EducationTeam stories

How I made it through college feeling socially anxious

Hayley feeling socially anxious at College
Hayley Stanton
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Hayley Stanton

Director & Coach at Quiet Connections
Hayley shares her personal stories of feeling shy, socially anxious, ‘not good enough’ and fearfully avoiding the good things in life. Growing her confidence through coaching, gradually stretching her comfort zone and connecting with others, she now uses everything she has learned to help other people grow their confidence in her role as a coach. Hayley is passionate about connecting people with similar stories and creating safe, supportive spaces to make friends and try new things. Hayley dreams of a time when all of the strengths, skills and goodness in ‘quiet’ is recognised and appreciated as readily as being bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight is right now.
Hayley Stanton
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How did you choose what to do after school? Did you choose a-levels based on a career path you wanted to take? Took a subject you enjoyed perhaps? Did you study as many subjects at college as you could to keep your options open? Not me.

Following the herd

I knew I didn’t like a lot of subjects. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was older, but I believed there were lots of things I COULDN’T be. There’s just so much that ‘shy people’ don’t do. So I had very little to base my subject choices on. My GCSE results told me I was good at health and social care, but whilst I enjoyed learning about factors that affect growth and development (particularly in relation to mental health and self-esteem, even back then), I never wanted to work in care myself. My Mum and Nan were care assistants and my other Nan was a nurse. I always said I couldn’t do it. How could they wipe someone’s bum for them or clean up puke? (Guess what my first job was years later…!)

Still, it’s double award Health and Social Care I choose to study at college. Why? Because that’s what friends of mine are doing. And it’s offered locally – I can walk to Falmouth Marine School; I don’t have to take a bus to travel to a big campus in another town and feel all anxious about that too.

Blending into the background

So now I’m in a class that’s mostly full of girls I went to school with. It’s not just the people I actually feel comfortable with and a few new people with whom I can create a ‘new, more confident me’ as I hoped. Nope, they all know me as the quiet one. Maybe a bit weird, and definitely ‘shy’ – a label I’ve carried with me since I was a child. It’s pretty clear there will be no getting away from who I am here. Every report I’ve ever had from teachers though school highlighted the fact that I was ‘quiet’ and that’s not about to change at college.

We might not have to sit boy-girl-boy-girl during lessons but it’s really not a lot different to school for me, except now there’s the added pressure of worrying about what other people will think about me wearing my own clothes. I’m mostly dressing like a Goth these days. I figure wearing black and dying my hair dark means I’ll blend into the background more. If I look a little mean and moody, who will want to stop and talk to me? Genius.

I continue to dread speaking up in class, avoiding eye contact with the tutor even when I know the answer. We still sit in groups at lunchtime and I mostly observe the chatter around the table, panicking if someone brings me into the conversation. Sometimes a couple of us will nip into town to buy a pasty for lunch, and sometimes I’d go alone. I prefer spending lunchtimes like this; it’s a great way to avoid feeling awkward in the group.

Then there are the presentations. I’m walking to college on the morning of an individual presentation that I’ve been dreading since the day we found out about it and I feel sick with fear. I get to within 300 metres of the college and I’m in such a panic, I stop in my tracks and decide the best thing to do is to start walking home. I give my tutor the excuse that I’ve thrown up. It’s the usual excuse, because sometimes I do make myself sick with worry so I reckon it’s not a total lie. I feel more anxious when I lie.

I never was a rule breaker except for those moments when I had 2 choices: do a presentation (or anything I knew would put me in the centre of attention) or skive. A few days later, I’m presenting to one member of staff on my own. You’d think this would be less nerve-racking, right? Wrong. I’m bright red, sweating, my heart is racing and I’m stumbling over my words again. I never want to do another presentation in my life.

Confidence from a bottle

Despite running the ‘please don’t talk to me’ record through my mind each day, and using lots of energy trying to avoid being seen, I still need connection with others. So I’m thankful for alcohol right now. Even at 16, the only socialising I really do involves alcohol. I like me better drunk. When I’m drunk, I don’t care what people think of me. I can have a laugh, talk shit and even dance. But I also make a total fool of myself –falling over, throwing up on someone’s shoes, being careless with my words and actions. Then, when I’m stone cold sober, I have to face people at college who know all about it. And I feel so much pressure to keep up the pretence.

Slumped on my bedroom floor before college, I’m sipping straight vodka through hopeless blubbering, desperate to feel confident and be ‘normal’. This isn’t the last time I find myself here, but I’m not feeling confident; I’m feeling disgusted at myself. You wouldn’t know it’s happened when I get into college. No one notices how distressed I am and just how urgently I need help. Here I am, hiding all of this pain –all my secret ‘flaws’- behind a smile, quietly achieving good grades, attending college just enough, and not drawing attention to myself. There are no bright red flags. There’s only quiet, and the occasional avoidant absence cloaked with illness.

What do you think happens when the super ‘shy’ girl who can’t speak in public and avoids scary social situations by faking sickness leaves college with no support?

Do you go to university?

Absolutely not. How terrifying to think about moving miles from home and living with new people! I’d still have to speak up and present in front of confident adults too. My defectiveness will surely be noticed and my life won’t be worth living!

Do you get a job?

Only if that job is one where I can hide in the background (and after years of searching, I’ve decided jobs like that don’t exist). So I’m writing job applications to tick the box. Using my non-dominant hand and missing off my grades, I have no intention of being called for a job interview. Because how would I get through an interview? I don’t believe I can do ANY job. How can I convince an employer I can through my red face, stuttering and brain freeze? No, going to a job interview is just asking to be humiliated.

So what do you decide to do next?

Totally hopeless, I isolate myself, believing I don’t have any future at all. Feeling like a total burden, I’m ashamed that I can’t contribute to my family and I worry I’ll be found out and punished for faking my job applications. I wonder how I can ever move forwards in my life when I feel so useless. To go on living seems impossible and, in my darkness, I come to believe that I only have one true option. Find out what happens next…

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