Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) has held a tight grip on my life for as long as I can remember. Since I was young, social situations have filled me with a certain dread that pushed me to avoid anxiety-inducing activities like speaking in class or checking out at the store cashier or talking to a teacher because of the immense stress they put on my already-anxious mind.
In spite of this, I have always put a lot of pressure on myself to try to overcome my fears. Some things get easier, but social anxiety still permeates into all areas of my life and leaves me wondering if I’ll ever be able to achieve my career goals, make friends or fulfill lifelong dreams, especially when people tend to write me off as just a shy girl instead of seeing my potential.
It still seems that very few people are aware of Social Anxiety Disorder and the crippling effect it can have on the lives of those who have it, keeping a lot of truly talented people from reaching their full potential and sharing their gifts with the world…or even just leading a fulfilling, happy life.
Here are some things I wish more people knew about the experience of those who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD):
1) We are not just shy. There are people in the world who are more hesitant to talk than others…this is shyness. Those of us with SAD experience physical symptoms of panic when exposed to social situations, leading them to dread and avoid them. This panic makes it difficult to speak to new people, look others in the eye, make conversation, etc. We obsess over saying the wrong thing, offending others, or embarrassing ourselves. SAD can take over your life and make it lonely and miserable.
2) We are more than “the quiet one”. I’ve gotten to know many shy and socially anxious people over the years, and I’ve come to find that they are some of the funniest, most intelligent, thoughtful, and talented people. Because we don’t talk much, people assume we are just meek people with little to say. People are often shocked to find that behind those downcast eyes and blushing cheeks can lie spunky spitfires and irreverent comedians. It is frustrating to not be able to show others the real you.
3) We don’t mean to be rude. Sometimes people interpret my not making conversation, joining in groups, or avoiding eye contact as me being rude or stuck-up. The truth is, I am terrified of offending people, but my social anxiety makes it hard to join or continue conversation because I can’t think of things to say or I’m just too afraid to say them.
4) Social situations are very stressful for us, so please have some understanding. I have had people judge me over the years for cancelling on an event at the last minute. I understand their frustration, but imagine the panic and stress you feel in your body right before you go on a first date, give a presentation, do a job interview, or start your first day of work: your pulse raises, stomach churns, body shakes, mind races, and your mouth freezes up. This is what people with SAD often feel when they go to school or a meeting, the store or a lunch date (even with an old friend). Any situation can trigger these feelings of panic. Please be mindful that this might be the reason for someone not showing up for appointment, participating in class, etc.
5) We do have things to say, but it’s hard to get them out. Please be mindful in group conversation of those who may have a hard time speaking up, especially if you are voicing strong opinions or making decisions that will affect the entire group.
6) We have a lot of potential. Most work and educational opportunities depend on one’s ability to communicate and the number of connections one has. Obviously, this presents a huge obstacle to those with SAD. I work very hard to keep pushing myself in spite of my disorder, but I still have a naturally quiet demeanor that leads many employers, audition judges, etc. to dismiss me as a candidate in spite of my qualifications. Please give consideration to the ideas people share, not just the volume at which they speak them.
Every person with social anxiety is different and the disorder can affect people in different ways, but hopefully this gives a better idea of what life is like with SAD. It may seem like a weakness of character fueled by a lack of courage and petty fears, but SAD is a crippling disorder that requires a lot of courage to get through every day living with. I hope we can all have more understanding and consideration for the battles people we come across each day may be battling, offering compassion, not criticism.