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What Social Anxiety Disorder Is for Me

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2014 continues. The week means slightly different things to different people (as in specific awareness, the attitude behind the desire for awareness, etc.) To me, it means something relatively simple. It means looking at people in a new way, leading to a new understanding of them as human beings. Mental illness happens to be part, just part, of who they/we are. Awareness of the whole package brings understanding of the whole person.

Let’s take a close-up snapshot of this big picture of awareness, and to do so, I’ll take a selfie. Okay, I just wanted to try to work in the word “selfie,” to show that I’m way cooler than teenagers who are so lame they don’t use that word very much anymore.

In the interest of increasing awareness of what my mental illness (or, rather one of them) — my social anxiety disorder — looks like for me, I’ll analyze that dreaded selfie for you.

Social Anxiety — I May Be Dressed, but Don’t Think that Was Easy

Let’s assume that the selfie was taken at one of my son’s seventh-grade football games. A glance at the picture might show someone who, on the outside, looks reasonably put-together. I’m not super fancy, but my clothes are put on correctly. Despite the fact that this is all I have been able to achieve wardrobe-wise, this doesn’t mean that I just threw something on nonchalantly. That is far from the case. Most likely, whatever outfit I am wearing in said selfie I have obsessed over all week. What on earth should I wear to a middle school football game among other parents of middle-schoolers? I feel like I’m back in junior high myself. In a way, I am; because, I have yet to outgrow the fear that people are scrutinizing me, condemning and criticizing my every move, judging every piece of clothing I don.

People, What Do I Do?

Often, what we look like on the outside doesn't match our insides. Increased awareness of social anxiety disorder symptoms can increase understanding.

A more panoramic view of the selfie would show me standing off to the side, hands in mypockets, trying to talk to my husband but not really engaging in any meaningful conversation. I look calm and relaxed, but my mind is anything but. I am frantically trying to decide what to do: stand here in this one spot? Go join a conversation taking place a few yards away? Go see if someone needs help with something (I don’t really know what, but someone must need help with something.) I’m worrying about all of the negative consequences of both standing there and floating over to—gasp—talk to people. I’ve already had over 50 disastrous conversations in my head, so why bother actually doing them for real? But do I look aloof and rude standing here? Hey, people, I’m trying, and I want to do the right thing. Please don’t judge me, and worse, my son by default.

The selfie now becomes a video and capture what happens when someone joins me. I start to shift uncomfortably on my feet until I force myself to stop. My mind is racing so fast with thoughts of what to say and what not to say and what a complete and total idiot I am that I can hardly speak. Then the sharply chastising voice kicks in, screaming at me not to look ridiculous and standoffish. Ever one to obey, I start talking. And I can’t stop. I’m talking too much. I know it. I can hear myself. I’m being loud and obnoxious and please, brain, just knock it off. Please? But it doesn’t.

Social Anxiety — Calmly Sitting in My Chair? Ha!

Then it’s game time. All the parents go to their lawn chairs to watch their sons. The selfie shot makes it look like I’m watching and enjoying the game. But in reality, my mind is spinning out of control as it replays every moment since my car pulled into the parking lot. I’m berating myself for every stupid thing I said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. I’m imagining horrible consequences for my life and even my career, for I know they’ve all judged me, and they’ve judged me negatively. I can feel the criticism emanating from their lawn chairs.

It’s a good thing the selfie is back to camera mode rather than video mode, for now it can’t record my physical symptoms of social anxiety: sweating, flushed cheeks, pounding heart, chest pains, and the like. It can’t see that I have to remain seated in my lawn chair because my stomach hurts too much to stand up. It can’t see my dizziness.

Mental Illness Awareness Is for Others, and It’s for Ourselves

This random little snapshot of me really can’t let people see what social anxiety disorder is like for me. But, oh, social anxiety is present behind the picture. When I can share the picture with people, I can perhaps help them see that I don’t mean to be stand-offish or too talkative, and that I’m so deathly afraid of making mistakes and being judged, that it’s easier to remain isolated than to be around people.

It’s great to make other people aware of this part of who I am (this isn’t all of me – not even close), but it’s also wonderful to help increase my self-awareness. I know that my social anxiety exists in grand proportions. But I know that I can confront it and develop tools to deal with it so that I can, rather than staying at home, go watch my seventh-grader play football. That reward is better than the promise of an afternoon of solitude.

Connect with Tanya on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, her books, and her website.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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