My Social Anxiety and How I Overcame It
I remember thinking as a teen "how can I ever be a talkative person? I have always been quiet and everyone expects me to be this way."
One of my grade school teachers thought it would be cute to have code names for some of the students.
There was EPBO, which means - ever popular brainy one. EPLO, ever popular loud one.
When she looked at me, she said JULIE, you’re the EPSO - ever popular shy one. I will never forget that day. I thought she would say I was the nice one, but I was labeled SHY one in front of the class by my teacher. Even back then I felt like running away from her. I’m sure she didn’t realize how embarrassed I felt.
My second grade teacher made us stand by her desk while she graded our papers. I went to a very old, four story school. My classroom was on the third floor and I was looking out the window down at the cars when she slapped me across the face and told me to look at my paper, not the window. I was stunned and started to cry.
My mom was a volunteer in the school library and could hear me a couple rooms away. She walked in and saw me sobbing, next to the teachers desk. My mom asked her to step out into the hall with her. When asked what happened, the teacher responded by saying " I have no patience with children like her. I like the kids to raise their hand and speak when I ask a question." After that incident she knew she had to be nice to me, but I was still afraid of her.
During third grade we got a new principal. He liked the kids that were loud and outgoing. Quiet kids bothered him for some reason. He made it a point to stand in front of the classroom and say “hi” to me. I would just look at him and walk by. He smoked a pipe and smelled funny, he wore a smoking jacket. Granted, this was in the 1970’s and things were different back then, but he was on the eccentric side and he scared me.
My quietness bothered him so much he and two other teachers went to my home to speak with my parents to find out why I was so quiet. I was outside being a normal kid playing with the neighborhood kids. When they looked out the window and saw this, they left. But I was still labeled EPSO by those teachers.
I have many good memories of elementary school - except for a few of the teachers. How I wish they would have left me alone. They made me feel like something was wrong with me. I never caused trouble. I played boys against the girls during recess. Hopscotch... all the normal things kids do. I had TWO boyfriends that fought over me. I had to pick which one I wanted. At seven years old, I had more boyfriends than in all of my teen years. I had no problems with other kids outside of school. I went to Brownies, slumber parties and played tag in the backyard.
I was more quiet than most of the other kids but I didn’t feel fear or anxiety. It was the teachers and authority figures I was afraid to speak to.
As the years went by, my shyness increased. Moving to another state when I was beginning 6th grade didn’t help. I couldn’t make friends at the new school. This was a smaller school in the country with only six girls and a few boys. The kids were polite but didn’t include me in their after school activities. I became lonely and for the first time I had no real friends. I was nervous all the time and my stomach was always in knots. I remember having to sing in a chorus with my class. I was all dressed up and excited to be able to do this.... until I got there.
I froze when I saw all the other kids. My mom told me I had to hurry up or I would be late. I started to cry. It was the first time I felt really uncomfortable and out of place with other kids my own age. I was eleven.
This same year I noticed my parents were having trouble. I didn't really understand what was going on. I only know instead of getting mad and yelling at my mom, he would stop talking to her for days until she threatened to leave him. They were so busy dealing with each other’s problems they didn’t have time to see I was struggling with my own.
Middle school was difficult. My family moved to another smaller town during the beginning of seventh grade. My dad had lost his job and we had to move into an older home. A couple years later, when I was 14 my dad stopped speaking to me. He was angry at me about not doing the dishes right away or some stupid thing like that.
In anger I told him I hated him for treating my mom so badly and that was it. The relationship between my dad and I was non-existent. He didn't talk to me until my mom finally left him which was 20 years later. He just showed up at my doorstep one afternoon like nothing happened.
To this day he has never said he was sorry or expressed any emotion of sorrow. Having what I now know as social anxiety was difficult enough to go through. Adding a dad that emotionally disowned me made my life even more difficult. I was ashamed. I didn't want anyone to know he wouldn't speak to me. At family gatherings I tried my best to stay away from him. I didn't want anyone to know.
It's odd, but it's like I protected him. I didn't want anyone to think he was a bad person. I eventually hated him. My mom stayed married to him for financial reasons. She was afraid she couldn't support my brother and me without a second income. In truth it probably would have been better if she had left him, but she was stuck. I used to wish on stars we could leave him. He was full of anger and couldn't express it in a healthy way.
I did have a few friends during these years but didn’t feel like I fit in. The school principal lived down the street and had a daughter the same age as me. He made her walk to school with me. It was the most uncomfortable walks I ever had! She would do all the talking and I would always agree with whatever she said. It became a habit. If she said the sky was orange I would say "yea, it is."
She tried to be my friend in the beginning. She was a bit of an outcast and was self conscious at school since her dad was the principal. I ended up making some friends in 7th and 8th grade, but by the end of 8th grade they became involved with parties and drugs. I was invited to some parties but it scared me, so by the time we went to high school those "friends" were strangers to me. I didn't fit in any of the school cliques. High school was horrible. I was not popular or unpopular. I just blended in.
No one was mean to me really. Their was a group of boys that would see me walking to my locker and call me Zombie. They would laugh and stretch the word out, ZOMBIEEEEEE. They would only do this when they were together in their little group. Nothing was said to me when they were alone.
I think other kids wanted to be my friend but I pushed them away without knowing it. I had low self esteem and was so painfully shy I would sometimes go through a day of school and realize I had hardly said more then a few words all day. Even the teachers stopped calling on me in class. They knew I wouldn’t answer. I would freeze up and couldn’t talk because I was afraid I would give the wrong answer.
I was not smart enough, pretty enough or anything enough and I just didn’t fit in. I wanted to have friends. I wanted to have fun and be invited to parties, dances, concerts, trips to the mall, to go see movies but how could I? Being “shy” made that to difficult. Without knowing it, years of other people’s negative comments, actions (such as being left out) and my own negative beliefs were already formed in my brain.
I had decided I needed to get out of school. I was tired of "prison" as I called it. I wanted out. My dream was to work in a hair salon. As soon as I got my drivers license, I dropped out of school. My mom made me get a GED and then I registered at the Technical Institute for beauty school. I went to the school to study for my GED tests and that's where I met my first real boyfriend. We dated on and off for three years.
I was quiet around his friends. I was quiet around him! Nothing I did was good enough for him. He told me I had to talk more or his friends would think I was strange. I know he did care about me, but he didn't know how to deal with my "shyness".
By my middle 20’s, I had to seek help. I was married and had a small child by then. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I only knew I started becoming afraid to go places, my self esteem was extremely low, I would get panic attacks when I drove the car, causing me to stop driving for many years.
I would walk into a mall and feel dizzy, even with my "safe person". I couldn’t enjoy being in a place with many people such as shopping malls and grocery stores. Standing in line at the grocery store was a nightmare. I felt like the people behind me were staring at me. I was such a nervous wreck by the time I had to pay I could hardly feel my legs. My hands were clammy and I felt faint. I started avoiding things that made me feel uncomfortable which was anything that had to do with other people. One of these things were jobs.
I had a part time job in a large hair salon. The odd thing was working on clients was not too stressful. I could work on people and keep myself busy, focused on something other than feeling anxious. It was the other people that worked in the shop that caused me to feel overwhelmed and anxious. In-between clients the receptionist and other employees would try to talk to me. It became so difficult I had to quit.
I tried to look for other part time jobs but was to afraid to ask for applications. I was afraid if I did get a job would I be able to work without feeling scared?
I was a stay at home mom for a few years, but this made things worse because I felt even more isolated from others. I loved being home with my son but I always compared myself to others. I lived in an old apartment. I didn't have nice things. I wanted to have a yard and my own washer and dryer. I was grateful we had each other but I felt poor and anxious and miserable!
I became so paralyzed with panic and fear I finally went to a doctor for help. He said I was hyperventilating and if I learned to breathe the right way, I would get over this. Of course this did nothing to help. The walls felt like they were closing in even more.
I saw many doctors all with their own ways to “help” me, but no one really helped. They didn’t fully understand what I was living through each day. I was desperate and went to a man who claimed he could help anyone heal themselves of anything. This man didn’t have a degree or any knowledge about social anxiety. He was a fraud and took advantage of desperate people like me.
I listened to another person's mental health series but her tapes alone did not help. I had no tools within to help me change what I now know was a very automatic negative thought process. I went to a few other doctors hoping one of them could help me find a way to help live a normal life.
But no one helped. In fact, most of them made me feel worse. I read self help books and learned nothing that could help permanently.
I didn’t know what to do. I had a young son to take care of. I couldn’t go to his softball games because that meant I would have to sit with the other moms. When I did go to his games he would ask me afterwards why I didn’t cheer when his team won.
I knew things were bad when he asked me why I just sat and looked bored at his ball games. It broke my heart to hear my little boy say those words.
I became afraid of everything. Going for bike rides, walking down my street, driving, going anywhere people could see me. I was so desperate for help but I was trapped and didn’t know anyone else that I could relate to.
Social anxiety does not only affect us, but those that love us.
Here are some things that have helped me get better:
1. The first thing that helped was reading the social anxiety handouts. At first I didn't understand how reading something out loud to myself would be helpful. I felt ridiculous locking myself in my room to read a piece of paper about ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). But doing the cognitive therapy helped me to begin thinking rationally.
2. By learning to continuously catch my ANT thoughts. Before reading the handouts, I didn't know I was a negative thinker. In fact, I thought just the opposite. But after doing some of the cognitive therapy, I started to realize almost all my thoughts were spent putting myself down.
I began to catch myself thinking an ANT thought, such as " What an idiot I am! People must think I'm really stupid". So I would think- STOP- to myself and replace that statement with "People don't expect me to know everything. I'm not perfect and that's OK." I literally spent my days catching my ants. It was exhausting to constantly replace my old thought with new, rational thoughts. Catching and stopping my lifetime of negative self talk was a huge step towards recovery.
3. Persistence and patience. It took a long time to change the way I perceived myself. I was in my 30's when I first started the therapy. I had years and years to practice and learn how to believe all the negative things about myself. I was so good at believing all the negative things, I didn't even know I was doing it! But it also took a long time to learn how to think rational, accurate, truthful things about myself.
4. Staying away from negative people and seeking out people with a positive outlook. I realized negativity was contagious just as happy, positive people are contagious. I try to stay away from anyone that makes me feel bad about myself.
5. Learning not to take myself so seriously. Learning to laugh at myself. I always took things too seriously. I couldn't do anything that might make other people laugh at me. I didn't want to be the center of attention. It was more comfortable to stay in the background.
I finally learned there was a difference between being laughed at and being laughed with. After a few weeks of being in the social anxiety group at SAI, I finally had the courage to stand up and tell a story. I was nervous and feeling shaky. People started to laugh. But they weren't laughing at me... they were laughing at the story I told. That was when I began not taking myself so seriously.
6. Not comparing myself to others.... I was the worst person when it came to comparing my life with someone else's. To me, everyone had a better house, better car, a better personality, better life etc... I made myself miserable by believing everyone had it so much easier.
That way of thinking is poisonous. If I was rational, I would have thought about the things I had, not the things I didn't have. We are all different. I no longer want to be anyone but myself.
Because I had believed all the negative things people told me through words or actions throughout my life, it took a while to UN -DO all that irrational thinking. Eventually, I was able to enjoy doing the things that had made me feel scared and uncomfortable in the past.
Behavioral therapy exercises to help myself after doing cognitive therapy:
I started out by doing small things. Driving and going places by myself (other than work) had been almost impossible. I started driving to the mall by myself. Step by little step I was able to go into a department store and return an item without a receipt... even though I knew I would probably have to be assertive.
I would eat in the mall's food court by myself. I was afraid to do this but I would tell myself rational things like "if people want to watch me eat they have a problem" or "no one is looking at me, and it's OK".
Going out to lunch with co- workers. I would always say "no thanks". I learned to relax and rationally know I was asked to go with them because they really liked me. I changed my "no" to "yes, thanks for asking".
Making eye contact when people spoke to me. I had a habit of looking down or around the room. I felt like people respected me more when I was able to make eye contact while talking to them.
In the groups at the Social Anxiety Institute, doing assertion role plays helped me feel more confident in real world. Staying calm while standing up to someone who is (acting) rude and mean because you didn't fill out some personal (optional) information. Doing these role plays each week helped me to be a little more assertive in real life.
Answering questions while standing in front of the room was really helpful to me, too. I always thought I had nothing to say that was interesting. I would freeze. My mind would go blank and I could think of nothing to say. Now I just calm (slow) myself down and something to say always pops into my mind.
Skits and Silly karaokes - These helped me overcome the " I can't look foolish in front of others" fear. I was always the one to sit in the back and hide. Being the center of attention while dressed up in funny clothes helped me learn I could have fun and laugh at myself. Laughing and having fun actually takes the tension away.
So.... doing things little by little works. It takes time. Having social anxiety didn't happen overnight. It doesn't go away overnight. But it does go away.
How Do You Know You Are Over This?
This answer is different for everyone. Some people have more to work on than others.
Some have had social anxiety longer than others.
I think you get to a point to where you know you have made progress and can’t go back to the “old” you, but at the same time, you know there are things you still need to work on.
For me, I still have times I get a little anxious, but I also know what to do before it gets out of control.
Everyone has anxious moments. I think we sometimes forget that.
I went from not being able to make eye contact, being nervous talking in a group of two or more, not being able to speak up and voice my opinion…… which I do all the time - especially at work - I couldn’t do anything in the group to make me look foolish. I would freeze up and couldn’t think of anything to say for an impromptu talk. I was always serious. I couldn’t laugh at myself.
In Dr. R's groups, I have stood up in front of the room to read, lip sync, done goofy skits, role plays, answered questions ranging from " what was your favorite age" to " if you had a spaceship where would you fly to and why"? I did these things in front of a small group of eight and then a larger group of 25!
I have acted foolish - on purpose! By acting foolish I mean doing things like pretending I was an animal and crawling around the floor making MOOO or Meow sounds :-)
I don’t know when you will be over this…… but YOU will know when you have control over social anxiety.
I found SAI on a local cable station. This was when most people were just beginning to buy personal computers and there was no SAI website. There was hotline number you could call, and I finally got the courage to dial the number.
I'm thankful I did dial that number.