‘Eating you own liver’ – It’s an old phrase that I haven’t seen in use for some time. For me it sums up some of those feelings generated by social anxiety.
I’ve never been the gregarious life and soul of the party and it’s no coincidence that for decades my Myers-Briggs profile was INTP. It has changed slightly in recent years with melody running the show, though the I(ntrovert) score is way too high to ever slide to E(xtrovert).
The anxiety has always depended upon what social setting I was being exposed to. I never had much of a problem in a professional environment. I travelled a lot, to visit customers, to attend conferences and industry gatherings. Even presenting at large gatherings was just nerves rather than anxiety. When necessary, for business / political reasons I could manage the social events attached to these things – ducking out when I had done my duty.
Almost any other social setting has always been accompanied with social anxiety. In professional settings the mainstay is confidence in certain technical abilities. In those other settings the confidence has to be in your own inner personal qualities. As a long time loner I can tell you that my confidence in those has generally been low and the resulting social anxiety quite high.
As far as that goes, I don’t think that I’m describing anything that’s not quite common. Beyond a reluctance to be exposed to an anxious environment it was possible to ‘perform’ when necessary.
The killer for anxiety in general and especially social anxiety has been the progress of melody, this hits a peak with regard to being in public. When the default presentation as a male was to prefer the shadow, to barely be noticed, anything that puts you in the spotlight is truly scary.
Thing is, the need to be who you are is something that you eventually can’t ignore. Changes have to happen and then you have to deal with the other side of the equation where you fear each change moves the spotlight onto you. Each change is a fresh compromise between the competing needs.
On a daily basis it is obviously work that produces the most general anxiety. It creates a conditioning process whereby I’ll introduce one element and hope I’m not going to be called out. Then, when I’ve got used to presenting that, there’s a voice inside that starts clamouring for the next change in daily presentation.
There’s a lot of change that’s been introduced this way. Take away the male trousers and shirt as standard office attire and there’s nothing male left, they’re a sleight of hand, a fig leaf. Things that sound inconsequential when written down have all been major terrors when first introduced. It sounds innocuous to talk about changing from basic stud earrings to feminine pearls and emeralds, or to 1″ hoops. Or to talk of dying my already below the shoulder hair. First with it’s natural black and eliminating the 40% grey, then gradually shifting the colour towards browns. All these and more feel like great changes, even imperative changes, in the seclusion of home. Stepping out of the house is fraught with anxiety.
And as for stepping out of the house in public melody mode where I have to meet people can have the social anxiety off the scale.
Female styles do give some room for manoeuvre. To be out and interacting in public doesn’t require a skirt or dress and stilettos. Swap the male trousers and shirt for female jeans or slacks and blouse and it’s like going out underneath that spotlight. Waiting for the soto voce “look at the state of that” to ratchet up the anxiety. Yet, there are moments that make it worth it. Last month, dressed in melody mode, I filled up at a service station on my way to a session. As I was walking out, the lady from behind the till called out “oh, I love those heels. Where did you get them ?”.
The first syllable of that shout from behind the counter had the anxiety ready to explode. Dealing with it calmly and being able to engage in the conversation is a relatively new thing and a sign of hope for the future.
There are so many things to eventually overcome. Yes, I have been out in dresses and pointy heels, but only in controlled environments. There’s no doubt that the nagging voice of melody will force the issue at some point and insist on less control over the environment. I just hope my guts and my head will cope with the anxiety and keep a lid on it.