If you have social anxiety disorder (SAD), chances are your family doesn’t know of your condition and neither do most of your friends. And you won’t tell them because guess what?
You either don’t know how to explain it to them, or might be afraid that they will treat you differently.
If I had to guess between the two, I’d put my money on being treated differently. You’re afraid that if they find out they will treat you like an invalid.
Deep down you know that you are not an invalid. But your self-esteem is so frail that should they treat you as such (highly unlikely), you’re afraid you might start feeling like an invalid. My guess is you already feel like an invalid in areas of your life that matter to you. Especially if you’re an avoidant-coper like myself who avoids social situations as much as possible.
I know this because I, too, have social anxiety and struggle with my self-esteem. I’ve learned the hard way that social anxiety can change your life drastically.
Brace yourself for the roller coaster that my life has become.
What it’s like to experience social anxiety for me
Living with social anxiety is a constant battle. My mind won’t stop working in anticipation of an upcoming social event, which could be anything from stepping outside to meet friends, to going to work. My mind will start to come up with countless scenarios where things might go wrong. I tell myself a million times, “it’s going to be okay, no one’s judging you.”
But, the futility of that attempt becomes all too real when my heart continues to pound away, my mind races, my hands shake, and I begin to sweat. Then begins the paranoia:
“Do THEY notice?”
Immediately after that, a group of girls walk by and laugh at a joke someone in the group made. But, I automatically assume they are laughing at me.
Surprisingly, I am unable to look anywhere else. “What’s going on?” My thoughts are now in such disarray that it feels like the world is spinning.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” I convinced myself. “They’re laughing at me because they KNOW how WEAK I am.”
I couldn’t look up because I felt weak. Not the kind of weakness you feel after an arduous workout, or when you’re about pass out. It’s the kind of weakness that makes you sick to the stomach. The kind that makes you hate being you, and that wants to convince you that you’re not who you thought you were. And that maybe if you looked up, you’d have to stare at a “truth” you’ve been running from.
I rejected that weakness long ago. But with the adrenaline pumping through my veins like a drug addict, these thoughts went unnoticed. Before I realized what was going on, they became a part of my sanity.
So, I began to attach people’s laughter with fear and self-doubt. Unfortunately, recursive irrational thinking is like yeast inside dough for the socially anxious:
It expands by feeding on your rationality.
At the time, I didn’t know about social anxiety disorder. So, I continued to experience those thoughts and feelings regularly and did nothing about them. Then my anxiety became more pronounced and easily triggered. Its progression invited an unexpected new visitor in my life.
The opportunistic traveler
Just when I needed a reason to get up, a knock came at my door. I immediately thought, “but, I never receive visits anymore.”
I go get the door, half expecting the visitor to leave after noticing that the storm outside paled in comparison to the one inside. But the visitor, or rather the form that was before me, didn’t seem phased.
My curiosity was piqued.
Just who or what was this thing? The form seemed to be traveling and the timing was too perfect.
“Perhaps a salesman? It wouldn’t be the first time one of those thieves came around when I’m off my game,” I thought to myself.
Then, from beneath the rags, it introduced itself. Just then, everything made sense. The visit. The timing. Everything.
The storm of my anxiety no longer stood on its own. A tempest had now picked up with newer, more troublesome circumstances.
The traveler’s name was hopelessness, a lurking fiend that lives in the shadows and feeds on self-pity and self-loath. He mirrored my internal struggle.
It was clear to me then that I could no longer remain idle. I had to face my new circumstances.
Then, the ragged traveler crept towards me and presented me two wooden plaques. Etched at the top of each one is “choice” followed by a number. At the center of plaque 1 is etched, “endure this pain” and on plaque 2, “avoid this pain.”
These choices stunned me for a moment. I knew that no matter which one I picked, nothing would ever be the same. But I had to make a choice.
Looking back, I didn’t realize the storm had gotten so bad. Maybe because I was in denial. I mean, who wouldn’t be? To have your life change so drastically.
At first, it was the occasional fear that something bad would happen. But everyone recovers from that, right? Well, yours truly missed the memo. I became terrified of feeling anxious. I never wanted to feel petrified and ashamed ever again.
A peek into the past
When I was younger, people used to tease me for being sensitive. They would make fun of me for crying or make me feel bad for wanting something. The average kid would bounce back and persist.
But, I was different.
Being judged deeply hurt me, so I feared it. I wanted people to stop teasing or laughing at me for being me. So, I adopted a way to avoid getting hurt. I noticed that when I didn’t cry or showed vulnerability, no one made fun of me. I liked not getting hurt.
So, I made a promise to myself to never show weakness to anyone ever again.
Weakness was being vulnerable to people. Any action on my part that enabled others to trivialize my feelings. I prided myself in my ability to remain calm and show no emotion. So, when I felt hurt, I swallowed the pain and remained still.
“You cannot move that which you cannot break.”
I hated that people could make me feel hurt. Some might think, “grow some balls,” right?
Well, I considered that only to be faced with the fact that I already possessed two. Any more additions would have me face Amy Schumer’s Three Buttholes dilemma – it drives your friends and even lovers away. I don’t need any more of that in my life.
Okay, all jokes aside. Somewhere along the line, I conditioned my mind to associate my anxiety with the pain that I felt when people judged me unfavorably.
Experiencing my frailty anew as an adult, unearthed all the hurt that was buried. The hurt laced with fear reinforced my faulty adaptation to anxiety. It has made me believe that I should be ashamed for letting them make me feel like a victim. That I don’t deserve to heal. After all, “I am weak” and the weak do not deserve to sit with the strong.
But, How Could It Get So Bad?
I imagine the effects of the anxiety disorder as an ax and my self-esteem as a tree.
My anxiety steadily began to chip away at my self-esteem. So, I started to worry excessively about how others perceived me:
Is my shirt on right? Do I look fat? Am I breaking out? Do I offend? Am I too skinny? Am I ugly? Do I sound okay? Am I saying the right things? Am I shaking? Do they notice that I’m embarrassed? Do they know that I’m anxious?
No matter how I broke it down, the most fundamental question left unanswered boiled down to:
Am I good enough to be myself?
Well, am I?
We both know we are good enough to be ourselves. That’s how we were all raised. Sadly, that’s the foundation my anxiety attacked. It has shaken the very core of who I am.
More than just anxiety, it’s social phobia
When my anxiety began to trigger fear and self-doubt, everything I did was like taking one step forward and immediately after three steps back.
the ax had triumphed over the tree and only the stump remained.
You eventually start losing the strength to fight back and it becomes easier to just settle – settle for the traveler’s plaque 2 and accept that you are not good enough.
Your self-esteem is split and you’re left incomplete. As if the ax had finally cut the tree, leaving a stump (a scar), you are half a person – one whose body is whole but whose mind is broken.
Social anxiety disorder will make you feel as though you will never get better.
To fight back is to believe that you deserve better. But, what if you’ve stopped believing that you deserve better? That you deserve to be whole? Social anxiety disorder will make you feel as though you will never get better.
All the times you wanted to go out but had to say no because you weren’t feeling well. All the opportunities to better your life, missed because you’re so afraid and so drained from fighting all day, every day. The worst part is few people, if any, know about it. And still, they can’t relate.
How did I cope with my social anxiety?
Not well, to be honest. Not well at all.
You may or may not have had a healthy social life before your anxiety. Me? I was the life of the party. I went out almost every weekend, more times sober than I can count.
The average person believes that we hate socializing. But that’s not true at all.
I was absolutely having fun. Who doesn’t enjoy dancing all night long?
Was I running from my anxiety? You damn right, I was.
I was anxious about being a party pooper, about failing to reach my unusually high academic standards, and about being alone. So, why not “fake it till you make it?”
My anxiety rapidly took control of my life. Kind of like Venom taking over Eddie Brock in Spider-Man 3.
It started with me dressing down more often than usual and wearing a hat every day. But, the anxiety didn’t stop. So, I started wearing “comfort” clothes even if they were the same clothes to stay under people’s radar. That also had the opposite effect.
It made me even more noticeable because I wore the same clothes – behavior that’s ripe food for social anxiety disorder.
I tried to remedy my anxiety with temporary fixes only to be more anxious, hurt and disappointed the next day. Then winter break came around and I made it back home. Relief, right?
My anxiety turned into an overwhelming, persistent fear of leaving my house. Just thinking about stepping out to throw the trash out made my heart pound against my chest like a tambourine. And I felt like there were invisible eyes darted at me throughout the day.
So, I’d sit home all day long on my computer thinking about how difficult navigating through school will be.
If I even go back there.
Can you believe I seriously considered that option? Like my future doesn’t feel bleak most days already.To add insult to injury, I lost weight during that time. Most of it was from my waist and legs. Mind you, I was already super self-conscious about my legs.
But, I didn’t find out about my chicken leg syndrome (it’s a thing) until I noticed people staring and some laughing. I had to stop wearing my skinny jeans – the bane of my existence. And not much changed when I wore different clothes either.
So now, I’m embarrassed to wear almost anything (a bit of body dysmorphia). I feel trapped in a vortex of conflicted thoughts and emotions.
Academic no more
Winter break was over and everyone was eager to return to school to brag about the fancy vacation they just had on some fancy beach in some fancy state. Me? I was just glad I was alive and had the guts to come back to campus.
At the start of the semester, I attended classes despite my anxiety. But, it became harder and harder to do that every day. So, I stopped and dropped all my challenging courses as a result. My grades plummeted and I barely went out.
Up until recently, I stayed in my room all day and only went out to pick up food. I’ve been ditching my friends so much that they’ve even stopped inviting me out. Can you blame them? That doesn’t stop them from being incredulous every time I decline, though.
“What happened to you, dude? Like, I never see you anymore.”
Oh, the feels! I just want to tell them, “you have no idea how much I want to go out with you guys. But, I’ll just end up in a vortex of unpleasant feelings. I don’t want to poop it for you.”
Even getting food was really challenging since I had been avoiding people like a plague. So, I’d only go outside super early or super late when my anxiety was much lower.
The only times I went out midday was to take exams. But there have been times when my anxiety got so bad, that I had to skip them altogether. It’s difficult to not feel like a failure after that.
Over time, you start rationalizing your irrational thoughts and identifying with them. Then you avoid situations that trigger your anxiety, which is tantamount to fearing fear itself.
That is the worst way possible way of coping. You don’t live. You simply exist.
On the road to recovery
Anxiety has changed my life drastically. But, I haven’t been sitting with my arms crossed. I’ve learned some of the most effective ways to overcome the low self-esteem that may come with social anxiety.
They have helped me face my anxiety even when I wanted to just give up.
One mistake to absolutely avoid is to not assume the conclusion based on your feelings. I learned the hard way that cutting corners will leave you in a ditch.
Trust me. I got carried away one night because I saw some improvements in my mood. So, I went to a party.
I was convinced that because I felt good, somehow people’s stares and laughter would stop bothering me. That everything would be back to normal.
It only took a minute to realize my naivete.
The second I got there, so many thoughts flooded my mind that the fun left me faster than you can say fast. Thankfully, I brought my anxiety starter kit along with me:
- Incredible scouting skills: I had identified all the escape routes and had a timed escape, shinobi style.
- Distraction tools: a fake smile, a busy look, and a smartphone.
Seriously, you know you have a problem when you need to distract yourself from your thoughts at a party where everyone else is having fun.
The next few days that followed, I wouldn’t go outside. I couldn’t because I feared that I’d be overwhelmed all over again. I ordered food with money I could have saved and stayed in when I could have been building confidence being in the presence of others.
How to find confidence in yourself – 8 amazing tips
Whether you need to get yourself out of bed to face the day or stop dwelling on past failures, practicing just one of these tips daily will boost your self-esteem.
It doesn’t matter if you have an anxiety disorder or a ‘full-stop’ anxiety. There is no greater feeling than to feel and be in control of your life.
Losing my ability to enjoy the things I used to invited self-pity and self-loath, which created a chasm between myself and recovery.
Had I learned these tips earlier, maybe my disorder could have been prevented. Maybe not. Either way, I wouldn’t be sharing my story to make a positive difference.
From today on, you will regain and remain in control. You have anxiety but anxiety doesn’t have you.
Tip #1: Slow down
Slowing down is the most basic and most essential practice to beat your anxiety and regain your self-esteem.
When you have an anxiety disorder, your fight-or-flight response triggers too easily. That means your body is prepped to escape danger or face it even when it shouldn’t. Either way, you got some serious juice coursing through your veins.
All that adrenaline may increase your heart rate, cause your hands to shake, your body to sweat, your breathing to shorten, and your thoughts to race.
We tend to get so busy with our lives that we often don’t find the time to be present. Even when we do have the time, there’s always the next entertaining TV show or video game. But it’s so important to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.
When you slow down, you will notice that your negative thoughts are not yours. They’re the language of anxiety and fear, which you don’t need controlling your life.
So, slow down.
Tip #2: Avoid mind reading
Mind reading is a habit that we often pick up with anxiety and low self-esteem.
We often feel embarrassed or scrutinized because we teach our brain to project our thoughts.
We assume what people think based on our own thinking, and project those thoughts on them. Then, we interpret people’s behavior through our own lenses then look for clues that support our thinking – textbook inductive reasoning.
But we take it one step further.
Because our thoughts are negative, we’ve already assumed the conclusion of a social interaction. That means, if we think we’re bad at talking to people, it manifests in our behavior and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s why we might interpret someone’s laughter as a personal attack.
This is a comprehensive way to understand mind reading. But this happens outside of our control because our brain is wired incorrectly.
Ironically, mind reading is all about control. We want to control situations that no one can control. To achieve that, we teach our brain to (incorrectly) interpret how others perceive us, which ends up hurting us.
The next time you find yourself assuming someone else’s thoughts, remember that you don’t know what people think and you can’t control it. As you become more adept with this way of thinking, you will learn to focus on and appreciate your positive thinking over others.
Tip #3: Absolute thinking (or catastrophizing) is a no-no
Another terrible habit is using absolutes in our thinking or catastrophizing. Absolutes are day and night statements that entail mutually exclusive events.
It’s admiring the sun at the horizon and a moonlit lake on a clear night sky but omitting the fact that eclipses exist. They are like the yin-yang without the light in the dark, the dark in the light.
Absolute statements leave no room for an alternative interpretation of an event. They tend to fall along those lines:
“If I trip and people laugh then people do not like me.”
“I didn’t make her laugh. I’m a loser.”
“Someone looked at me and laughed. I must be ugly.”
Notice that all these statements are self-directed and negative. But that’s what we do. Projecting comes from this type of thinking except we end up forming irrational beliefs.
Here is what that looks like:
“If I trip and people laugh then I’m not likable”
I tripped. People laughed.
Irrational belief: People must not like me because I’m not likable.
The best way to learn anything is through repetition. Even if what you’re learning will hurt you, your brain doesn’t know the difference.
If that scenario had happened to me, it would replay in my mind nonstop all day long. And if I happen to forget the next day, my mind has a way of reminding me a day, a week, or even a month later. Then, I will relive that moment as if it had happened a few minutes ago.
That’s the equivalent of purgatory, which will put anyone on a fast track to maladaptive anxiety and low self-esteem.
If you experience this, stop letting it run your mind. The best way to fight your absolute thinking and boost your self-esteem is to learn forgiveness.
Tip #4: Learn to forgive yourself.
Some of the hallmarks of social anxiety and low self-esteem are the negative emotions tied to maladaptive negative thinking – thoughts that trigger your anxiety and self-doubt.
These thoughts are typically self-deprecating. They will often encourage you to feel awful about making a perceived mistake in social situations, which will tear down your self-esteem.
You might feel ‘dumb’ for saying something no one reacted to or be clumsy and feel embarrassed about it.
Feeling embarrassed about simple mistakes is neither normal nor constructive.
I needed to learn to accept that what’s different about me is not automatically bad. Self-acceptance is major key to your self-esteem, as DJ Khaled would say.
Start thinking about yourself as “limited edition” because you are unique. Stop looking at your uniqueness as a flaw. You are unique and beautiful.
Tip #5: Learn positive self-talk
Do you know why bad habits are so difficult to get rid of?
That’s because you need to replace them, not simply stop them.
The average person tries to get rid of bad habits by stopping them. But what they fail to realize is that those habits play an important role in their life, even if it’s detrimental to them.
The same logic applies to negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts become habitual when you have social anxiety disorder and low self-esteem. They need to be replaced with positive thoughts. They will not stop because you want them to.
The tricky part is figuring out what your negative thoughts are.
Here is a nifty trick to figure that out. The next time you’re feeling anxious, recognize what you are feeling and tell yourself that’s it’s okay.
That won’t stop your anxiety but it will help you be present in the moment. Then try to recall what you were thinking while you were freaking out inside and write it down.
I use this technique myself. In fact, I wrote some of my thoughts on a sticky note while anxious and kept the note.
I’m reading it now. And I hate to admit it, but a part of me identified with those terrible thoughts. But I always remind myself that they are irrational and they will not win me over.
Tip #6: Learn to be grateful
Social anxiety disorder has a nasty way of uprooting you from what’s valuable in your life. It will encourage you to give up the things that make you happy and undervalue the things that are unique to you.
If you yield to that temptation, you will be on a fast track to misery and depression. Everything from self-pity, to low self-esteem, to self-loath, to feelings of worthlessness.
Learning to be grateful for the people in your life, for the clothes on your back, for the sun that provides life and light, for the lessons learned, for your job, your family, and your kids, and for being alive, will be a source of strength for your journey against such temptations.
Your biggest enemy is losing hope that tomorrow will be brighter. Maybe not as bright as you’d like, but it’s another day to love and to appreciate life in all its glory.
Tip #7: Invest in yourself
If you’ve ever been in the position of choosing between getting something for free and paying for it, you know that when you pay for something you tend to value it more. Chances are, you will not pay for anything that doesn’t add value to your life.
The same is true for investing in yourself. It could be something as simple as buying the watch that you’ve been eyeing for months. Or that course that teaches you how to write better. Or even starting your own blog.
Whatever it may be, investing in yourself is a self-esteem booster. You are telling yourself that you are worth the risk.
I haven’t fully recovered from struggling with my self-esteem but investing in my dream and my condition makes me feel complete.
Stop holding yourself back.
Reward yourself for fighting and never yielding. It’s an incredible feeling that I hope you look forward to.
Tip #8: Identify what you love to do
Identifying what you love is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself whether you have anxiety or not.
When my anxiety got the best of me and I felt down and out, I couldn’t find the strength to get up in the morning. I stopped caring about my hygiene, my education, keeping in touch with people, and socializing because it felt pointless if I couldn’t go out in the real world.
I felt hopeless – a byproduct of low self-esteem.
But one day lying in bed, I challenged myself to think outside the box. I asked myself this question:
“What is one thing that I’d love to do if I had all the time in the world?”
My answer made me reevaluate what mattered to me and brought me joy. Why didn’t I start sooner?
I wanted to create something. Build something with my hands and my words. Something I’d work for to improve people’s lives. The best place to start, I decided, was blogging.
The journey to becoming a blogger is what gets me out of bed every day. I become so engrossed in learning that my negative thoughts lose their hold. There is so much to learn and I have so much to give to my audience, it’s hard to contain it all.
So, what do you love to do?
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