Bonding & Social Anxiety

Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be.

Conor Oberst

Probably my favorite man in the world (besides my boyfriend) is the man I work with at my small little three-person office. I’m not quite sure I’ve ever held someone in such high regard. I genuinely view him as a member of my family and I look forward to talking to him every day. If we were closer in age, I’d definitely have a crush on him. Since he’s my parents’ age, I think of him like a father instead. Strangely enough, he and my real father go by the same name.

Earlier when I walked into his office, he was telling another coworker/friend of ours that he had been talking about me with his wife last night. He was telling her about how close we’ve gotten over the last few years and how much he’s grown to love me. I nearly teared up as he listed off my best qualities proudly. I was so close to telling him that I view him as a father, but decided to bite my tongue. Maybe I’ll tell him one day, but not today.

Never having been close to my biological father, seeing him in this way means a lot to me. I honestly have never had a closer, non-sexual relationship with a man before in my life. He has taught me so much. I am filled with admiration and love for him. He’s one of those people that I just mesh with extremely well. He has such an open, accepting, light-hearted aura.

However, despite all of this, I struggle with the warm emotions I feel for him. It is a constant balancing act whenever I start to feel attached to someone. There are only a small handful of people I’ve ever felt strongly enough about to be vulnerable with. Even so, that vulnerability terrifies me. My anxiety tells me I’m not safe, that I’ll only end up getting hurt and rejected if I show the world who I really am. No matter how safe the person may make me feel, that pinching fear in my chest never fully leaves. Even when I so desperately want to be closer, I can’t help but keep myself at arm’s length.

I think when you don’t have personal experience with social anxiety, you imagine it’s only being afraid of negative social interactions such as being humiliated or not knowing what to do or say in a given situation. But actually, positive social situations can be just a stressful. Even after a great moment of intimacy with someone I genuinely care for, I find myself feeling anxious afterwards. Thoughts start to pop up: Did I share too much? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Do they like me as much as I like them? I feel awkward and embarrassed by getting closer to someone, even when it’s what I want. It’s quite frustrating and isolating as you can imagine.

I think most people in my life notice a striking difference between who I initially present myself to be: cold, distant, quiet, serious, soft-spoken, reserved and who I reveal myself to be later on: warm, loving, sensitive, affectionate, funny, loud, outspoken, passionate. Although most people seem to change once you get to know them better, I don’t think it’s usually as drastic of a difference. I doubt most of the people I am close to even realize how deeply loving and affectionate I can be. I’m just too afraid to be that vulnerable with practically anyone.

It really makes me wonder how different those around me might be from the way they present themselves to the world. I tend to take situations and individuals at face value. I can be pretty gullible and have to make a great effort to integrate the various layers of a person into a cohesive image. That’s one of the many great things about my friend at work. He is not without his flaws, but somehow his flaws make him all the more endearing. Loving someone despite their flaws is such a beautiful and profound thing to experience. Not only that, I am able to see the way he loves others who are deeply flawed themselves. He is open and accepting of just about everyone no matter how different they are from him. Witnessing this in another has helped me so much to come to terms with my own issues.

So for those of you out there also struggling with creating close, meaningful relationships despite your earnest desire to do so, know that you aren’t alone. And for everyone else reading this that may not have much knowledge of social anxiety or mental illness in general, I hope this has given you a new perspective and a better understanding of some of the issues others are going through.

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Insights From Resistance

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We all have preferences. We all have things we dislike or show resistance toward. These feelings of resentment and resistance toward people, places, situations, etc. can be so overwhelmingly powerful that it is hard to think about them or analyze the root of the issue. Instead of challenging these feelings, usually we just feed them. We look for reasons to confirm our feelings and opinions, excluding any information that may challenge them or provide an alternative perspective. Most of us are more likely to react than reconsider. Even the idea of questioning these deep seated ideas can cause more resistance to bubble up.

In an effort to take life (and myself) less seriously, I’ve been trying to practice more curiosity throughout my day. One of the things I’ve been most curious about is why I react with anger so often. For most of my life, it didn’t seem like a question worth asking. Of course I’m angry, I’d tell myself. This is unacceptable. How could they say that? Who could be that stupid!? Etc. Etc. I directed all my questions passive aggressively outward, never even considering that I might be the problem, that my reaction was the thing that needed to change, not the world around me. Even if I do still begrudgingly think someone else is in the wrong, the fact is, the only thing I can control is me. (Well theoretically anyway.)

When I started to question why certain actions or comments even make me angry, I was surprised to realize that most of the time, I had no idea. For instance, the other day my friend was making comments that made me think she wasn’t very good with money or understanding loans/debt. I immediately felt this spark of anger inside me and couldn’t stop that aggressive edge from creeping into my voice. I always feel so ashamed of myself after having these tense conversations. The people I’m talking to must be so confused and irritated by my irrational behavior. Why on earth do I care how my friend chooses to spend her money? It’s none of my business and doesn’t effect me at all. Maybe I’m just jealous that other people don’t worry about spending money or taking on debt like I do. Maybe I feel threatened or worried they’ll think I’m the stupid one who never uses the money I have to make big purchases or improvements to my life.

I don’t usually ever come to a decision about exactly why a lot of things make me angry. But to be honest, the reason doesn’t necessarily matter. Just the intention to be curious about my emotional response to things is enough to diffuse the rage inside me. Curiosity comes with a sense of openness, while anger, stress, sadness are more closed states. Both cannot exist within you in the same moment. It can be difficult initially to make that mental switch from closed to open, but once you do you can feel a noticeable difference. Not to mention, the more you practice flipping this switch, the easier it becomes.

Let’s practice a little exercise together, just so you know how it feels to be in a state of resistance. Imagine one or more opinions or beliefs you hold very strongly. Then just imagine trying to purposely challenge those very beliefs/opinions. Try imagining ways you could be wrong or misguided. Try to think of some good qualities or points of the opposite perspective. Quite difficult isn’t it? As someone who is very opinionated and stubborn, even this simple thought exercise makes outrage and fierce resistance start to rise up within me. I can feel my chest tightening, I can feel that closing sensation in my heart space. I immediately notice thoughts crowding my awareness trying to defend rather than challenge my beliefs. What a reaction to something so simple and harmless! I find it truly fascinating that this is so difficult for me. It is an amazing opportunity for insight into my own biases.

I think there is a lot to learn from our own resistance. It always brings to mind the saying, “would you rather be right, or be happy?” Once my sister said to me that she’d actually rather be right! I was shocked. That is the power of resistance. You can become so resistant to different ideas or circumstances and at the same time, so attached to that resistance, that you’d rather give up your happiness than alter your perspective. That is why it is so important to work on cultivating our curiosity as often as we can.

As you move through your day today, pretend you are a scientist or a researcher observing this human being called the “self.” When you catch yourself getting caught up in anger or your resistance to things, just think, “how interesting,” make a note of it, let it go, and move on. Life is so much more enjoyable when we remind ourselves that it doesn’t have to be so serious all the time. None of us really know why we’re here, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we can do is try to enjoy where we are right now. And the only way we can do that is by staying curious, staying open to all the new information and experiences this life has to offer. Let’s make a game out of it. Let’s see who can waste the least amount of time on petty irritation and useless resistance. Let’s see who can be the most curious, the most open. The game starts now!

Attachment

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the feeling of absolute devastation when we lose someone that we love. Whether it be through death, divorce, distance, or any other circumstance it always seems unbearable. I am reluctant to even remember the many times I’ve lost someone in my life. These events led to some of my darkest moments. At times I even contemplated giving up all together. The lingering memories of that pain cause me to have great caution when forming new relationships. I am always trying to brace myself for the worst. Trying to keep just enough distance to keep my heart safe.

I remember recently being afraid for my sister in this regard. She has been living with her new boyfriend for around a year now. She was telling me how everything is okay now because she has him. While I was happy for her, I was also terrified to hear those words. I was afraid for her. What would happen if he decided to leave? I gently brought this to her attention, urged her to try to keep her heart and mind safe somehow. The thing is, we both knew that wasn’t really possible. You cannot ration your love for someone. You can’t plan to protect yourself from future pain, no matter how much you want to.

Even though I’ve only had a boyfriend again for a week, my mind is already flooded with future scenarios. Now that I’ve invested my feelings in another again, I am terrified of the wrenching pain that would ensue if he leaves me. To lose all of my newfound happiness and hope in one fell swoop. I don’t know if I could bear going through that type of pain again. But that is the price we pay for love. In order to experience it, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable means risking being hurt, perhaps even ensuring that we will be hurt. We only have one decision to make: is it worth it?

I’m not going to allow the fear of the future to keep me from loving will all of my heart. Love is what this life is about after all. It’s always worth the risk. It’s always worth the pain. Even if I tried to lock my heart away, there will always be painful moments. After all, we all have to let go of everything in the end. What’s important is learning how to appreciate and be fully present with what we have while we have it. It’s okay to need other people. It’s also okay that they sometimes let us down. Both of these things are important parts of what it means to be human.

When my boyfriend comes over today, I am going to let all of these worries go. I am going to simply enjoy the time we have together right now. I am going to be present with him in every moment. I am going to be grateful for what we have today, even if it doesn’t last forever. I will no longer allow fear to close my heart. I will love with everything that I’ve got. And I’ll keep loving until the day I die, no matter the cost.

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Lessons from Childhood

I find it very interesting to see the way the children I work with interact with the world around them. Although their problems and emotions are often less complex than those that come with adulthood, they can be surprisingly similar in other ways. I find myself specifically fascinated with those common toddler tantrums. It may sound ridiculous coming from an adult, but I identify with their unmanageable emotional states more than you’d think.

It used to make me panic when a little one would start freaking out, but now I see it as an important opportunity. I’m so used to seeing parents only responding with more threats and yelling. Which obviously only makes the child freak out even more. I have no idea what they hope to accomplish with that. Perhaps it’s just an example of the parents having little to no control over their own emotional state while dealing with the child’s.

For me these moments relate back to my dilemma about helping people when they seem stuck in thinking and seeing things a certain way. One of the many wonderful things about children is how malleable their minds are. When a toddler is pouting, I see it as a great opportunity to test out different methods of helping them escape that unpleasant mindset. What works? You really have nothing to lose because even if nothing works, they tend to come out of it on their own quite quickly.

I still haven’t been able to make any super significant progress. But yesterday I did think of something that I’ll definitely try again. A little four-year-old girl was pouting because we took away a box of things she was ripping up. As she stood their, arms crossed, teary-eyed, I tried to come up with a way to show her that it was a waste of time to be angry and upset. Their time at our center was almost over and I wanted her to see that her time would be better spent further enjoying all the toys we have instead of pouting. One question, did seem to make her pause.

I eventually thought to ask her if she liked feeling upset. After a stunned moment of silent thought, she stubbornly answered yes. While it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned, she did seem to see a glimmer of humor in this blatant lie. What I was actually getting at though, and what I hope to be able to show more kids, is that it’s our choice whether to be upset or happy. It seems like I didn’t learn that until a few years ago myself.

When these strong emotions come up inside of us, especially when we are young, it feels like they must be right. That we must be supposed to feel this way, because of whatever has happened. It seems impossible to feel any other way. Then we become indignant, latching on to these negative feelings, insisting on the truth of them. Little ones luckily don’t have the willpower or attention span to hold onto them for very long. But as we grow older, rather than learning how to let go of these feelings quicker, we seem to learn how to hold onto them for far longer instead.

It’s funny how we all agree the things children throw fits about are ridiculous, but as adults we feel our inner tantrums are fully justified. Yet in the grand scheme of things, they are all just as silly. And even if they aren’t, it never helps to harbor negative feelings and sour even more moments in response to things not going our way. Maybe part of the reason I am so interested to figure out ways to help kids with these feelings, is so that maybe I can gain some insight into how to better help myself with them as well.

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Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?

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I remember reading once that when put to the test, what we think will make us happy usually doesn’t end up actually making us all that happier when we get it. I’ve noticed this in my own life, especially recently thanks to this pandemic. One of the things I’m always longing for is more free time. I’ve always wished that I didn’t have to work so I could spend my days any way I choose, with no obligations or responsibilities. Yet after just a short time “working from home” (I don’t find myself having much actual work), I was even less happy than I was when I was waking up early and spending eight full hours every weekday at my job.

Now this could be just because I have an exceptionally amazing job with coworkers that I consider dear friends, but even when I lost the job I hated and got to spend a summer on unemployment, I was miserable. Back then I attributed it to having to fret about finding another job, but now I think it was more than just that. What I always imagined would make me happy, even what I thought I needed in order to be calm and happy, turned out to be completely wrong.

Why is that? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around it for very long. After a few weeks back in the office full time, I was already back to daydreaming about having more free-time. Even though I just saw that it would do me no good! I’d just spend it being anxious and depressed rather than doing all the productive things I’d pictured myself doing with it. It could have something to do with another interesting tidbit from Time Warped, the time perception book I’ve mentioned.

Apparently we often put things off or make plans we can’t ultimately follow through with because for some reason we imagine ourselves having more time in the future. Yet if we imagined ourselves moving up the date to tomorrow or next week, we’d find our plans ridiculous and out of the question. I definitely think this mindset contributes to my procrastination. It does often seem like things will be easier in the future. I’ll have more time. I’ll be in a better place mentally. I’ll have fixed all the problems I’m struggling with by then. Etc, etc. Humans always have a tendency to be over-optimistic about the future. I always though I was the exception to that rule, given I fear the end of society is just on the horizon. But when it comes to smaller things in my personal life, I fall into the same flawed thinking.

This may seem like depressing news, to find out you actually won’t have more free time or be happier in some imagined future where everything has gone your way. But there is a silver lining. We no longer have to feel like we’re waiting for something before we can be happy. Chances are we wouldn’t be happy when we reached that idyllic future anyway. It’s a useful lesson. We should just learn to enjoy where we are now. We can be happy where we are with what we already have.

Not only do we not need to wait for a distant future to find happiness, we also don’t need to be so afraid of things that may happen in the future either. We may overestimate how happy something will make us, but we also overestimate how detrimental something will be in our lives. Both lottery winners and holocaust survivors both end up pretty close to everyone else in the end when it comes to happiness and a sense of well-being. We will eventually adjust to anything, no matter how amazing or horrific.

With this knowledge we can learn to relax. We can ease into the life that unravels before us each moment. There is no need to become attached, try to avoid/resist, or get upset when something doesn’t go the way we think it should have gone. After all, what do we know? Once we give up our obsession with trying to control every little aspect of our lives, we may find that we are able to live with much more ease. Have faith that this universe is playing out exactly as it should be. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to handle whatever life presents you with. Let go of expectations. They always seems to let us down or prevent us from seeing life for the incredible, beautiful thing it really is.

I know that all the happiness I will ever find is already here inside of me. I’ve been struggling to arrange my world to my whims, when in the end I don’t even really know what will turn out to be best for me. So instead I will try to let go. I will try to take each day for what it is with curiosity and a grateful heart.

Who Am I Really?

Years ago I stumbled upon the title of a book called The Untethered Soul. I don’t remember when I heard about it or why it interested me, but the other day as I was going through some of my old notes, I found it again. Even though I’m currently reading three different books, I decided to go ahead and look it up anyway. I’m so glad that I did.

This book wastes no time. It gets right down to the important questions. Who am I? I’m sure most of us are familiar with the quote by Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” We all understand that feeling of have multiple sides of ourselves constantly fluctuating and shifting position and perspective. But which one of these various personalities is really us? Is it the first voice that makes a statement or the second voice that contradicts it?

Sometimes it’s nice to imagine that we are the culmination of the best of these voices. We are the voice that says loving, compassionate things. The voice that guides us to make “the right” decision. Yet the voice that says hateful, hurtful, ugly things, well that one isn’t us at all. For me however, I’ve felt the opposite for a lot of my life. I’ve felt that the negative voice is truly me, that the kinder voice is just a lie I tell myself, something I wish I was. It would be interesting to see how many other people identify with their internal voices in this way and how your perception of what voices are “really you” effects your life and relationships.

Regardless, The Untethered Soul, points out that we are missing something as we struggle to identify with one voice over the other. Who is listening to these voices? Who is it that is trying to decide which one is “really me”? That is us! We are the one who listens, the one who watches, the spectator, the witness, the awareness.

Even though I’ve heard this sentiment multiple times, the way it is explained and talked about in The Untethered Soul, has really reached me in a profound way. Even though it’s hard to even hold this idea in your head for very long before getting swept up in your internal monologue again, it is quite a relief to realize. I don’t have to feel so deeply attached to the things my mind is constantly babbling on about. I don’t have to get upset by what it says. I don’t have to feel guilty for a cruel thought, or self-righteous for a lofty one. I can just watch, an impartial, curious observer. These voices are not a reflection of who I am. I am something else entirely.

Keeping in mind that I had gained all of this from merely the first three chapters of the book, I am so excited to see what the rest of the pages contain. Even though I’ve just started reading, I can confidently say I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in these types of philosophical questions, or anyone looking for some respite from that pesky cacophony of voices.

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Grasping

As someone who finds comfort in consistency and knowing what to expect from one moment to the next, it has always been hard for me to accept that the nature of this existence is change. I’ve often heard that depression is the effect of living in the past and anxiety is caused when one tries to live in the future. I think this is quite accurate. Anxiety is mostly a shapeless, murky panic of the unknown. It is the fear of losing control. Although any control we think we have is merely an illusion regardless.

I am hopeful that beginning therapy in January will give me some new tools to cope with this fear. For so long now I have tried to handle my mental health on my own. I stubbornly maintain that I already know what I need to do. I just have a hard time making myself do it. However, I am not longer sure that’s true. I would welcome some new strategies. And I want to try them even if I doubt their ability to help me at first.

I am not sure where this deep distrust of the world around me has come from. I have always been in a fairly good position in the grand scheme of things. This world has always taken very good care of me. And I have always overcome the obstacles that I did encounter. It may sound stupid, but life is really one big trust fall. You have to let go. You have to stop grasping. You have to face your fear of falling. You have to trust in yourself. Trust in the universe to catch you. It might be scary, but it’s better than dragging your nails in the dirt all of your life. And my fingers are practically nubs right now.

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