Quarantine Quirks: Social Anxiety

We’re all so weird.

Universally. We’re bananas.

And that’s okay.

I used to look around and think “God, how do all these people have their shit so together, and I’m a mess?” But then I realized that they don’t. Have their shit together, that is. Everyone’s got stuff they’re muddling through. Some of us just do it with a little more finesse than others.

It took a long time for my social anxiety to kick up during quarantine. Because… hey, who is there to be social with? But, paradoxically, that’s actually what made it worse: isolation.

I mean, sure, I have contact with my family (and my best friend’s family). But they’re like a woobie–tried and true. There’s nothing they don’t know about me. They’ve chosen me. I’ve chosen them. We’re golden.

But adding one more person to the mix? B-a-n-a-n-a-s.

When the world is normal(ish), my social anxiety is kept largely at bay by the sheer number of fascinating people I come in contact with on the daily. I love people. And I value connection above all else. As an extrovert (mostly) and a bookstore owner, I have a constant stream of people coming through my world. I want every person I meet to feel valued, like I’ve paid attention to who they really are.

Sometimes I am a rock star at this. Sometimes I fail spectacularly. But I am always trying to bring my highest self to meet their highest self.

Being around more people allows me to stay in the moment, to focus on what’s in front of me. And that’s key for me in combatting my social anxiety: staying present.

But, truth be told, even in the glory of days filled with people and bookselling and chatting and connecting, when it’s time to sit down one-on-one with someone I admire, or am excited about knowing, or who I just think is hella cool, my social anxiety kicks in.

It’s like a reflex.

I spent so many years of my life (33) believing I was unworthy in every way that, when confronted with a connection I really want to deepen, my reflex is to pull away. Not just pull but bolt. To be extra-special clear: I physically have to keep myself from turning and running the other way.

When this happens, it’s almost always right before I walk into a social situation. Which means I only have to manage that feeling for a minute or two, push through it (I can’t let it win. That’s a very dangerous, dark place for me), and usually I’m fine. If I don’t feel fine, I just own it out loud: “I’m totally struggling with anxiety right now, so if I act a little weird that’s what’s up.” Saying it out loud robs the anxiety of its power. In AA they say “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” My anxiety can’t be a secret. It can’t have that power.

But quarantine has changed the playing field. I am alone a lot. And that has never been good for me. I get all up in my head. And I get stuck in these toxic thought cyclones. It’s pretty damn awful.

I can Care Bear Stare these toxic cyclones out of existence by engaging with the person or task right in front of me. Usually. But, when I’m alone for 5 to 6 hours a day, and the task isn’t changing, and there are no people to interact with…

Well, you get it.

Lately, I’ve experienced social anxiety in a way I haven’t since I was teaching (I once taught a class from the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack for an entire semester. It was like standing outside myself, in the back of a tunnel, teaching toward an opening that I couldn’t even see. The entire time I taught that class, I couldn’t feel my own body. This happened every Tuesday & Thursday at noon for an entire semester. It was god-awful. But pushing through that experience, exhausting as it was, made me believe I didn’t have to live a smaller, more circumscribed life because of my anxiety. I still believe that.) I’ve tried to fight it. Reason with it. Ignore it. Accept it.

Today, as I was choosing my morning Yoga with Adriene video, I found one entitled Yoga for Social Anxiety. And I almost didn’t pick it. Because that would mean an admission that, yep, this is what I’m dealing with right now. Which feels like defeat to me. But feeling seen won out over my pride. And I turned it on.

And slowly, as I moved through the heart-opening poses and reconnected with my body, I experienced a profound understanding that I am not alone. Other folks deal with this, too. And folks that don’t have social anxiety? They’ve got some other shit to deal with that challenges them, makes them tired, or scares the hell out of them.

We all have something.

But I also think we all have each other. And grace.

You are not alone. Neither am I.

We’re all weird as all get-out.

And that’s okay.

Dance, I Said

If I were to run smack into my sixth grade self right now, my first thought would be, “Oh, honey.” And then I’d get straight to work helping me be slightly less of a dork.

The problem was that I just had no clue. Other kids were a little like aliens to me. I didn’t understand how they knew what was cool. I definitely didn’t know how to be cool. And that cluelessness led me to walk into the sixth grade dance believing I was actually there to have fun.

My sixth grade misconception is difficult to square with my beliefs as a parent. Because the parent in me believes things should be fun. That you should do whatever you want & be proud of who you are. That you should 100% let your freak flag fly.

But the realist in me knows that you have to understand the rules to break the rules.

I did not.

And that you have to be hella confident to break from the deeply entrenched social norms of middle school.

I was not.

So, basically, I had no chance of making it out of that dance unscathed.

I feel pretty confident I had on a jean skirt (too long, wrong denim wash). And some shirt that likely looked either too grade school or too much like I’d reached a tragically early middle age (likely my mom would have said it was “pretty.” Which was apparently code for: you are moving at warp speed from anything that resembles popularity). And I had barrettes pulling back the bangs I was growing out. To be clear: I parted said bangs down the middle and pulled them back with barrettes. Tiny barrettes. Very close to the part, because my bangs weren’t any longer than regular bangs. But I was growing them out. So, of course they couldn’t just hang down, or swoop over, or get moodily in my eyes.

Nope.

Barrettes.

So, there I am, in this fashion travesty. And I start dancing.

Like, I’m totally dancing like no one is watching. Except it’s middle school, and EVERYONE is watching. And I’m dancing like one of the nerds at the end of a John Hughes movie, who finally gets accepted for who they are… and all is right with the world.

Which is so lovely. But not particularly realistic.

And so…

I’m dancing (badly). With wild abandon. And this girl approaches me.

I can’t remember exactly what she said. I think it was something to the effect of “What the hell is that you are doing?” I remember her looking at me like she hated me. Really hated me. And I was confused. And scared. Because she shoved me like she wanted to fight.

When I think about it, I can still feel the adrenaline shoot through me. I was shaking. And I remember telling her that I wasn’t going to fight her. Because I had more respect than that for myself & her. Because I was a Christian. (I like that I could throw in self-righteousness even in the face of a beat down. Because let me tell you, that “I am a Christian” business wasn’t about mercy or empathy. It was me telling her that I was better than she was.)

I don’t remember how the whole mess of a situation got diffused. I think I threatened to tell on her.

No one said I excelled in sticking up for myself.

What I do remember is feeling a deep sense of shame that someone hated me that much, thought I was that gross that they’d want to fight me just for being myself. It was one of many messages I got in sixth grade that who I was was, in fact, nothing.

On the ride home (and for weeks afterward) I tried to combat that shame with that tried-and-true parental adage that she was just jealous of me.

I knew it was bullshit then. And it certainly did nothing to ease my shame.

I think about that often: how I internalized that shame, how I believed there was something deeply wrong with me, how I so quickly believed I was nothing.

And I wonder how to do better by Jane.

Fortunately, we’ve got a lot going for us: Jane was born with more fashion sense than I’ll ever have. And she’s developed a self confidence at 9 (and a half) that I sincerely admire.

And, on my end, well I just try to be honest with her. About people. About life (which is both pain & joy). And about working through her own response to other people’s shit.

Here are some things we live by in this house: When people are mean, it’s about them. Not you. It’s not that they’re jealous (because EW. That makes it sound like you believe you are better than they are). It’s that they are in pain. And if you can find compassion for that pain, you can release yourself from their judgement. Because, again, it isn’t about you.

But you also have to give yourself space to work though your own pain, when people spew their internal garbage on you. And to make a choice about how you respond. Because you can’t control what other people do, you can only control your response to it.

And we work on really knowing who we are. So that we can be proud of that. And so we can be people who put more good than bad into the world. And to try to love folks as they come.

Also noteworthy: Jane flips out if I dance in public. So maybe my dancing really IS that bad. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do it anyway.

Pity Party for One

Yesterday, a woman with two wiener dogs made me cry.

This is notable primarily because I rarely cry out in the wild because someone did something to upset me. Not anymore, at least.

Here’s what happened: I was trying to deliver a book to a customer that lives in an apartment on the second floor of a huge, gorgeous house. There’s no interior access to this apartment–just a steep, narrow flight of metal stairs on the outside of the building. It had been raining, so everything outside was wet. No real overhang to speak of. And y’all know I wasn’t going to let that book get wet.

So, I’m looking around for an common interior space. Or at least a space that’s covered. But I’m not really finding anything that looks viable. I see an open garage space that is dry, but I don’t know the protocol for leaving packages or even if these tenants are on friendly terms with each other. I don’t want to leave a package in the wrong space and start some turf war.

Wiener dog lady is looking at me from inside her house. I don’t know she has wiener dogs yet, but I do know she looks vexed. At me, I suppose. But I’m really focused on this book, so I’m not paying much attention.

As soon as I exit screen right to examine the porch on the front of the house for viability, she walks out with her two yapping dogs. One immediately escapes the leash. She’s yelling for the dog, and I’m scurrying stealthily away. I have no desire for my ankle to be chomped on.

Not today, Satan.

I’m also growing increasingly frustrated–at myself primarily. Why can’t I decide where to drop this book?!

Fed up with my own indecisiveness, and realizing that this lady has re-leashed both dogs and they’re happily sniffing things in the yard, I decide I’m going to ask her about a shared common space.

I approach her with a “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

She looks at me like I’m something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “I guess,” she says.

I promise you, I don’t remember when I met this kind of distain from another human.

“Is there a…” I start. Her dogs, seemingly noticing me for the very first time, immediately start yapping again.

“I can’t HEAR you,” she says.

And I know I’ve been summarily dismissed.

I head back to my car without another word. Before I even get to the car, I’m crying.

I’m just going to break my own narrative here and tell you that I know people suffer much greater indignities than this daily. That, really, this wasn’t a big deal. That the fact that I was so stung by her dismissal is a sign of my own privilege.

Yes.

I also know that I cried for the next 15 minutes. That I was so swamped by shame, and hurt, and self pity (oh my good lord, so much self pity) that I could hardly breathe.

I just kept thinking, “You never know what people are going through. You should be nicer.” But I wasn’t thinking I should be nicer, or more compassionate, or have broader perspective. I was thinking that woman should be nicer. She should think about what I was going through. She should think about how hard I’m trying right now.

It has been years since I felt that particular way: so overcome with feelings of being misunderstood, so in the throes of self-pity because people are mean to me, so self-centered that I could barely function.

That, right there, that feeling is why I used to drink. This oppressive cycle of self that I couldn’t seem to escape was how I lived my entire life. I was always upset because people didn’t understand me. I always was the victim. And I felt perpetually sorry for myself.

The reasons I ended up in that shame-cycle of self-centeredness yesterday are myriad. And crying it out was the only way I was going to escape. The release was cathartic.

But what stuck with me the most was realizing, even as I was swamped down in that moment, that if I felt this all the time, I would certainly drink. I could hardly stand feeling that way for a few minutes. I needed to escape. I need emphatically to not feel that way.

And I used to live in that space of pain, shame, and self-pity all the damn time.

15 minutes of that yesterday launched a full-scale internal gratitude campaign about my sobriety. I’m grateful that I’ve spent the past decade or so cultivating a world-view that (tries to) decenter my self. That my spiritual practice is about compassion. And that I realize that self-pity and self-compassion are most certainly not the same.

Today, I’m left with these 2 things:

  1. the thought that perhaps I should cry a little more freely when I’m frustrated or overwhelmed, so as not to give all the power over to random ladies with wiener dogs, and
  2. a tremendous tenderness toward what other people are reckoning with: those who are still sick and suffering, folks navigating their own shame-storms, people with emotional & logistical challenges big and small… and yes, even ladies with wiener dogs having a bad day.