m used to back home in Nova Scotia. I had called with the hope that I would end up with a referral to a therapist. While I was waiting for my appointment, I would start to feel better, the therapist would convince me that I’m OK, and we’d do it all over again in 6 months.

    That’s what a round of therapy is for me, that’s the pattern.

    But that isn’t what I got. What I got was someone on the phone who, when I let spill some of my emotions, thought that I was in “crisis” and pointed me to a mobile unit, one that would come to my house and help me deal with things. They would call me back, and make arrangements to help me.

    So, I shut off my phone and went to bed.

    They did call back, but I would have been asleep and wouldn’t have answered anyway, incidentally, ringer or no. But having them come here? I don’t think I’m willing to try to deal with that kind of embarrassment. Yes, I’m sure that that my roommate knows how much I struggle sometimes, but tell me honestly, if you were in my shoes, would you be able to talk to a mental health professional on your home with someone else around?

    I’m writing here because, apparently, I have nowhere else to turn.

    Anyway.

    • http://jubydoo.wordpress.com/ Juby!

      Anthony, I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling so much. I’m familiar with the same cycle, as I’ve been around it a few times myself. Part of the problem is that social anxiety is still relatively new in the psychological literature. Many professionals are not so familiar about it, and those that are might not know how to deal with it. Here’s a few points of advice I would give:

      - Shop around for a therapist. Don’t go to just one therapist, but look around until you find one that you feel is really helping you out. In particular, you’re going to want a therapist who uses Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), as that is the methodology that has shown the most success with anxiety disorders. It’s also the most grounded in empirical evidence.

      - Develop a support network. Having a few friends you can talk to about this sort of thing is immensely helpful. Last year I was at a job fair several hours away from home, and the constant need to sell myself had driven me into full-on panic attack mode. Texts from my girlfriend and another friend here at home helped me get through it without running out of there, screaming in abject horror.

      - Keep working! One task my therapist gave me was to establish a scale of 1 to 10 for how much situations freaked me out (1 is sitting at home by myself, 10 would be (for me) an impromptu speech in front of complete strangers). I would then keep a journal of anxiety-inducing experiences throughout the week with rankings, the idea being to push myself into new frontiers each week.

      The sad part is that this is how our brains are wired. It’s probably due to how we were born, experiences we had when our brains were doing their initial wiring in childhood, and/or experiences during the massive re-wiring that occurs during adolescence. We are, in a sense, stuck this way. But we can choose to let the fear run our lives, or we can choose to push against it every day and try make our lives better.

      I encourage you to continue to talk to JT, but if you’d like to have someone else to talk to feel free to look me up on Facebook or have JT give you my email address and I’d be happy to help you in whatever way I can.


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