Big City Thoughts About Social Anxiety
It usually comes as a surprise to people to find out that I, the friendly, outgoing, do-all-the-things, give-all-the-lectures, teach-all-the-classes, do-all-the-interviews, chat-with-anyone-anywhere-anytime Farrah, have social anxiety. I do. It expresses most often in group settings where I don't know (many) people, or when I am asked to speak to a group without time to collect my thoughts. It is this weird, hot, tingly feeling that starts at my feet and quickly works its way to the top of my head. I get dizzy and a little nauseous, and just... freeze. I've fainted once. And I have spent years trying to figure out why the hell this happens (I'm sure the dysautonomia doesn't help).
It probably wouldn't surprise you to know, especially if you've read my blog or follow me online, that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I have panic attacks over stupid shit. Ridiculous stuff "stresses me out" in ways that aren't normal. It fucks with my sleep and my ability to focus, or sometimes function like a proper adult. It went undiagnosed for a long time because it got lost in the confusion of my complex set of chronic conditions, the side effects from all my meds, my depression, and my learning disabilities (severe ADHD, and dyslexia). But there you have it. I handle it pretty well, and the GAD is getting more manageable. But as I get older, and as I push myself more, my social anxiety seems to be getting worse. And it's awful, and it's confusing, and it's limiting. I don't handle limitations well.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go down to the City for a lecture. It was exceptional, presented by one of my favourite scientists and speakers, and I was thrilled to have gotten to go. Seriously, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life! The travel is physically hard for me, but fine (I love traveling). Talking to ticketing and asking for directions on the subway is fine. I am totally proficient at talking to strangers. I actually even enjoy it! But at this event, which I attended alone - it was a small-ish gathering of maybe 30 people - I didn't know a soul. And they all seemed to know each other. Basically my worst nightmare. But still worth it. I used checking my phone as an excuse to not seem like I was just standing around wall-flower style (which I'm sure just made me seem much more awkward). I chatted with a few people. They were all very nice, but I realized something pretty quickly: These are not the kinds of folks that I'm accustomed to rubbing elbows with. These individuals are part of the highly privileged upper-middle-class. One guy told me how hard his life was because he had to carry his fencing equipment 2 blocks from his office. Another woman told me about how her parents paid for her to go to Yale. But that's okay. I like broadening my horizons, experiencing new things, meeting new people. This was definitely new. But as I'm chatting, asking these interesting new people about themselves, I begin to observe a curious trend. No one was there because they were genuinely interested in the subject (or at least, extremely few people). I know that seems judgmental, but multiple people came right out and said so. They were there because someone they deemed important and influential had invited them. "It's all about who you know."
It was also odd because, as I was trying very hard to connect with literally anyone, every conversation seemed to go the same way. "Hey, what do you do/where are you from/what are your interests/tell me about yourself" would launch into a monologue about how important and busy and well connected they were. How many things they own, what brand their motorcycles are, how big their apartment is, what floor their office is on, how many well-connected friends they have. At first, I thought this was super tacky and egocentric, but I began to see that, at least in this environment, this is actually normal and I was the odd one out. Something happened to me. Well, my anxiety spiked, because, as a nobody from Connecticut who was there because I was actually passionate about the subject matter, and was genuinely interested in these people as people, I realized that apparently, I have no clue how to socialize and connect with people. I became super uncomfortable. I felt like I had no business being there. I'm not the daughter of a doctor or a senator. I didn't go to an ivy league university. I don't have a job at a Forbes 500 company. I don't get to travel all over the globe for work. I don't vacation in Sicily. I'm an almost 30-year-old, super nerdy, disabled girl who has done a fair bit of my education online & put myself through my undergrad and masters programs working multiple jobs at coffee shops, and who's started a few moderately successful small businesses. I don't make six figures a year. I'm not employed by one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. I don't spend my days answering the great questions of the universe. I'm just me.
But after I got home, talked to a few friends, and processed my mostly-amazing-and-a-little-confusing experience, I had something of a breakthrough. I think that the reason I struggle so much with social anxiety can be boiled down into one word: authenticity. Now, I know that sounds super haughty and holier-than-thou, but hear me out. Our society pushes us to be the best, biggest, most important, top of our field, and anything less is considered something of a failure. And I am naturally an extremely driven individual who holds myself to absurdly high standards, so I fall victim to this mentality quite easily. And I see that in others, though this high-finance-type NYC experience really demonstrated that in a dramatic way for me. But see, I don't care how many important people you know. I don't give two shits how many fancy cars you own, or how big your house is, or what multi-letter title you hold at your company. I want to know you. I want to know what lights your fire, rings your chimes. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you passionate about? What do you like to yell about online? What brings the light to your eyes?
As I have gotten older, especially as I have started connecting with other business owners, journalists, doctors, and "important" people, I've seen more and more of this "my value as a person/who I am is how important/accomplished/well-connected I am" mentality, and that just doesn't resonate with me. I'm so over hearing how busy people are. I don't want to play that "we just tell each other how busy we are until one of us dies" game. I don't relate to people like that, and I don't understand the parameters of that sort of social interaction. I want to tell you what lights my fire, and I want you to tell me what rings your chimes, but you want me to tell you how accomplished I am so you can tell me who you know and we will both be very impressed with each other, or some such bullshit. I don't know what exactly you want from me, but I'm aware what I will naturally offer - my genuine, open, honest self - isn't what you're looking for. So it makes me anxious. Not knowing makes me extremely uncomfortable.
I've been fighting my social anxiety for decades. But I think I may just embrace it. Because, to be honest, I'd rather be uncomfortable in social situations, standing on the sidelines trying not to faint, than be disingenuous, betraying my unique (and yes, very weird) spark. I will never be that person who feels comfortable volunteering my resume of awesome and impressive accomplishments to strangers. I will always be the person who asks you questions about your passions, what stimulates you intellectually, what makes you uniquely and beautifully you. I'll also absolutely call you out on your bullshit. And I understand that I suck at playing "the game," as a friend recently pointed out. I may never succeed in certain circles. But I think that's okay. Not everyone has to be good at everything, and not everyone has to socialize in the same ways. And I want to be clear: It's not that my flavour of communication is any better or worse than any other, it's just what is true to me.
So I think I will stick with my own brand of adorably awkward authenticity. And if that means that when I get to go to badass events I'm socially uncomfortable, so be it. If it means I need to drink a little more before making a toast at a friends wedding, fine. But you can be confident that when I ask you about yourself, I actually care. And if I tell you that I admire you, or appreciate you, that it's 100% true. Blunt, direct, honest. No strings attached.