Up until grade 3, I had a pretty ordinary childhood. I am by nature introverted and a bit quiet. In my first school, I was a slow learner, and fell behind the other kids. At age 8, I went to elementary school (grades 3-6).
Unfortunately, kids from several schools were merged together into this school, and I ended up in a class with a bully and several of his friends. It didn’t take them very long to figure out that I was shy, and not very proficient at defending myself.
It started out with constant name calling and taunting by this “clique” of bullies. The teachers saw what was going on, and didn’t do anything about it.
As a shy kid, I found it hard to defend myself, and so the bullies moved things up a notch. They started making up rumours and stories about me, and gossiping to everyone who would listen. As a result, all the other kids started to avoid me, and I lost all the friends that I had.
Soon after, it became a popular activity to join in on the harassment, to the point where virtually all the kids my age were joining in on the bullying.
My parents didn’t understand either. I remember coming home from school crying every day, and I’d tell them what had happened. They’d give me the “stiff upper lip” line, and tell me to face my bullies.
I don’t think they realized the extent of the bullying, and didn’t think they needed to do anything about it. Society seems to have this idea that boys are supposed to be strong and “macho”, and fight their way out of their problems. Quite frankly, fighting was the last thing I wanted. I just wanted the bullying to stop!
Over the 3 years I spent in elementary school, pretty much all the social input I got was extremely negative. I was told that I was ugly, stupid, and filthy. Nobody would even touch me, telling me that they’d get sick from my “germs”. I had no friends, and nobody pulled me aside to tell me that any of these things weren’t true.
Over time, I started to believe what I was being told. Even at that age, I was rapidly growing upwards, but not outwards. Tall and scrawny and uncoordinated pretty much described me. I got paranoid about the way I looked, and I developed a hatred for my appearance. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.
I came to believe that everything about me was wrong and hideous, and my self esteem plummeted. I avoided my peers whenever possible, and learned that the best response to anything social was to remain silent, and try not to get noticed. Maybe that way, they’d leave me alone!
(Of course, later on I realized this was exactly the wrong thing to do!)
After this, I moved on to Jr. High (grades 7-9). Fortunately, the bullies in elementary moved on to a different school. Unfortunately, a fresh batch had arrived.
By this time, I had a good case of social anxiety. I had no self esteem, and avoided contact with others whenever possible. I was afraid that they would realize how “hideous” I really was if they talked to me, and then they would hate me. The insults I received in elementary became my own thoughts in Jr High, and all of it was negative.
Of course, I didn’t realize that my thoughts and beliefs were coming from my own "self talk"... and my self talk was based on the untrue things that were hurled at me in elementary school.
While it was the boys in elementary school that taunted me, it was the girls in Jr. High. Because I was passive and avoidant of others, I was an easy target. The same epithets that were hurled at me in elementary were hurled at me in Jr. High from all the girls in the class.
As usual, there was the ringleader, and her followers. Being popular meant that you had to ridicule me (at least in that particular class). That, combined with puberty made a big negative impact on what was left of my self esteem. All of the other boys started dating, and some had girlfriends.
I was untouchable. My negative self talk expanded to include the belief that all women hated me, and could only feel negative things about me. Any attempt by me to talk to them or introduce myself could only be met with scorn and disdain. I have memories of the Jr. High dances, in which I was always the only guy who never danced with a girl the whole evening.
By high school, the abuse was finally over. The girls in Jr. High moved on to another class in high school, and there were no other bullies to replace them. Unfortunately though, the damage was already done. I was left with a profound fear of two social groups – women and children. Ironically, I had no fear of the adults, because they had never abused me (at least not personally). Throughout high school, I was a loner, and really didn’t have any friends to speak of.
Ironically, I didn’t really start to make public presentations until I was in high school, so I never developed a fear of public speaking. To this day, I’ve never had issues with speaking before large crowds. However, my ability to form one on one relationships was completely swamped by the overwhelming anxiety that consumed me. I’m told that SA affects each person differently, and this is how it affected me.
Because I could deal with large crowds OK, university was not too difficult for me. I earned both bachelor's degree in Mechanical engineering and a master's degree in Aerospace engineering. I was first in my mechanical engineering class.
Unfortunately, during this time, I still found it virtually impossible to have any kind of social life. Talking to people caused me so much anxiety that I would just freeze, with almost a mask of non-emotion on my face. I could work in a professional situation though, as long as things didn’t turn personal.
For a while, I worked as an aerospace engineer in Ontario. I’d get out of bed, go to work, and come straight home. That was my life for the time I was there. By that time, I had lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ottawa, Ontario, and Brampton, Ontario. In a way, I felt that maybe if I could move far enough away from home, maybe I could also escape the anxiety. Of course, my anxiety was flowing out of the negative beliefs I had about myself, and it always moved along with me.
It was at this time that I saw a story in the news about Asperger's syndrome. I can’t remember the details about what that is, but one of the symptoms was a complete lacking of a normal social life. Being in Ontario, I decided to call the psychology department at the University of Toronto and got an appointment.
As it turned out, he said I DIDN’T have Asperger's. Instead, I had this thing called Social Anxiety Disorder. At age 27, that was the first time I’d ever heard about it. I remember being somewhat disappointed. In a bizarre way, I felt it hard to accept that the total fear and isolation that defined my existence could be non physiological.
I WANTED something to be really wrong with me because I couldn’t believe that I could feel the way about myself that I did without it being physiological. Apparently, the University of Toronto had a local therapy group of some kind. Oddly enough, the professor who diagnosed me didn’t think it fit to tell me about it.
Next came my attempts to find something that would help me with this SA thing. I started out with my local doctor, who decided that the reason I didn’t have any social activity (or girlfriends) was because I had no experience doing these things. Therefore, I should just join a whole bunch of social groups and get that experience.
He was completely ignorant of the fact that it was the ANXIETY that was the issue. The result of this process was that I flooded myself with anxiety, without having any of the cognitive tools to deal with it. I crashed and burned, and just gave up trying.
It was some three more years before I tried again. The one useful thing he recommended was to join a gym. I did, and gained 40 pounds. My self esteem went up for the first time in my life, because at 200 pounds and 6’4”, people didn’t insult me anymore.
Then, one day, the company I worked for did a downsizing, and I felt rather vulnerable. My social anxiety convinced me that I was worthless, and surely they would fire me. Fortunately, at this time, a large company in Indianapolis, Indiana was hiring. I sent in an application, and sure enough, I was offered a job.
While there, I volunteered as a Boy Scout leader. Oddly enough, this helped my social anxiety enormously. I was dealing with the same people that I was afraid of, and I realized that perhaps these 50 lb kids weren’t quite so evil and frightening as I had believed.
I even dated a couple of times. However, I was so anxious that the women I dated only saw the anxiety, and not me. These were all just first dates only.
The office I worked at in Indianapolis had a sizeable grouping of people my own age (late 20’s). Having gone to the gym and improved the way I looked at myself a little bit, I was better able to talk to some of them. After a while, I had made my first friends. They generally liked me, but I was still quite negative about myself, and life in general.
By this time, I had reached 30, and I had never had any girlfriends. I had always wanted to fall in love, settle down, and have a family. At this time, I was starting to get anxious that this might never happen.
It was quite difficult for me, but I found a local psychologist, and tried again to get therapy. For the first time, I was introduced to the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy. Unfortunately, the therapist had NO CONCEPT of how deep social anxiety runs. His idea of cognitive therapy was for me to read a 5 page handout. After eight sessions, I was still not “cured”. Because of this, he decided that there was nothing further he could do for me, and told me so. He refused to see me anymore.
I plummeted into extreme depression at this point. I felt that my anxiety would never go away, and that I would never be happy or have any meaningful relationship. I bottomed out to the point where I had to drink myself to sleep every day (5-6 beers before bed), or else I couldn’t sleep at all. Alcohol was becoming my crutch and my best friend. At this point, I realized that I HAD to try to do something, because the alternative was slow death.
I searched that mighty source of all knowledge, the internet. Lo and behold, Dr R’s wonderful web site popped up. By this point, I didn’t care what it cost to do something about my SA. I had resolved to put everything I had into it. I ordered the book and tapes, and started reading aloud the handouts and listening to the explanation on the tapes.
For the first time, I began to realize how negative my self talk was. One of my biggest negative thought processes was to find someone who I looked up to, and compare myself to them. Of course, I’d come up short, and then I'd beat myself up about it.
I used to see a woman I thought was attractive and feel sick to my stomach, because I was sure she was laughing at me. After working on the cognitive therapy tapes, I reached the point where I could look at women without feeling this fear.. I couldn’t talk to them yet, but at least the feelings of inadequacy had begun to subside.
I decided to make the next big step, and sign up for one of Dr R’s international groups. These are an intensive 3 week therapy session (6 days a week). The major thing that convinced me to throw my time, money, and energy towards this was the fact that Dr R. HAD social anxiety himself, and somehow managed to get over it. If it worked for him, then maybe it would work for me.
The three weeks I spent in Phoenix were the next big step in the right direction for me.
I made enormous progress against my SA, and felt better about myself and my life than I ever had before. I learned that the solution to SA was to do the opposite of my instincts (and what I’d been trying all my life).
I had to RELAX, and take the pressure OFF MYSELF. No more trying to be perfect, and no more trying to shape my whole life for the purpose of trying to please others. Just relax, and be myself!
After returning to Indianapolis, I realized that I wanted to make more progress than I was making. So I did one of the most risky things in my life. Once I got my green card, I quit my job and relocated to Phoenix to join the local SA therapy groups.
I didn’t have a job in Phoenix when I moved. The first couple of months here were quite hard for me, with no job, and not knowing anyone here. Fortunately, I found work with an aircraft firm, which has kept me fed since then. The members of the local group at the Social Anxiety Institute have become steadfast friends, through thick and thin, and things are much better for me now.
As my therapy continued here, my anxiety continued to drop. I began to re-evaluate my beliefs and attitudes about things, and gradually my life has begun to change for the better. The handouts have helped me to change many of the wrong and irrational beliefs that I’ve had about myself all these years.
As a result, the anxiety I’ve had towards children has almost completely gone away. I no longer fear the boss at work, and feel more able to contribute to the tasks that I’m working on there.
Reading the “Joys of Beating Myself Up” handout has been one of the greatest helps to me. I’ve been able to STOP that horrendously self destructive habit of finding fault with everything I do, and then attacking myself for it. As a result, when I make mistakes now, I don’t get upset anymore.
The week long depressions I used to have don’t happen anymore. The simple act of NOT beating myself up has allowed an enormous amount of positive change to happen in my life. The beer is no longer necessary to sleep.
As a result of this, I have been able to gently release my anxiety until it now focuses on one issue: women. I admit, I haven’t overcome this problem yet. Relationships are a rather difficult thing anyway, especially for folk with SA.
However, it’s the last big hurdle on my hierarchy of anxiety issues. A few months after moving to Phoenix, I joined several internet dating sites, and dated a long list of women. All of them ended on the first date, again because I was too anxious to relax and be myself. I was essentially flooding myself, and it didn’t help me in the long run.
Lately, I’ve backed off the “dating thing”, and just tried to make friends instead. I’m seeing a lady now, just as an activity partner/friend (hiking mostly), and I have some female friends in the SA group. With time, I hope to relax and get more used to normal social interaction with women before trying to do anything further.
I’m almost 35 now (oy!), but rushing things isn’t going to work. That just adds pressure, which in turn adds anxiety. The key is to relax, and take it easy. I will not pressure myself into forcing anything to happen on a particular, rigid time schedule (memorized line out of another Dr R. handout!). So far, it seems to be helping.
Another thing I’ve been doing is taking dance lessons. This has also been enormously helpful to me in convincing myself that maybe I’m not quite as awkward and untouchable as I once thought.
In fact, I seem to be able to dance quite well. Just being exposed to women in social situations has been very helpful in “testing out” my irrational, negative beliefs about myself. Some of the most negative beliefs I’ve held all these years are also some of the most inaccurate!
I’ve made enormous progress in overcoming SA, and feel I’m entering into the final stages of that process. Cognitive behavioural therapy DOES work! The key is not intelligence or skill, but PERSISTENCE! Keep at it, gently but consistently, and things will get better for you, too!