Looking back, I never used to feel “socially anxious” whilst growing up. I remember feeling shy as a kid when meeting relatives or strangers, but even when I first started working I felt okay. Anxious feelings kind of crept up on me into adulthood and, I think for me personally, feelings of social anxiety occurred because I sometimes felt uncomfortable with small talk; that somehow I was being inauthentic and feeling forced into engaging in a form of public speaking at a microcosmic level, being taken out of my comfort zone. It didn’t feel bad every time, just sometimes.
As a fully-fledged adult, I found myself gradually withdrawing from, and dreading, family gatherings. In retrospect, I think part of the reason was because, as an adult, one is expected to have learned conversational etiquette, which is fine because being thoughtful toward others is a respectful virtue. On the other hand, this form of communication entails vetting thoughts and behaviour which can feel challenging sometimes in terms of immediate family. There can be occasions when one wants to literally scream, or point out the elephant in the room that’s been glossed over year after year, after year.
As time went on, I moved out of the family home and into my own place. I became more introverted, private and preferred my own company. This mode of existence actually felt very comfortable and more like my true self; no airs, no graces, no role play -just me as I truly am.
Expectations to attend family get-togethers started to feel like a real strain. My family, over the years, occasionally took offense at my non-attendance and accused me of being selfish, unsocial and “cold”. They thought I was avoiding them when it was actually about me, not them.
I did not know how to address this, either with myself or with my family. If polite chit chat was already uncomfortable, there seemed to be little chance of me broaching the deeper topic of social anxiety. I was apprehensive about explaining social anxiety to any of them, especially as I had not explored whether this was actually social anxiety. I mean, it’s quite common for some personalities to clash and not want to visit each other, yet still make the effort to meet for appearances sake or to maintain family values and connections. But I thought that if I said I may have social anxiety, my family might think I was making another excuse not to visit them.
The truth is, I found it painful that I could not bring myself to be completely open with them about how sad I sometimes felt and the fact that they are my family and I wished those people closest to me would understand and sympathise, support and comfort me. It felt too high a risk to be misunderstood and disappointed by those closest to me. They were my family after all, why couldn’t I share my vulnerabilities with them? Was I afraid of appearing weak? I am the oldest sibling in a single parent family, I am ‘supposed’ to be the strong one and this is the role I played all my life… and still do.
What I’d really like my family to know about me is that I do not dislike any of them, I love them all very much indeed, as I know they love me. My thoughts run away with me and I imagine they are frustrated with me or saddened by my reclusive nature, like I could make our family life warmer and happier if I participated more fully. I wish I could. I wish I did. I feel like a huge chunk of my life is missing; lost opportunities to make each other feel okay about the trials and tribulations we all face in life. Although we always come to each other’s aid should the need arise, I think they just miss me, we had a tough life growing up in a single parent family, a Punjabi Sikh one at that, which was even more unusual back then. So I’ll consider this as a work in progress so as to not leave it by the wayside, I’d hate to move on in life as a stranger to my family…