A writer’s lesson: Social anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of

May 25, 2018 — by Kaitlyn Wang

Reporter shares her story of learning to deal with social anxiety.

Sometimes it seems that not much has changed since my glorious elementary school days, when teachers and classmates asked why I was so quiet and expressed surprise that I could talk. (Shocking, I know.) Today, dread still overwhelms me when I speak in front of crowds, and I often avoid talking to people I do not know well.

So at the start of the school year, I told myself it was about time for a new and improved Kaitlyn: I would participate in class and appear more outspoken and confident.

But as the year progressed, I fell back into my habit of simply listening during class discussions, particularly in English class. I felt uncertain if I interpreted the text “correctly” or if my thoughts would make sense.

Half of me huddled inside my comfort zone, arguing that it was cozy, safe and stocked with hot chocolate powder, while the other half criticized myself for not contributing in class and for surrendering to an illogical fear.

But I’ve come to realize that beating myself up for my reticence is a mistake. Pursuing my interests has helped me address my fears, despite not consciously realizing it at times.

At the end of freshman year, I signed up for journalism, though the mere idea of interviewing people terrified me. Writing for the newspaper seemed unrealistic: Who has ever heard of a shy journalist?

But after conducting interviews this year as a reporter, after pushing myself to ask questions and insist on receiving responses, I have grown more comfortable with talking to people.

Other activities have also helped: being a Green Team officer, reading my poetry at open mics and joining the lacrosse team, cheering for my teammates on and off the field.

I’ve also discovered that feeling anxious is far more common than I thought.

In March, Book Club invited guest speaker Eric Lindstrom, author of “Not if I See You First.” His shared experiences about social anxiety helped me recognize it is OK to feel nervous about speaking to people.

“There are lots of people with social anxiety — they're just hard to find — but they're out there and make a lot of memes online about it,” Lindstrom joked in response to an email I sent, thanking him for presenting. “It helps to see that because it makes you feel like a member of a small and secret tribe, not a mutant, not broken.”

If only I could have heard those words earlier — if only I could tell my past self that diffidence should not be tied to shame.

Lindstrom compared how people with social anxiety can see the color red but not blue, while others see blue but not red.

“How can you explain a color to someone who can't see it?” Lindstrom said. “I actually think sometimes that the difference isn't in what people see, but that some people accept the fact that others see different colors, but some don't accept it and think those who claim to see different colors, or see colors differently, are just being weird and dramatic.”

The sensation of wanting to participate in social situations but tending to hold back, wanting to avoid possible humiliation before it occurs, may never completely fade. Over years, however, Lindstrom saw that “messing up” while speaking and feeling embarrassed did not occur as often as he feared it would — “it was like rain starting in the middle of a picnic, something which does happen sometimes, but not really that often.”

I hope the knowledge that I am at least trying to address my fears can be an umbrella when rain does begin to fall.

Next year, instead of growing frustrated with myself, I will strive to be patient and not become too caught up in moments that seem like backtracks or only tiny steps forward from progress. I’ll continue to participate in activities that challenge me to improve at what I simultaneously enjoy and fear, all the while recognizing that senior year will be my last opportunity to do so in high school.

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