I’m about to get up and dance in front of a room full of people for a solid hour. I have to successfully remember the steps to at least fourteen different songs, as a crowd of eyes is fixated on my every move. But this doesn’t make me a bit nervous; in fact, I’m pumped. I love it.
I teach Zumba, a type of dance fitness. In my classes every week there are new faces, people basing their opinions of me – and of the gym I work at, and of Zumba itself – on how well I lead them through the choreography. It might seem like a nerve-wracking situation, but I’m never apprehensive about it. I sail through the hour with a smile, having fun, encouraging people, radiating confidence, thriving on the energy of the group.
Standing in line at the post office, though, I’m a totally different person. My palms sweat as I grip the box that was too big for my mailbox. I almost didn’t send it simply because I couldn’t send it from home, but it’s important, so here I am. My mind, along with my heart, is racing: What if I didn’t wrap it correctly? What if it isn’t sealed right? What if it’s in a box that’s against some sort of regulation?
All on its own irrational accord, my brain flips through a never-ending card catalog of every possible thing that could go wrong, and by the time I’m next in line, I’m close to a full-blown panic attack. The postal workers are going to think I’m an idiot, wails my internal monologue. They’re going to think, “How does this woman in her thirties not know how to send a package?” My breath is coming in huffs and puffs as my heart throws itself frantically against the walls of my chest, and I rehearse over and over what I’m going to say so I don’t sound stupid. Don’t bother! You’re going to sound stupid anyway! roars my anxiety, drowning out all logic.
This is the weird dichotomy I grapple with every day: the struggle of an extroverted person with social anxiety disorder, two things that seem like they should not coexist. Yet here I am, living the dream (snort). My life is a constant push and pull between feeling outgoing in some situations, and in others, feeling like I’d be fine if the floor just swallowed me up.
It’s confusing. There is no rhyme or reason to the things that make me frightened and overwhelmed – in fact, the majority of those situations are things that most “normal” people would laugh at if I told them. I can’t pick up the phone and order a pizza, for example. Actually, I hate the phone in general and avoid it as much as I can, even when it comes to talking to people I love to talk with in person; something about it triggers my anxiety in a major way, despite the fact that whoever’s on the other end can’t even see me.
Taking my kids to the dentist – not even myself, but my kids – or my pets to the veterinarian is something I’ll stew about for days prior. Yet I can walk into a social gathering and chat it up with people I barely know, laugh easily, tell funny stories, be the life of the party (and nope, I don’t even require alcohol to do it).
It’s not that predictable, though, not as cut-and-dried as always having the same reactions to the same situations. I have decent days and I have bad days; on the worst, I’ve found myself literally hiding when the doorbell rings. I love people, and I love connecting with them – but it feels risky, like petting a dog who could bite my face off at any moment, and some days I just don’t feel strong enough to take that chance.
I know it sounds silly and illogical. Like anyone who has ever had anxiety, my logical mind is fully aware that most of the stuff I worry about is irrational. I mean, the postal workers are probably not gonna laugh about me not knowing how much postage is required on a package, and the pizza delivery person at the other end of the phone is probably not gonna … actually, I don’t even know why I’m afraid to order pizza, I just am. Which is a perfect example of how jacked-up this whole thing is. Because if I walked in there to order a pizza at the counter, face to face? Zero issues. Zero anxiety. And zero clue why the hell that is.
It is for this reason – because my reactions (and overreactions) make no sense – that it’s difficult to open up to anybody about my struggles with social anxiety. I know it would sound exactly as confusing as it is: how can I be perfectly at ease in situations that would make some people run for the hills, and panic in situations that most people find mundane and unthreatening?
If I don’t get it, I don’t see how anybody else could. How could anyone truly understand me if I can’t understand myself? And then my anxiety kicks in and whispers, they’ll think you’re some kind of weirdo. This is why I keep it under wraps, pushing through it when I can (even though I’m secretly miserable) and practicing avoidance when I absolutely cannot.
So if you’ve got a friend who sends all your calls straight to voicemail, just send them a text instead. Or if you think they’re quirky about certain, seemingly-simple things – like going to the post office, ahem – don’t call them out for being strange; it’s the fear of judgment that separates the socially-anxious from the merely introverted. Just accept their eccentricities, even if they’re odd to you, and arrange a get-together wherever they’re most comfortable.
But you might wanna be the one who orders the pizza.