I have always been the ‘quiet one’. The one that doesn’t speak. As a child, I was described as painfully shy and that is exactly how it felt for me…
I hated going to school. I would never volunteer to answer a teacher’s question. But, of course, you don’t have to –you just hear them call your name and ask “what’s the answer?” Paralysed with anxiety, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even think! I would blush terribly; my cheeks would be on fire.
Some teachers were sympathetic and moved on to a new ‘victim’, others were less so, shaming me in front of the class. I remember my science teacher for this the best, “see, this is what happens when you’re embarrassed to talk about sex” she proclaimed after choosing me to answer a question on the reproductive system. She knew better, I’d always given the same speechless response to her questions. And then there would be the teachers that, every year, would choose where each child sits, totally removing me from any support I felt I had in my friends.
At lunch, I’d sit with my group of friends afraid to speak. (OK, someone else’s group of friends – there will always be some nice people who will take the time to get to know the quieter ones and instinctively know how to put them at ease so I had a few friends that I cherished). I wasn’t a fan of having a conversation with an audience; I couldn’t find my words and I worried what people would think of me. I remember one girl ranting about how I annoyed her just because I was too quiet.
Very quickly, I learned to adopt a strategy of avoidance. I wouldn’t go to school or college on presentation days – or any other difficult day for that matter. I would feel nauseated and I’d often be physically sick at the thought of going to school. Needless to say, my years struggling with social anxiety resulted in a lot of time off. This pattern developed beyond school. I didn’t feel I could cope at university and I was too scared to meet new people. So I didn’t go. And then I was worried about entering the world of work. So worried, that I purposely messed up my job applications to ensure I wasn’t put in a job interview situation. (Think how a cover letter would look written in your non-dominant hand.)
When I overdosed as a teenager, the young male nurse in A&E asked me ‘were you doing it for attention?’ I had no comeback for that. With clear intentions, I was unable to imagine why anyone would choose to overdose for attention; it was the very last thing I wanted. I was referred to a counsellor who certainly did not ‘get’ me. I didn’t feel safe with her. She told me that she thought I didn’t want help when I clammed up. I explained all of this to my GP who sang her praises. That was the end of the support I had from healthcare professionals.
Through my avoidance, I missed out on opportunities, connections and events that I really would have loved to experience if I felt I could. When I did socialise, I would turn to confidence in a bottle and, at times, it was very freeing to feel like I could be someone else. Someone silly and flirty who could dance and talk. But I would drink so much so that often I wouldn’t remember what I had said or done the next day and whatever the memories, I would feel ashamed of my behaviour. This wasn’t me.
I almost didn’t start my degree in health – something my manager at the time put me forward for – because I learned I’d have to do several presentations (the last time I’d tried I felt I was going to throw up on the way to college). I remember how hopeless I felt when I explained this through tears to my friend and colleague on a night shift. I hadn’t really spoken to anyone about this before. Ann was a trainee counsellor at the time and her words and reassurance got me onto the course (ironically, as anxious as I felt, my presentations often received good feedback. Turns out, I’m pretty good at presentation prep; writing and rehearsing – the introvert advantage perhaps!)
There were still many situations I didn’t feel I could cope with and, like I’ve heard from many quiet people, I didn’t have the self-confidence I needed to cope with everyday life. But I’d learned I could be wrong about my abilities; I could deliver the presentation I was so convinced I would fail at and I’d passed my course with flying colours, after all. I had hope.
Turning to the internet, and after much googling, I stumbled across neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). With a local coach, I began to address certain patterns of thought and behaviour that were holding me back. Looking at situations in a whole new way, I learnt positive techniques to manage anxiety. I read books and articles to learn more about how our minds work. I continued pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. I’d come so far and I knew I had a long way to go.
Looking back, I think it’s possible that the fact that I was a quiet, introverted child and that this was not seen as ‘normal’ contributed to me developing social anxiety. Because I didn’t want people to see that there was something wrong with me and judge me, I feared being put on the spot or even speaking to people. I always felt under pressure to participate. To be more like the outgoing kids. People would think I was stuck-up and boring. I thought I was boring too; “who would want to speak with me anyway?” I wanted to be the life and soul of the party, but it just wasn’t me and like many others, I struggled with self-acceptance.
I took an NLP Practitioner course which involved practising our coaching skills with the other trainees. This helped me to build on what I had already learned about myself. I continued questioning my thoughts; I changed the way I spoke about myself and problems; and I took control of the way I behaved.
In the same year, I read Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ and I was fascinated by the neuroscience behind our personality types. For years, I was convinced that I had a neurological condition. I always felt the distance between my brain and mouth was so much further than for other people. Sentences would get distorted and words would be lost on their journey from brain to mouth. I couldn’t think on my feet. When I was asked a question in class, I’d freeze. No words would come to me. I struggled with making small talk. I felt I had to rehearse and perfect conversations in my head before I could approach someone.
Turns out, these are things that many introverts experience and it’s to do with the way introverts and extroverts differ neurologically and how we use different parts of our brains. Understanding introverts and extroverts helped to refocus me… no longer was I looking at what I couldn’t do because of my introversion, I was noticing all the things I could do.
Since experiencing coaching and learning more about my personality traits, my self-awareness has increased; my relationships have improved; my career has progressed and I feel much happier and at peace with who I really am. I’m working with my personality traits, rather than trying to be different and I’ve learnt to cope with situations that would have filled me with fear (like networking and speaking up in meetings).
I’ve found the courage to talk about how I felt, and what I did to try and cope with the feelings. The more I share my story, the more I hear the words ‘me too’. For some, this is the first time they’ve spoken about it and I’m often met with surprise that someone understands.
I’ve been saying for 10 years that someone needs to do something to help people who are experiencing socially anxious feelings. After all, up to 55,000 adults in Cornwall have social anxiety, and many more people feel shy and self-doubting. But there’s no more support now than there was 10 years ago when my feelings of social anxiety led to a suicide attempt. Until now.
My passion to help others who feel this way – and to prevent lives spiralling in the same way mine did – has secured me a place on The Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme in partnership with School for Social Entrepreneurs. Thanks to this programme, I have the support and encouragement I need in growing a social enterprise that helps people with similar struggles, and to start a conversation about social anxiety. If that seems like you, I want you to know that you’re not alone and it’s OK to talk about it. Believe me, you can change how things are right now.