How I Overcame Social Anxiety

My name is (Dave). I am currently 32 years old. I am from a small town in central Illinois. I discovered the Social Anxiety Institute website in October 2003 and started doing the therapy on my own using the therapy tapes and workbook. I moved to Phoenix and joined the local group that started in October 2005. At this point, I feel like I am really better except for a few specific areas. This is my story.

As far back as I can remember I was always a very shy child. For most of my life, I basically would not speak unless someone asked me a direct question. I would never initiate a conversation. I could talk with one other person, but if I was with two of my friends, I would let them carry 90% of the conversation. 

With a group of three or more people, I felt too inhibited to say anything. Even when I had something that I wanted to say, I would hesitate. The conversation would move on to a different topic before I could say it. People would frequently comment on how quiet and shy I was.

When I go home to visit my family now, I can see a lot of the dynamics that led to the development of social anxiety disorder. My mother suffers from anxiety and depression herself. My father is critical and judgmental. They were both overprotective. My grandfather is quick-tempered and prejudiced. He also likes to tease the young children in the family. 

Most of the members of my extended family are shy and somewhat negative people. The conversation at family gatherings is usually about everything that is wrong with everything.

Some other factors also led to the development of social anxiety disorder. In middle school and junior high, I was the target of all the class bullies. It was especially embarrassing to be bullied in front of my friends. I was smaller than the other boys, and I had no interest in sports. I had a bad haircut and no concept of fashion. In college, I had severe acne on my face. I eventually took Accutane to control it.

When I started therapy, the causes of my social anxiety were not obvious to me. Luckily, as Dr. R explains on the tapes, we do not need to understand how we got this way. We just have to accept that we developed this disorder somehow from our previous life experiences and decide that we are now going to change the ways that we think and behave.

I was gifted academically so I did well in school. Surprisingly, I have no trouble with public speaking. I feel nervous, of course, but it does not affect my performance much. Despite having social anxiety, I managed to get an engineering degree from a major university and a good job.

I think I hit my lowest point right after I graduated from college. In high school and college, I had some friends. I also participated in a lot of extracurricular activities. 

But after graduating from college, for the next seven years, I had no friends and no idea how to get any. All I did was work. After work I went straight home to my apartment and watched television until it was time to go back to work. On weekends my truck never moved from the parking lot.

During this time, I felt trapped and completely hopeless. I suffered from severe insomnia. In fact, before I learned about social anxiety I thought that insomnia was my main problem. I thought that if I could just get some more sleep, I would be fine. 

When I was not blaming insomnia, I was blaming my job. My career as an engineer in the construction industry required me to move every year or two. I lived in Missouri, Illinois, South Carolina, Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky. I worked an average of sixty hours (usually six or seven days) per week. I recognize now that my social anxiety along with the related problems of perfectionism and procrastination were the reasons that I had to work more hours than other people did.

As I mentioned earlier, I discovered the Social Anxiety Institute about two years ago at the age of 30. I think that the most significant thing Dr. R has done for social anxiety sufferers is to put all the information out on the Internet where we can find it. Some good books about social anxiety were published in the early 1990’s, but at that point in my life I would not have been caught dead browsing the self-help section in the bookstore.

Looking back, there were three factors that caused me to finally recognize my problem and seek help for it. First, when I turned 30 and realized that my life was not at all turning out the way that I wanted it to, I had a little bit of an early mid-life crisis. Second, I had advanced to a position in my job that required a lot more interaction with people. In my earlier positions, I spent most of my time working with computers and data. Having to supervise others would almost bring on an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, it still does. I realized that I would never be able to move much beyond the entry level unless I changed. 

Last but certainly not least, my friend J.C. had a bigger impact on me than she will ever realize. Because I did not do anything except work and because I worked in the construction industry, I had almost no contact with women in my day-to-day activities. 

At this time, I was working on a very large project, and J.C. was a new graduate engineer who came to work on the project. Not counting waitresses and cashiers, she was the first attractive, young woman I had spoken to in at least seven years. Needless to say, I had a huge crush on her.

Very quickly after I started the tapes, I made some friends at work. I started eating lunch with my co-workers in the lunch room. Without knowing it, they became my behavioral group. 

One day during lunch J.C. and another engineer B.C. invited me to join them at a sports bar for hot wings after work. Instead of saying no like I usually did, I said yes. That became a Tuesday night ritual for us. The next two months were a whirlwind of activities. 

I went to a rodeo with a bunch of my co-workers. I went to nightclubs with J.C. and B.C. We watched movies and played board games. I went to a bluegrass concert with M.P. I started joining some guys for beer and pool after work on Thursdays. I even did some karaoke one night. At the hot wings place, J.C. tried to set me up with her boyfriend’s co-worker. I went to the company’s Christmas party for the first time. I hosted a Superbowl party at my apartment.

In all honesty, I did a lot of things that I probably was not ready for, but you have to take advantage of the opportunities you get in life. My stopping statement, rational coping statements, and the distractions helped a lot. When I did most of these activities, I had not even covered the “turning the tables on the ANTs” handouts in the therapy yet, but I was at least willing to accept that my automatic negative thoughts are bullying liars that always lead me in the wrong direction. 

I made it to the “mingling” and “conversations” handouts the week before the Christmas party. That was perfect timing. All of this socializing was so out of character for me that I actually wrote it all down on a calendar. Every time I looked at that calendar it made me smile. It helped me to stay motivated whenever I had a little setback. [Note to readers: If you are not familiar with the concepts that I am referring to in this paragraph, they are all explained in the tape series.]

At this same time, B.C. introduced me to rock climbing. I was completely hooked from the first time we went to the climbing gym. When the weather got better, we started climbing outdoors. B.C. is such a positive, outgoing person. Hanging out with him and seeing how he interacts with people was very good for me.

B.C. and I started climbing with a girl named A.F. He kept encouraging me to ask her out so I called her and she met me for dinner. She never became my girlfriend like I hoped she would, but we did become pals and spent nearly every weekend that summer climbing, hiking, and camping. A.F. was the first girl that I ever spent a significant amount of time alone with. Hanging out with her taught me that girls are just like regular people. They have the same fears and problems that everyone else has.

In May 2004, I quit my job. There were several reasons, but mostly I just wanted more time to work on myself. My parents thought I had gone off the deep end. I had not told them anything about my therapy yet. Originally I only planned to take a short break and then look for something better, but once I had all of that free time in front of me I found lots of things to do. Also because I never did anything all those years that I was working, I had a decent pile of money saved up.

In June 2004, I went to the annual conference in Washington, D.C. of a professional association that I belong to. I did not go there with the expectation of trying to find a new job. That would be too much pressure. I was able to make a little small talk with the other attendees. The conference validated a lot of the things I had been trying to tell my supervisor and also gave me some direction for my future career. This association has a certification program that I am starting to pursue. If I stay in the construction industry, I would eventually like to become a consultant. Of course, I will have to continue overcoming social anxiety if I am going to be successful with that.

In July 2004, I attended a weekend workshop for paruresis in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Paruresis is the inability to urinate in public restrooms. It is a purely psychological condition and a symptom that a minority of people with social anxiety have. This workshop was my first experience with therapy and is actually what convinced me to come to the Social Anxiety Institute for the behavioral group. I learned that people in therapy are just like regular people. They are not weird or strange. They look completely normal. In fact, the facilitator at this workshop knew about Dr. R’s work because he had used the tapes himself.

Before the workshop I was usually not able to pee at all in a public restroom if there was anyone else in the room. As you can imagine, this was a huge restriction in my life. I avoided interstate rest areas completely. I figured out that if I stopped at fast food restaurants during off peak hours I could always find an empty restroom. I would order my food first and sit where I could see the door of the restroom. Then I would wait until I knew that no one else was in there. At the airport I could sometimes go in a stall if I sat down and the room was noisy. Mostly I just avoided drinking anything when I had to fly. Then I would arrive at my destination dehydrated and sick. Bars and nightclubs were basically impossible for me. After the workshop I was able to go pretty reliably standing up in a stall. I was no longer afraid to go to new places because I knew I had enough strategies to be able to deal with whatever situation I found myself in. Now I am actually starting to have some success using the urinals.

In August 2004, I took a cruise on a 200’ sailing ship in the Caribbean. The trip was for singles only, and there were about 40 people. I highly recommend that format when you feel you are ready for it. Since everyone is there alone it is quite natural to just talk to anyone. I had many small conversations and a few long ones. I learned that I can talk to random strangers about random things. I even participated in one contest where I had to dress up as a girl. Of course, I did not know I would have to do that when the contest started. Maybe if I bring in the photos Dr. R will excuse me from doing any more center-of-attention exercises!

In September 2004, I went on a multi-sport vacation to Moab, Utah. It was another singles trip with about 20 people. We stayed in a lodge and did various outdoor activities each day. Although I certainly never expected to meet anyone significant on this trip, I met S.W., my only sweet girl. I sat next to her and talked to her during the 4-hour van ride from the airport in Salt Lake City. She held my hand when we went canyoneering. When she kissed me on the last night of the trip, it was my first kiss.

I also interacted a lot more with the other people on this trip than I did on the cruise. Each trip I took that summer built on the successes of the previous one. One night we were all sitting around the fireplace at the lodge, and one of the guides had a guitar. I had told S.W. that I could sing and play the guitar so she encouraged me to prove it. I had never performed for a group like that, but it went really well. The whole group demanded an encore a few nights later.

Since I was still unemployed, S.W. invited me to spend the month of October with her at her apartment in San Francisco. Those were the happiest weeks of my life. I had actually been enrolled to attend the international group at the Social Anxiety Institute on those same dates, but it was cancelled due to low enrollment. It is funny how fate works. I think my experiences with S.W. helped me much more than any therapy group could. One of the problems with social anxiety is that most of us have led very sheltered lives. For example, I had never had an espresso drink until S.W. ordered one for me. Now I hang out in coffee shops all the time.

By November 2004, my checking account was nearly empty so I had to start looking for another job. I thought about moving to San Francisco, but I finally decided that Phoenix is where I need to be right now. I found a job and moved here in January 2005. Right after I moved I had my worst setback. I fell back into the old trap of doing nothing but working and watching TV. I stopped doing the cognitive therapy. I was depressed about leaving S.W. Now I am back on track again. I joined the local social anxiety group, cancelled my cable TV, and started rock climbing again.

If you have read this far, thank you. I hope that something in my story will help you. As I said at the beginning, I feel like I am nearly cured. I still feel anxious at work, but most of that anxiety is about normal things like deadlines and resources and being assertive and balancing the stresses of life and work. It is not necessarily social anymore. 

I still have anxiety about supervising others, but I also realize that I am a different person now so maybe it will be a little easier than it was before. I no longer have the anxiety about dating that I had when I was a 31-year-old virgin, but I still have not figured out how to meet women. What are the odds that another cool Asian girl is going to sit next to me on a bus? When I am dating regularly and when I have the career that I want, I will consider myself to be fully cured for all practical purposes.

For me, the physical symptoms of social anxiety disappeared fairly quickly after I started the cognitive therapy. I can still remember sitting in class with beads of cold sweat running down the inside of my arms. That does not happen anymore. 

I can still remember my legs trembling uncontrollably under the table when I would sit in business meetings or eat in restaurants with friends. That also does not happen anymore. 

Now the ANTs handout has become so automatic that as soon as I become aware of any anticipatory anxiety feelings they just disappear by themselves. One minute I will notice a strange anxious feeling; the next minute it will be completely gone. I really only have one physical symptom left. When I feel anxious, my chest sweats so much that it makes a big wet spot in the middle of my shirt, but now I can be rational and even laugh about it. So what! Who cares? It’s no big deal.

The keys to my recovery have been patience, persistence, and proactivity. Do not despair if there is no local group where you live. I made nearly all of my progress on my own with just the tapes. 

If you can come to the Social Anxiety Institute or join a local group where you live, it will be easier to get started. You will have an instant group of friends to do things with. If there is no local group where you live, you will just have to be creative and take more responsibility for your own healing. Besides, ultimately you will have to move this stuff out into the real world anyway. 

Finally, be willing to take some risks in your life. On the other side of risk, there is always a reward. You may not be able to believe this yet, but I promise it is true. You could just go through the motions of therapy for a lifetime and never get any better, but if you are willing to take one small risk after another, you will get to the place where you really want to be.