social anxiety

On Shrinking

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned off-hand that he was headed to the gym. He jokingly added that his mantra is, “Must get bigger.” I laughed and told him that I have never once in my life had that thought. We talked for a minute about the irony that (in general) men tend to go to the gym to get bigger while women go to get smaller.

This conversation played in my head over the next few weeks, and it occurred to me that my own mantra in so many parts of my life seems to be, “Must get smaller.”

I am talking about my body, of course. A body I have long struggled to love, and in fact, find myself hating more and more each year. But more on that some other time. Because I am also talking about the rest of me.

I’m talking about how much time I spend trying to shrink my too-big, too-wild feelings down to a manageable size. How I constantly fight to curb my too-loud, too-opinionated, too-clumsy, too-anxious self. How I leave most social engagements, and turn to Jonathan to ask, “Was I OK? Was I obnoxious? Did I talk too much? Did I embarrass you? Did I make anyone else uncomfortable?” *

I worry that my decisions are too-selfish. That my desires are too-frivolous. That my dreams are too-big. That my appetite for food, for life, for adventure, is too-much.  I am constantly aware of the space I take up and how often it feels like more than I deserve. And in sharing all of this, I now worry that I am being too-vulnerable. And that maybe all of this is just a product of my being too-selfish and too-whiny.

Of course, I want to cultivate truth in my life and to cut away the things that are not good for myself or for others. I’m not saying I should allow my worst qualities to run free. But how can I expect to grow when I spend so much time intent on shrinking myself down to fit into the limited space I am told I deserve?

I want to live a big life. A life where my love–for my family and friends, for my work, for freedom and justice, for the hurting, for beauty and diversity, and for the work of God in the world–is so expansive that it cannot be contained. I want passion and empathy and joy and grace to flow out of me and into whatever corner of the world I happen to be in.

I am tired of asking for permission to take up space. I am tired of apologizing because I have desires and dreams that don’t always align with other people’s expectations or are outside of their realm of understanding. I am tired of sucking in my stomach all day every day so I can pretend to have a more acceptable amount of belly fat. And I am tired of trying so hard to rein in all that seems unacceptable about me that I’ve been shrinking my soul in the process. I want to come to peace with all of my dimensions–from the circumference of my thighs, to the depth of my sadness, to the volume of my laughter. I want to take up space.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

*I’ve written before here about my social anxiety
Advertisements

I’m an Introvert, Not a Recluse: On Joining the Quiet Revolution

Sometimes people are surprised to learn to that I consider myself strongly introverted. To many people, introvert is a synonym for anti-social, shy, or awkward.

I understand why people are surprised. After all, I do talk to people. I don’t seem especially shy.  Sometimes I’m even loud and boisterous. But what most people don’t see is how most of the time I have to fight my urge to back out of social commitments and just stay home. They don’t see how I get so anxious and nervous before a party, or meeting new people, or having an uncomfortable conversation, or hanging out with someone who feels out-of-my-league, that I sweat through my clothes and my whole body shakes so hard that my teeth chatter.

I’ve written here before about my (apparently well-hidden) social anxiety and how my classic remedy has often been to over-compensate, pushing myself to be overly cheerful, loud, energetic, and funny (and usually becoming pretty obnoxious in the process) when in social settings. I didn’t realize until fairly recently that all of these things are coping mechanisms of a sort. They are ways that I try to handle my anxiety and they are ways that I try to conform to an extroverted ideal.

Last year I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. This book was fascinating on so many levels. It helped me make sense of the parts of my personality I’d always viewed as contradictory or even flawed and it helped me recognize all the ways that Western culture embraces extroversion as the ideal and subtly (or not-so-subtly) encourages us to act like extroverts even if we aren’t.

I am introverted in the most classic sense of the word – I am more energized by being alone than I am by being with people. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like being with people and it doesn’t mean that I have no social skills. It simply means that being with other people takes more energy from me than it gives, so I have to spend time alone in a peaceful environment to reboot and regain energy.

However, I am also a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). As the name suggests, HSPs are people who are very sensitive to their surroundings. In Quiet, Cain presents research on HSPs that was very meaningful to me because it made sense of parts of my personality I couldn’t’ understand. HSPs can get easily irritated by loud noises or bright lights or harsh textures. They can be more easily upset by things like violent movies and can have difficulty handling stressful situations without becoming overwhelmed. But HSPs are also tend to experience empathy and compassion more easily, to appreciate the finer things in life, and to have a rich and complex inner life.

Not all highly sensitive people are introverts and not all introverts are highly sensitive, but a larger percentage of highly sensitive people are introverts than extroverts. Both my husband and I are introverts, but I am a highly sensitive and more social whereas my but my husband is quieter and is not highly sensitive

Before reading this book, I’d always felt confused by this seeming contradiction in my personality. Even in my own mind, introverts were quiet and stoic people, but my emotions were easily influenced by my surroundings. I laugh easily and cry even more easily. None of this seemed to jive with the rest of my introverted characteristics. Cain’s book helped me understand my own personality and wiring better and also helped me appreciate how some of the things I’ve always considered flaws in myself can actually add value to my relationships and community.

I know I’m not alone in struggling to understand myself, the way I’m wired, and how I fit in with my family, my community, and with society. In fact, so many people responded positively to Quiet that Susan Cain and a team of collaborators have decided to launch a lifestyle website dedicated to exploring the value of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world. The website, Quiet Revolution, launches today and is designed to empower and connect introverts across the globe.

If you’re an introvert, you should read Quiet. If you’re not an introvert, you probably love someone who is, so you should still read this book. And if you are interested in participating in an online community of writers, thinkers, and influencers who are all introverts, you should head over to the Quiet Revolution site and check it out.

The world needs to re-think Quiet, because introverts have ideas worth listening to, even if they aren’t the ones shouting the loudest.

Friendship for the Socially Anxious

Today I’m participating in Cara Strickland’s synchroblog on friendship. I thought about reblogging my Friendship in 7 Movements post from last year, but it is long and specific and also, I wanted to do something new.

I’ve never been good at surface friendships. I guess I don’t have a lot of interest in talking about things that don’t matter. I don’t like conversations where you’ve spent an hour talking to someone and walk away feeling like you don’t know one another at all. I want to skip the getting-to-know-you part of the relationships. I want sweatpants and you snorting when you laugh and me accidentally breaking into song without noticing from Day One. But as it turns out, most people don’t want to talk about family histories and their biggest dreams and how afraid they are of being a mother (and, equally, of not being a mother) fifteen minutes after meeting someone.

I’m a classic introvert – I greatly prefer one-on-one interactions to groups of people.  Parties both terrify and exhaust me. Most people would never guess that 9 times out of 10 I have to push myself out the door to keep a social engagement. The night of my junior prom I got all dressed up, hair and makeup done, and promptly burst into tears because I didn’t want to go. I suppose you’d call this social anxiety.

But unlike some introverts I know who fade away into the background at a gathering, I’ve always tried to combat my social anxiety by acting self-assured. Ironically, it is in social settings where I am least comfortable that I am loudest. I try to be the funniest, the friendliest, the most interesting. It’s like watching a train wreck from above where I can’t seem to stop myself from blurting out the first thing that pops into my mind.

Believe me, the irony of trying to make deep connections with people while putting on this party persona is not lost on me. I know that it makes no sense and is even counter-productive. But sometimes I feel like something comes over me and I can’t stop myself even as a part of me watches in horror. I am desperately uncomfortable, but something in my subconscious screams that if I give in and stand quietly against the wall no one will like me and I’ll never have friends. And what could be worse than having no friends?

***

As a child I fell in and out of best-friend-ship on a yearly if not monthly basis.

My problem with friends wasn’t the cattiness or pettiness that ruined so many other playground friendships. It was the intensity I brought to friendship that seemed to overwhelm my peers.

I loved too fiercely. I chose someone and I clung to them with a loyalty that sometimes frightened us both. I wasn’t possessive – wanting to be their only friend—but when I chose someone I longed to show all of myself to them and to have them choose me back. And often, who I was was just too much.

It wasn’t that these friends didn’t like me – they just weren’t prepared to or maybe even capable of putting as much into the friendship as I did. I cared about all of their details. I wanted to show that I loved them by learning as much as I could about them. And inevitably, the day would come when I would realize that I knew all their favorite songs, their middle name, and what kind of sandwich they brought for lunch, but they didn’t even know my favorite color even though I’d told them three times. My feelings would be hurt and they would be freaked out that I had a notebook where I recorded all of their preferences (just kidding!) and we would move on to different friends.

***

Eventually, I learned to be self-protective in my friendships. I learned to expect that others would not love me with the fierceness and loyalty I felt towards them. I learned to guard myself from sharing too much too quickly and from expecting that everyone I chose would choose me too.

And then, in college, I made a new kind of friend – the kind I’d longed for growing up and nearly given up on. I found my people, the ones who will forgive you when you’ve hurt them and will join in when you make up a song about your toothbrush. And I learned something crucial about friendship – you can’t make it happen the way I try to at parties.

True friendships are divine. Yes, they require attention. They require effort. But mostly, they are gifts. Like love letters from God himself.

A friend isn’t a possession. You don’t collect friends like souvenirs from places you’ve been. You can’t make friendship happen. But when one comes your way, you say thank you. You treat that friend like a spectacular sunset or a stunning concerto – you thank God for its beauty and for letting you experience it, even though it’s something you can never wrap your grubby hands around.

I have a friend I’ve known since high school. She’s a few years older than me and we didn’t do a great job of keeping up once she went to college. We have seen each other only a handful of times over the past decade. We don’t talk on the phone. We only occasionally chat online. I try to see her when I’m in town visiting my parents. But she is precious to me beyond words. She is a friend of the heart –someone I trust completely and admire deeply. She is one of the first people I think of when I need support and one of the people whose encouragement means the most to me. I cried when I saw the first pictures of her daughters and on my wedding day she gave me a handkerchief she’d used at her own wedding to use as my “something borrowed.”

This friendship is not the work of my hands. It’s not a credit to my engaging personality or a testament to what a good friend I am (because, as I said, I am rubbish at keeping up with this particular friend). It is pure grace. And all I can say in response to that kind of grace is, “Thank you.”