I was 16 when I got the diagnosis: Social Anxiety Disorder.
Of all the world's fears, social situations are my biggest terror. No, really — force feed me anchovies, tie me to the roof of a train, cover me in snakes and spiders — but throw me into a room of humans, and I’m stuck. My mouth goes dry. My knuckles are white. My cheeks are pinched, and I think my heart is about to wriggle into my throat.
Does anybody else find the following 5 social situations torturously awkward?
1. To hug, or not to hug?
And if you do hug, what type of hug? How well do you know each other? Whose arms go underneath? Why is your chin stuck in their armpit? How tightly should you squeeze? At what point did a strand of your hair end up in their mouth? Why have you suddenly lost all ability to balance on two feet? Do you give them a couple of back pats to signal the end of a hug that's gone on a little too long? Should you pretend to air-kiss them on the cheek? Is that even what people do?
2. When someone wants to make small talk in the bathroom.
I’m not sure what it is about girls. I know that we’re social creatures. But for me, the toilet is a cubicle of sanctity and peace that protects me from the outside horrors of social faux pas. Please don’t follow me in. I haven’t needed an escort to the bathroom since I was 4 and using squat toilets in Taiwan quite proficiently, thank you very much.
3. Miscalculating the dress code.
"Oh, you look LOVELY sweetie.” She’s lying. I know, because I’ve just arrived at an event that is definitely appearing more cocktail-meets-Victorian-era-ball-gowns than ‘smart casual’. I glance down at my unshaven legs and fold my arms under a baggy cardigan. My toes curl inside sandals that are almost too small. The pitying looks I get from girls ready to appear on the next season of 'The Bachelorette' don’t make me and my paint-stained jeans feel any more comfortable.
4. Trying to enter a circle of people.
We’ve all been there. A group of people are involved in an animated discussion. Their backs are to you. Worse yet, they’re in a circle. Yes, a circle. There aren’t any gaps. You’re too short to loom ominously over them. They don’t even notice your presence. You circle this circle like a timid vegetarian shark; you're not even sure if you want what’s inside. Who do you know best? You nudgingly place a hand on someone’s elbow or shoulder. It’s a desperate cry of ‘please, I’m here!’ After a second attempt, they look back and notice you. Awkwardly shuffle outwards so that you can wriggle in by their elbow. Phew.
5. Conversations that lead nowhere.
We’re told to ask questions. People like talking about themselves, right? Unless they don’t. Golly, the amount of times I’ve been trapped in conversation with someone as closed off as a mute llama that doesn’t want to speak - it’s a struggle. Monosyllabic responses to your well meaning questions don't exactly stimulate thought-provoking conversation. You might as well pull a cricket out of your pocket and have it start chirping to fill the stunted silence.
On the other hand, you could be talking to someone who is as emotionally aware as an obnoxious bandicoot. They don’t ask you anything in return. You’ve already heard about their moral opposition to veganism, the time they backpacked around Bangladesh, and how much fun they had at their cousin’s wedding last week. Where to now? Do you start to share your own random stories, without being asked? How long have you maintained eye contact? Why are conversations so hard?
I'm certain that everyone struggles with a dose of awkwardness every now and then. The question is, how do we cope?
Social anxiety isn't something that can be wished away with happy thoughts. These days, though, I have a newfound confidence. Yes, I still get the same inner terror and desire to flee from awkward conversations and new situations — but I don't run, and I have a lot more peace. I've learnt to be kind to myself, to laugh in those moments, and get better at communicating.
If you have a read of Part 2 of this post, I'd love to share with you 5 ways I've learned to overcome social awkwardness and interact with humans in a non-terrifying way.
Sending you one very brief, just-the-right-amount-of-squeeze hug,