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Lewis’ story: Into the panic zone at college

Lewis' Story

Before joining college, I had low self-confidence. I was socially anxious, and at school I was typically described as someone who never talked; the quiet one. The same was said about me by my friends’ parents whenever I went to their houses.

My first year of secondary school was when I recognised I was having some difficulties. I would avoid any difficult tasks in classes by pretending to be ill and staying at home. Worrying about whether what I’d say in class discussions was relevant, I would say nothing or, at the very most, a couple of sentences. College assignments where I had to present a PowerPoint, graded by how much you said, were hugely challenging. Before and during every presentation, my heart beats faster and more intensely. When I speak, I hear my voice shake as I’m standing in front of everyone. This anxiety continued into my college years.

Comfort zone stretching

On induction day, the tutor provided an overview of the course and the college services and facilities. I remember him saying we had to set ourselves an objective for the year. He gave the example of “if you’re not confident, then your target could be to improve your presentations.”. I knew that applied to me. The prospect of having to practise presentations was enough to put me off having it as a target. Instead, I set myself the target of not being ‘ill’ all year -a more achievable comfort zone stretch I felt.

I knew I’d have to make an effort to talk to people if I was going to have friends. It was the first academic setting in which I didn’t know anybody. In the first year of college, I introduced myself to two people. They stood out to me as I saw them to be similar to me: they didn’t talk in class, and were alone when everyone else would be together, like lunchtimes. The fact that they were always alone made it feel easier to approach them, as opposed to other people in groups.

I was so nervous the first time I introduced myself and had to overcome a lot of discomfort just to muster a friendly, open demeanour to talk. Having introduced myself to them both, I started to realise I could approach other people because there was nothing to fear. I felt more relaxed and confident the next time.

Into the panic zone

One particularly uncomfortable incident was when the class was alerted 10 minutes before a graded discussion was to take place. Panicking, I worried about not passing because I didn’t know what to say. I was unable to focus on any information from a document used to gather notes. Approaching the discussion with dread, my mind spun worrying about what to say and the relevance it could have to any points raised. As long as the person on my table who I considered to say even less than me, didn’t say anything, then I might get away with not speaking. I was relying on them to lower the teacher’s expectations of how much I needed to say to pass.

I ended up saying fewer words than anyone else in my class. As soon as I had said one word (hedgehogs I think), I felt relieved my job was done and I could relax. I thought I had contributed to the discussion enough to pass. The teacher didn’t see it like that. He said I would have to say more if I wanted to pass. Panicking, I replied “I don’t know anything” and unsympathetically, they said “you don’t know anything? Oh no!” He wasn’t at all understanding and I felt even more uncomfortable, aware that the rest of the class were listening. I later told my tutor I probably wasn’t going to pass, and they said “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. I felt like I’d isolated myself from the rest of the class because of how incoherently I had behaved.

Seeking student support

My parents had been suggesting I see the College study support advisor since the start of the first year. This time, I decided to go. The Student Support Advisor helped me a lot. After a couple of sessions, they asked me if I had heard of Asperger’s. Once I read about it, it helped me understand myself better, explaining why people have treated me like they have (much to my annoyance) thinking I wasn’t behaving any differently to others. Soon after this session, I had an increased awareness of my abilities; instead of seeing what I wasn’t good at as ‘weaknesses’, I looked at them as ‘areas of improvement’. My key achievement at college was accomplishing a Distinction* grade in my course, Environmental Sustainability and Management.

Since college, I’ve become less socially anxious and more conscious of my self-worth. I have increased my self-belief and confidence, and love myself. I’m still progressing: I’m very much introverted, and still feel uncomfortable in large groups. I even chose to share my experiences via writing because I saw the prospect of recording myself as uncomfortable. I continue to identify with people who go through similar experiences, because I understand and relate to them. So, in some ways I’ve changed a lot, and in others, I’m still the same: my personality is the same, my principles are the same, my activities and interests are the same, and in social situations I’m still more comfortable in small groups.

Now, I embrace and welcome new experiences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find the prospect daunting at times. Just the prospect of joining the Quiet Facebook group I found daunting. Even whilst I typed this, I thought about how I would be received.

You can achieve more than you think

If my younger self could see me now, they’d think it wasn’t possible to accomplish what I have, even if they could see proof of it. They’d think it’s amazing. The truth is you never know what you’re capable of. I almost always underestimate myself. I expect and know I can do more than I think I can, and yet I always surprise myself with the final results. There have been many times where I’d look at an assignment and think “there’s no way I can write anything about that”, then go on to exceed the word limit. Looking back, seeing where I’ve come from and what I’ve done, the progress and achievements have been enormous. Although all progress with me is gradual, I recognise the changes, and though small, they are significant.

Continuing to grow

I’m finding my way in the world, where I thrive. I believe I will continue to progress, and I know there are a lot of opportunities, interests and hobbies which can be developed to be your life’s work and accomplishments. The ideal career for me would be practicing a hobby and making a living from it. My aspirations are to benefit the environment and make things easier for others. My accomplishments and contributions mean nothing if they’re only for my benefit. I can’t see the ultimate effect I have in the world if I never show it.

That’s what led me to sharing this: I was searching volunteering opportunities, and came across Quiet Connections. After reading the description, it was the one which I wanted to be part of the most. It’s the one which I can relate to the most, and almost all of what I have to share is relevant.

I share all of this to show I’m not so different to you, and everyone can accomplish what I’ve accomplished in their own way. Think about the people you admire and consider to be great and successful… what if you knew they have also had their struggles which they overcame to achieve and succeed?

2 thoughts on “Lewis’ story: Into the panic zone at college

  1. Thanks very much Caroline. It’s very refreshing to know and see their is a platform such as Quiet Connections where people can share their experiences and thoughts to connect with others to help them through their own. I am very happy to be a part of Quiet Connections and very grateful to have the opportunity to share my own through a blog. It’s most rewarding to hear my experiences have already been shared, and I can’t really describe what it means to hear that or even to be in a position where I have a blog. It’s very unique and I’m thankful for it all and welcoming me in. I look forward to sharing more of my experiences and to see Quiet Connections development. Lewis

  2. Thanks Lewis, your courage to write and share your personal experiences and vulnerabilities is inspiring and compassionate. So glad you decided to become part of Quiet Connections and really hope you feel pleased with what you have accomplished so far Caroline

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