As part of #MentalHealthAwareness month I’ve been talking a lot about growing up with a mentally ill brother. Today I thought I’d shake things up a bit and try to describe the source of one of my own mental health issues: Social Anxiety Disorder.
Social anxiety is one of my favorite things to overthink. It is an interesting example of how a somewhat common and normal mental process can become dysfunctional for one reason or another.
Anxiety disorders, like most mental health issues, can have a variety of sources. Sometimes they are the result of flawed programming (mental processes, thinking, etc), and other times, it can be all about brain chemistry. The chemistry part is not something I am at all qualified to talk about, but I have studied the programming part for a long time.
Can I Just Change My Mind?
The flawed programming part of mental processing disorders fascinates me. What are we actually DOING in our minds, as part of a mentally healthy or unhealthy process?
Ironically, I have been a fantastic research subject for myself, but all of my learning has not necessarily led to a healthier brain. It HAS given me a variety of ways to change or work with my own mental processes, however. I believe my personal understanding of how my mind works is the main reason I am still alive today.
When The Mind Is A Joy Thief
Social anxiety is one of the more painful of my own mental processes because at heart, I am a very social person. I love people: I love being around them, interacting, observing, having fun. So this specific type of anxiety robs me of one of my greatest pleasures. I love connection, but since childhood have created a multitude of ways to prevent myself from HAVING that social connection most of the time.
I have had extreme discomfort in social groups for as long as I can remember. I felt awkward and weird and wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or how to “fit in”. As much as I wanted to be part of the group, I rarely felt like I fit.
I wanted to be able to just relax and laugh and enjoy myself, like everyone else. Those rare moments when I was in sync with a group were magic for me. However, the social discomfort I felt didn’t escalate to a phobic level until I got sick.
My theory is that my body got “worn out” from 20 – 30 years of chronic stress, and no longer had the resources to manage the energy it took for me to maintain a functional level of engagement. Because my body couldn’t deal with the things I needed to do to feel safe in a social group, it turned up the volume on the fear to just stop me from putting myself in social situations. Now, what used to be a manageable social discomfort, has become a disorder.
Sometimes Life Creates The Perfect Opportunity
I’ve recently been given a golden opportunity to examine this aspect of my own mental processes up close and personal. A group of old friends is planning a social weekend and have included me. It’s a wonderful and exciting thing for me, probably disproportionally so. Seeing a group of people that I’ve not seen in a long time, and the potential for fun and friendship and laughter and EASE…it’s like 20 years of Christmas mornings are headed my way.
That is the healthy, good stuff. However, my mind is ALSO doing everything it knows to amp up my anxiety. I didn’t sleep at all the first night news of this impending gathering entered my awareness. I was examining every interaction I had with the group planning the event.
I tried to think of every possible scenario with each individual. I inspected and dissected every word I had contributed to the online conversation. I tried to think of how I was supposed to “fit in”…what was my role? I spent hours spinning out on every possible thing that I know rationally to be outside of my control.
I imagined all of the ways in which I could ruin everything.
I Am Safe…I Think
I am fairly certain that these people do NOT want to bake me into a pie and eat me. Although I’ve not seen most of them in a very long time, they seem to be very caring and kind people, and they have in no way put any pressure on me whatsoever. None of them set off any red flags when I ran their background checks.
Just kidding, of course. I probably don’t actually need to do that…right???
They have no expectations of me. They are being understanding and kind. They are safe, they will not harm me, and they do not require me to take care of them.
These are all things that I know in the rational, logical part of my mind that has absolutely NO power whatsoever over my emotional state.
The event isn’t set to happen for MONTHS, yet I am sleepless over it now. Spinning about stuff that doesn’t mean anything, worried about things over which there is nothing to worry. My anxiety is busy trying to tell the future and guard against any of the ways in which I might DIE.
The worst part is the overwhelming fear that I will fuck it up.
Will I Let My Mind Keep Killing My Joy?
I will do something or say something that makes them not want to deal with me.
I will be too awkward, or try too hard, or say things that I think are funny that NOBODY ELSE thinks are funny.
I won’t be quick witted enough.
I will not let them see me as I am (because believe it or not I actually LIKE the real me), but instead as a fearful, overwhelmed, ridiculous monstrosity.
I will create too much discomfort for them.
I will just be TOO MUCH.
If I am too much, then I am in danger – this is the lie that my mind keeps trying to tell me.
So here’s how THAT works:
I grew up in an environment that was physically dangerous for me. If either my mother OR my brother became unhappy, it led to physical abuse, and it FELT as if my life was at stake. So keeping THEM happy, or at least calm, was imperative.
My mind created the complex equivalence that someone else’s unhappiness equaled danger for me. The part of my psyche in charge of my social interactions took on one primary goal: survival. My unconscious mind developed a survival strategy based on my inherent skills and a “most likely to succeed” scenario.
My mind took a base level human experience – the need to be liked, to fit in, to be part of the tribe, and ramped it up. I think I probably already had an inherent intuitive ability…my mind just used my existing skills to give me a form of a superpower: If I can read and detect the most minute of social cues to help me know someone’s emotional state and guess at what they are thinking, then I can manage or manipulate their state to keep myself safe.
A Two Part Survival Strategy
First step: Stay aware of any possible negative outcome in any social interaction. The part of my mind in charge of this behavior doesn’t care about the positive outcomes, so it has no need to track those. It simply needs to feed me the information of everything that COULD go wrong on a constant loop…so I don’t make any mistakes and end up in danger.
Second step: Stay very, VERY aware of what is happening inside the other person once the interaction begins. Now, my mind is just guessing, of course, but it’s guessing with a tremendous amount of data to support its conclusions. It has learned a LOT about how people react, including unconscious cues, etc. It’s usually right – not always – but ALMOST always.
I have actually been accused of being psychic. In reality I am just a really good guesser.
An Effective Yet Defective Strategy
Of course, I didn’t always succeed, because there is a basic flaw in the strategy. The LIE in the dysfunction is the result of a young mind believing that anyone has the ability to control another person’s feelings and experience at all times. It is a child’s strategy developed and locked in at a very young age.
The truth is, I did get really good at it. By the time I was a young adult, not only had my brother stopped beating and abusing me, but EVERY person in my household felt like I was the ONE person that “got” them. My mind used this as further proof that this was an effective strategy – it should KEEP it.
My strategy never grew up and took in new data. My mind created it at an age when kids feel like they are the center of the universe, and therefore have the power to control the people around them. There was no reason to change the strategy, because it worked.
Now it needs to evolve.
I WAS The Center of the Universe
I had created a role for myself in the family so that I was needed. I was necessary…and therefore, I was safe.
My dad would tell me to call my sister and convince her to do a certain thing to appease my mother. My mom would talk to me about my brother. My brother would ONLY talk to me, for the most part, after about the age of 15 or 16. My sister came to me with ALL of her problems once she hit the same approximate age – whether family related or not.
I was the youngest member of the family, and yet I was the family therapist. The members of that family never really talked to each other about anything that mattered – that was MY job. This became my comfort zone. I am the MOST at ease when I am helping someone else figure their shit out.
When Strategies Create Useful Skills
Take the skills learned to survive as a child into adulthood and interactions with others outside the family, and they are still incredibly useful. I can make almost anyone feel comfortable: I can meet them on their own ground and “speak their language”. I make sure they feel accepted, welcomed, NOT judged. I am adept at establishing rapport given the opportunity to engage with someone in a conducive environment.
This is a skill that I truly enjoy when it is a healthy thing. It has given me a career that I love, and work I find fulfilling and amazing and meaningful. That is the healthy expression of my abilities.
Put me in a social group though, and as previously described – all hell breaks loose in my mind.
When a Survival Strategy Prevents The Ability to Thrive
Survival is not the same thing as thriving. Survival is a bare minimum. I have yet to successfully update my own mental software to promote thriving. The part of me that is in charge of keeping me safe from others has not evolved from when I was young.
One on one, I’m good. Add a second person, it’s gets dicier – but I’m still “OK”. Add a third person, and it stretches my mind too thin, creating sometimes debilitating anxiety. The part in charge of keeping me safe is trying to “read” everyone at the same time, and it is an impossible task.
If I am not engaging on a social level, I do OK (i.e. running a workshop or giving a speech), but I have to coach myself through social group situations. My ability to be at ease and just have fun is often hampered.
I spend the whole time trying to control myself, NOT garner too much attention, NOT step on anyone’s toes verbally, and somehow keep them all happy…something definitely not in my control at any time, but especially when there are so MANY of them!
Time To Thrive
The healthy part of me is so excited about this upcoming event, and so happy to think about spending time with these people. I don’t want to sabotage it, I don’t want to ruin things for myself OR them. I’m tired of hiding from the world.
I want to have FUN with my friends, damnit!
I have a few months. I’ve reached a point in my life where the status quo is unacceptable. I will be doing everything in my power to address both the brain chemistry involved in anxiety disorders, AND reprogramming my own mental processes.
I’m done. I NEED to be done. I want a real life, one in which I go out and have fun and make friends and can relax around people that I know to be safe.
If all of this works…I might just be a force to be reckoned with. I might be kind of amazing!
Oh, gawd – I hope I’m not too annoying!
Watch out world…
I might have to roar a little tiny bit…
and I don’t want to hurt your ears.