Essays

‘But you’re so sociable, how can you have social anxiety?’

A good friend of mine recently confessed after a couple of beers that he felt intimidated when he first met me. As someone so easily intimidated by others, I was completely puzzled.

“What?! Why?” I demanded.

“Because I don’t think I’d ever met a girl as confident as you,” he told me.

I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise; I’m usually one of the loudest girls in the room; I’ll say hello to everyone, I’ll quite happy talk openly about sex or religion, and I’m not afraid to express my opinion. But what does the word ‘confident’ mean anyway? I’ve always associated confidence with feeling secure in yourself and not caring about what other people think of you. I think that friend has had to reassure a hysterical me enough to realise I’m quite the opposite.

It’s difficult for a lot of people to understand how someone who seems so extroverted can be so tormented by social situations.

In order to explain this better, I say I have post-social anxiety. I’m not scared of being in social situations enough to stop me going; I’m not terrified of speaking or having fun when I’m around other people. But it’s the crippling regret and overthinking that comes after the event – or sometimes during – that can become unbearable.

I have a good memory and this definitely doesn’t work in my favour; I can replay each and every conversation I had earlier that day or even the week before, agonising over how I interrupted someone mid-sentence (they must think I’m so rude) or I seemed like I was flirting too much (they’re probably going to tell everyone I’m ugly and pathetic). Sometimes I’ll text my friends with a fake reason or question, but really I’m just secretly checking that they don’t hate me.

I had always been an anxious child, but it definitely seems to have worsened in recent years. I put this down to an unfortunate episode I experienced in my first few weeks of university. I made friends with a group of girls, they were fun and seemed like-minded despite being miles richer and posher than me, and initially I thought I’d lucked out. But then gradually I stopped being invited to hang out in their rooms, I had no-one to go for dinner with and when I did see them, anything I said was met with a swiping remark that made me feel uneasy. Eventually, after a few weeks wondering whether I was imagining things, one of the girls confessed she didn’t like me. I sat there on her bed, crying, as two of them told me they were going to be looking for houses and they didn’t want me to live with them, and I begged to know what I’d done.

“I don’t know,” one of them said. “Our personalities just clash.”

After a couple of weeks of eating microwave meals alone in my room, I spoke to a girl on my course who noticed I was looking sad. I ended up telling her everything and she encouraged me to move halls. I ended up moving into a block across the road from her, and into a flat with a hilarious group of boys who welcomed me with open arms. I loved the rest of my time at university, but my experience in those first few weeks still hung over my confidence like a dark cloud. What could I have possibly done to make them dislike me that much? Surely a couple of annoying comments couldn’t have warranted my complete and utter exclusion from the group, in the early weeks of university where everyone is so socially vulnerable. I spent my university life ready and waiting for any friends I made to drop me at any given moment.

A few of those girls studied the same subject as me and I used to see them around, and for a few weeks after I left halls, they completely ignored me. But then gradually, each of them found me on nights out to tell me how sorry they were about everything.
“I don’t even know what happened,” they’d tell me. They couldn’t have possibly been more bewildered than me. One of them bawled her eyes out and was in such a state that I found myself apologising; for whatever I did. As I must have done something.

Was it the way I spoke? Was it the fact I made them feel bad about being rich, as I’m sure I did? Was it the way I spoke honestly about their relationships, when all they wanted was a sounding board, because that’s what I believed true friends are meant to do? Was it because, as my friend later told me, I was intimidating? Maybe I seemed too extroverted and confident; they didn’t know me for long enough to see that it was all a mask to shield the intense insecurity that had existed since I was that nine-year-old bucktooth glasses wearer with the frizzy hair. Or maybe they could see it, and they realised that behind the empty vodka bottles on my shelf and the Topshop clothes I wore, I was actually just an uncool, nerdy little girl, and they couldn’t think of anything worse than being associated with her.

I’m technically on good terms with all of those girls; each one has apologised and I actually find I get on well with a few of them. But in a way, that makes it even more confusing to understand.

My experience didn’t really change the way I acted – I stayed being just as loud and honest as before, but it did definitely change the way I perceived those traits. It’s one thing to be more conscious of your personality, but it’s quite another to actually be able to alter it. I still don’t really think before I speak, but I sure as hell think a lot more afterwards. And that can sometimes be even worse; at least if you’re too scared to do something you have nothing to regret.

I like to say everything happens for a reason, because had I not left those halls I may have never ended up meeting my best friends. They’re the kind of friends I can be horrible and annoying to, and they still stick around, because they understand me and know I’m flawed but love me anyway.

I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact you won’t always say or do the right things, and people won’t always like you – and that’s okay. But one of the problems with anxiety is that it’s irrational; you know no-one is going to remember the stupid stuff you say, because you’re not the centre of the universe, but it sometimes feels as if you are.

The very thought of publishing this blog post gives me anxiety. People will think I’m pathetic, or even worse, that group of girls will see it and share it on a WhatsApp group, probably refuting everything I’ve said and recalling all the things I did to make them dislike me in the first place. More likely, I know, is that they really won’t care at all. And besides, my new year’s resolution for 2018, although I’m sure impossible to fulfil completely, is to not give a crap what people think of me. To not care if my name comes up in whisperings in a dark corner of a party, or in a pissed off text message. Because I know that the people I care about the most think I’m fun rather than loud, they don’t think I’m too opinionated but admire my honesty, and they know I’m flawed just as much as I know they are. And that, in the end, is the most important thing.

(Picture: Pink Clouds by Bevsi)

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