Halloween is almost here! Meaning, for some, it’s a time for scaring and to be scared. But if you have anxiety, you’re pretty much scared most of the time–regardless of the date on the calendar.
Now, I don’t know about you, but, personally, I find people to be… scary. Sometimes. Now, this isn’t so much because of the current state of the world or the fact that, hypothetically, pretty much everyone has the potential to harm one another… in a life-threatening manner. No, none of that; though that certainly isn’t helping the situation. No, my mysterious yet unremarkable fear is that darn social anxiety disorder (SAD) I possess and talk so much about on here.
Why, what were you thinking?
In a nutshell, my SAD evokes a steady stream of nervousness and excessive worrying anytime I’m around people–most often during situations that are either unfamiliar and/or very public and heavily populated. But don’t get me wrong, dear family and friends can certainly induce feelings of anxiousness within me too. There’s no need to feel left out here, my Readers!
In all honesty, however, my SAD isn’t such a disturbance in my life anymore–believe it or not. I have learned how to live, how to thrive with this disorder; I have developed mechanisms to cope with symptoms, I have accepted my anxiety, I have come to embrace my anxiety, and, what has been especially helpful, I’m better able to identify and ideally avoid situations in which my SAD is likely to fester–and be okay with avoiding said situations. And most of the time, I am able to avoid excessively social scenarios with ease. But, sometimes, there’s just no avoiding people.
Recently, I attended a community play in which a close friend of mine was performing. I love plays–especially musicals, which this was–as they are really a lot like more organic movies (And who doesn’t love movies?). Everything is so much simpler; you get to witness the passion and work put into the show by the cast and crew in real time; plus, the music is nearly always uh-mazing! And so, so catchy. Basically, it doesn’t take me much to go see a play, much less a musical. And hey, bonus, I get to support my super talented bud. Why not go?!
Well… you see… the thing is… my super amazing, musical bestie is on the very outgoing end of the introversion spectrum. As in she can be super bubbly and energized for hours on end and not appear deterred and, as some strange side effect, she can make friends wherever she goes–including the members of her theatre group whom she has only known maybe a couple months. And, well, after the show, she wanted me to go out with her and these new friends. And… I think you know where this is going.
I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. Hanging out with everyone would have meant so, so much to her and, most likely, I would have enjoyed listening to everyone’s banter. Side note: I don’t know what it is about theatre kids, but they just have this charm about them that makes me momentarily wish I were more extroverted/outgoing/laugh-out-loud-and-love-life-esque in demeanor. If I were born an extrovert, I’d like to think maybe I would have been a theatre. An ensemble member, not a full role. Anyways, digression…
Any introvert in this scenario could happily say no to their friend and not bat an eye. Regular introverts are typically more comfortable with their introversion (e.g. not being around others, needing to recharge, placing introvert needs over simple pleasures of slightly more extroverted friends). But the curse of SAD is those with it care too much about the feelings of others and do, in fact, wish to be more extroverted; they want to change in the way of being more positively judged (read: liked). Basically, in this case, someone with SAD may have said yes to their friend to please them yet felt entirely awkward and anxious the rest of the night out.
Upon foreseeing that lovely outcome, I declined my friend’s invitation. And, knowing each other as long as we have, she understood and respected my decision! Yay! She’s so awesome! But thinking more about things afterwards, I got to wondering why am I so afraid of people? Granted, in this instance, the scary people would have been new and mostly boisterous and, well, scary. But, ultimately, I wonder why I have to be so afraid of people in general? Why my SAD makes me afraid of people? What makes them so scary to me in the first place? Whether they are new or not, or kind or not? What’s the problem?
WHY ARE WE AFRAID OF PEOPLE?!?!!!?
Whelp, my buddy my pal Google had some relatively helpful, albeit technically unofficial, information… You may recall a previous question-centric post of mine in which I inquired about why we care about what others think of us, because apparently one of my favorite past times is to ask the unanswerable kinds of questions. I did not find any one concrete answer to that inquiry, much like I did not find a cohesive to this, but there is some overlap that I think may be useful… Or not.
Much like our desire to be liked and fear of being disliked, the correlated fear of people in general can also stem from both genetic and environmental factors. Nature vs. nurture, huzzah!
From a biology standpoint, our brain can be incorrectly wired to categorize people in a negative sector early on. Then, as we get older, we continue to associate people with bad experiences and thus, fear people, and consequently avoid them as much as possible. But actively avoiding people? That’s just silly…
Think about it: if you are bit by a dog at a young age, you have a negative experience. Thus, you may associate all dogs with bad experiences and consequently fear and attempt to avoid all dogs as much as possible. Not as backwards when you put it that way. Of course, in this example, the fear was set in motion by an external event not already festering within the crevices of your brain. Which brings me to…
The irrational fear of people can emerge following a negative event, a “triggering event” if you will. This is when you may have been perfectly content interacting with people, but then a negative experience–a dog bite–tarnishes your view, corrupts your mindset, conditioning you to believe people are bad, thus affecting your behavior when forced to approach those terrifying, evil homo sapiens. Or something.
These theories of cause–nature or nurture–are nothing I haven’t heard before. But one result I found, a social anxiety forum (So reliable, I know, but people really make for the best research–ethnography, anyone?) provided a more original morsel of wisdom.
Fear of something can be caused by a lack of understanding, remaining unaware about that something. In this case, being afraid of people may truly be an effect of simply not understanding people, their minds, their behaviors. Or, in some cases even, not understanding oneself.
There’s that adage that goes something along the lines of “How can you expect others to love you if you don’t love yourself?” or something as equally cheery yet good-intentioned. But further thought suggests that those who have negative views of themselves are wont to hold similar views of other people–all due to the lack of understanding of the human population.
To combat this, in order for others to admire, value, and maybe even understand you, you must first learn to value yourself. You must embrace your attributes, faults, quirks–and everything in-between, and learn to become self-aware if not accepting of what makes you you. And if you do that, then you can do the same with people, and step onto the road of understanding them and perhaps not be so afraid of them any longer.
Each of these theories stems from truth; likely, the fear of people is affected by a little bit of everything–biology, environment, self-esteem. I believe that everyone who possesses this fear has a little bit of all these factors–and probably more–combating their view of people, with the intensity of each varying from person to person.
With so many factors working against you, it can seem impossible, even undesirable to change, to not be so fearful. But I believe it is possible. I know that, to some degree, it is possible. I’m not sure my fear of people will ever be totally evaporated, but I truly believe it has diminished and will continue to diminish over time. I mean look at me–I used to hardly talk to anyone ever at all in my preschool days unless spoken to first, and now I randomly say hello to people I pass by on the street. Granted, I still won’t go out with my friend’s friends (i.e. strangers), but, you know, baby steps…
I still find people scary; this newfound information hasn’t changed that. No matter how irrational I believe my fear to be, my SAD can’t simply dissipate. But I have a better idea of what I can do to counsel it, to face and to challenge my fear, so that maybe it won’t seem so intense or inconvenient or just downright silly at times. So that maybe the next time my friend invites me to hang out with some of their friends…
I might actually say yes.
So until then, it’s time to practice more self-love and understanding.
Stay loving, Friends!