Talking about our self-doubt and our anxieties in social situations is still taboo. We tend to think we should be able to do certain things, like talk to strangers and speak up, just because other people seem to manage with ease. It can feel like we’re the only person struggling.
Then there’s the stigma we experience when our challenges aren’t understood. We hear things like “just do it; it’s easy”, “don’t be shy”, “grow a pair”, “stop being so anxious”, and “come out of your shell”.
It’s no wonder we feel ashamed of our apparent ‘inability’ to cope with everyday life, is it? We do our best to hide our struggles. To avoid those situations that take us out of our comfort zones and into panic. We stay small and keep our true selves hidden, hoping no one will notice our ‘flaws’. As we’re all staying silent, trying not to draw attention to ourselves, we think we’re the only one; defective in some way.
In reality, this is a huge, unspoken issue with over 1 in 10 people feeling socially anxious (that’s around 55,000 adults in Cornwall!) and 2 in 5 people considering themselves to be shy. So many people feel awkward in social situations and think bad of themselves for it. This can impact on a person’s education, career, relationships, health and wellbeing. But don’t just take our word for it. This is how six people who feel this way explained their biggest challenges:
“I feel terrified to talk to people at social events and conferences. I just end up hiding in the toilet and feeling rubbish about myself.”
“Just going into the supermarket at times has left me stuck in the car for half an hour trying to get the courage to enter.”
“I have a hard time making friends. My romantic life is non-existent; I have never been kissed or even flirted with.”
“People usually want quick answers and I’m not capable of “finding” my answers that quickly and I feel frustrated. I know this is my introversion, but the frustration carries it over to social anxiety. It’s made me averse to choosing to go to social settings”
“Missing a lot of school because of my social anxiety resulted in court and community service”
“Interviews are always a bust. Nobody wants to hire an introvert so we have to sell a lie of ourselves to the interviewer. It’s hard enough to speak to people in my own voice, creating a new one is stressful.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg! These are the words of only six people out of the 150 who have participated in research with us, helping us to paint a picture of the everyday challenges faced when you’re feeling socially anxious, shy, awkward and not good enough.
Some people shared their stories in great detail, as if in a bid for empathy and connection as they unleashed their most painful memories. Many stories are heartbreaking and moved us to tears. Almost all of the people participating say their lives have been negatively impacted because of this.
How bad can feeling socially anxious get?
Feeling socially anxious, awkward, shy, not good enough –whatever that feeling is for you- can impact on every area of someone’s life. Our research (and others) shows that, time and time again, people who feel this way are experiencing massive challenges in their education, career, relationships, health and wellbeing. Here are the challenges most commonly mentioned:
At worst, a person can feel totally isolated, like a prisoner in their own home. Family are unable to understand why they can’t go out, make friends, get a job and pay their way, and don’t know how to support them.
They’d love to go to cafe to meet a friend for a coffee. But, they’d have to walk through town alone; enter a cafe full of people; speak to a stranger in front of people to order a drink; find a table (and what if there aren’t any?!); and spend time feeling uncomfortable on their own until their friend arrives… if they have a friend. The thought of getting a bus into town puts them in a panic. “What if I forget where I’m going when I ask for a ticket? What if there are lots of people on the bus? Where will I sit? What if no one presses the button at my stop and I have to do it but can’t? What if I drop my money?” Simply leaving their house and walking down the road is a big stretch for some.
So many people think it’s a lie every time someone is nice to them or gives a compliment. They can’t see any good in themselves at all. Imagine trying to write a CV or sell yourself in a job interview when you don’t believe a word you’re saying! That’s if you find the courage to try, of course… lots of people are looking for that job where they can hide in the background. You know, the one that doesn’t involve a job interview.
Maybe even signing on for jobseekers allowance is too overwhelming. It’s quite a challenge to attend a busy job centre -where you’re expecting to be judged- for meetings with a stranger (and authority figure), to be told to apply for jobs you don’t believe you can do and attend courses that you’re terrified of but can’t explain why.
For those in education, anxiety sees many students taking sick days; hiding in toilets; walking out before anything participatory; or ‘freezing’ and being totally unable to speak during assessments, undoubtedly affecting their achievements.
One thing we can be particularly good at is avoiding social and performance situations; anything where we could potentially become the centre of attention. The fear and avoidance become a self-fulfilling prophecy when you suddenly have to do something, and you’re launched into the panic zone. It’s not possible to develop your social abilities and confidence unless you’re gradually stretching your comfort zone.
Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with is the way we’re seen by others. Most people don’t see the fear we feel and we’re not willing to share it, leaving too much space for misconceptions. We might be thought of as stuck up, aloof, boring or not interested. We could be bullied, rejected, shamed, isolated or ignored. This includes some healthcare professionals too; the people who we finally find the courage to turn to for help in our darkest moments. I’ve heard about professionals saying various versions of “If you really wanted my help, you’d talk to me” -and a counsellor said this to me personally too, unable to recognise the freeze response I was having when I wasn’t feeling safe and understood.
The sense of being a burden who doesn’t belong grows with every perceived ‘failure’. With feelings of hopelessness and despair, it can be easy to believe this is just the way it is. That things can’t possibly change and there’s only one way out.
But these feelings, thoughts and behaviours can change…
That’s why we’re here today.
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.