It feels like everyone is staring at me, pityingly, scornfully, wondering why I’m not participating in the conversation
I’m sitting in a crowded simchah hall at my first cousin’s wedding. There are so many people here, so many faces.
At my table, the women are schmoozing effortlessly. A comment comes my way, and I nod and smile, trying desperately to be a part of the natural flow of conversation.
But inside, I feel like I’m suffocating. My mind is on overdrive, racing with critical thoughts:
Everybody sees how unsocial you are.
They’re probably wondering why your face is flushed.
Chime in here — your baby also had his tonsils removed.
Why aren’t you initiating a conversation with Chana? She just married into the family, and she must feel like you purposely don’t want to talk to her.
It feels like everyone is staring at me, pityingly, scornfully, wondering why I’m not participating in the conversation.
I timed this all wrong — I should’ve arrived immediately before the dancing so I wouldn’t have to sit through this agony. How many more minutes until I can escape to the safety of my home, where I’m surrounded by my loving husband and children, where I won’t have to perform in front of people and meet their expectations for social niceties and chitchat?
Will I fulfill my social obligation to my cousin if I stay only an hour? I stand up to leave, and then come the dreaded comments:
“Why are you slipping out early! You never stay until the end.”
“It’s a family simchah! How can you leave before the second dance?”
Because every minute is excruciating.
I don’t say that, of course. I simply reply, “My babysitter couldn’t stay longer.”
When I skip an event entirely, I say it’s because I wasn’t feeling well. Or I couldn’t find a ride. Or one of my kids was sick. Or I had another event.
I have a storehouse of excuses and it’s not that they aren’t entirely true. It is hard to find babysitters. And sometimes the thought of attending an event does make me sick. But those obstacles would be surmountable if not for the diagnosis that I suffer with in silence: social anxiety.
Social anxiety means contending with an overwhelming, debilitating fear of being scrutinized and judged negatively. In social settings, I’m never fully present in a conversation because I’m hyperconscious of how the other person might be perceiving me. Will they judge me for being too shy, not sharing enough (or sharing too much), saying the wrong thing, making poor eye contact, not pausing in the right places, showing too little or too much interest, or for rambling on?
Don’t try to argue logic with me. I know no one is socially perfect. I know I’m not some socially weird outcast with terrible communication skills. In fact, I’m a good schmoozer. But once I’m in a crowded room, all logic goes out the window. It’s just me and my anxiety and my pounding heart obsessing about my social performance.
After an event, I sigh with relief — I made it through. Then the evening replays in my mind. If I’m lucky, the event wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. Other times, I’m stuck with self-loathing: Why couldn’t I stop rambling? They could barely get a word in!
Later, when I’m in a better space, I’m able to be more kind and forgiving of myself. I let myself breathe out all the residual tension. I remind myself that it’s okay. Social anxiety is something I struggle with, but that doesn’t make me an unworthy human being.
It’s not just crowded events that trigger my social anxiety. When I’m shopping, I’d rather scour the store looking for a single item that ask someone for help. If I see I’m going to pass someone on the block, I cross to the other side to avoid an interaction. At the park with my kids, I’m plagued by questions about what’s socially appropriate: Should I say hello to the other mother or just wave? If she compliments my child, should I simply reply “thank you” or am I supposed to start a dialogue?
Before any social interaction, I make mental calculations. How long will I be required to stay? Who will be there? Which factors will make it easier or harder?
Easy is picking up photo prints at the store. The duration of the interaction is short, and the formula is simple: ask for the photos and give your name.
Difficult is a social event where guests mingle. At shul kiddushes, I desperately scan the room to find someone to start a conversation with, or who will start one with me.
Excruciating are simchahs where I must sit at a table with others. The duration of the interaction feels endless, and there’s no formula for what to say (or not to say).
Attending a class reunion would be the equivalent of entering a blazing fire pit. I know that sounds dramatic, but inside my body, that’s how it feels.
Forming friendships is something I haven’t mastered. I’m afraid to be the real me, so I pretend to be someone I think people will like, which doesn’t lead to real friendships. Also, imagine how hard it would be to share and connect with someone if your every exchange was under surveillance:
Does my facial expression show enough interest?
Do I look too needy, like I’m desperate for her to continue the conversation?
Oh no, I’m talking too much about myself again, but if I stop, maybe she won’t pick up the conversation and there will be awkward silence?
Does she see how scared I am inside? Am I hiding it well enough?
She can probably tell that I’m unconfident — she’s just talking to me to be nice.
I have valuable insights, and I’m a deep thinker, but the words that reveal who I really am stay inside. I am a faucet locked tight: The words want to come, but they can’t without a tremendous amount of pain.
I’m in therapy and I’m trying to learn tools to heal myself from the inside. But therapy takes time, energy, and effort. There’s no magic potion.
So, until then, please understand my absence at events. I care about you, and one day, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will be able to share in your simchah with a whole heart.
What’s the big deal about schmoozing with people? Hello, they’re your friends/neighbors/cousins!
Can’t you come to the event for just a few minutes?
I totally understand if it’s hard for you to make it to my event (especially if you’re a close friend who knows about the struggle).
You probably never realized that…
…making phone calls is terrifying for people with social anxiety. I’d rather send a hundred texts or emails than make a single call. Even though phone calls aren’t face-to-face, I still feel like I’m being evaluated. Am I conversing properly? Speaking with the right assertiveness? I have pushed off calling the doctor or insurance office for days, weeks, and even months. And yes, I often deal with the consequences. I silently bless any business that offers messaging options, like my pharmacy.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 834)
Oops! We could not locate your form.