I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life. The only time I can remember interacting with other people without hesitation or fear was when I was a very young child. It used to be so easy to go up to another child that I didn’t know at all and become friends with them in a matter of minutes. I miss those simpler times. The longer I’ve lived, the harder it has become for me to make new friends.
The last few years as a social worker have really inspired me to try harder when interacting with others. I see the way that my coworkers are so easily able to make meaningful connections to the clients we meet everyday. I’ve tried my best to mirror their social behaviors and improve my own ability to connect, but it always feels somewhat gross and fake. It’s impossible to make a real connection with another person when you are wearing a mask. Even when they don’t know you, there is a different energy that I think we are all able to pick up on whether we consciously realize it or not.
I used to make excuses to myself about why it wasn’t even worth my time to put in the effort to bond with new people. I had convinced myself that the vast majority of people just aren’t worth getting to know. Everyone is an idiot with nothing interesting to say. At least that’s what I used to believe. However, after meeting so many shockingly amazing people in the last few years, that conviction has all but eroded. Now I am happy to say that I truly believe their are still wonderful people out there for me to meet. The issue now is, how do I learn to put myself out there and keep my heart open to that possibility each time I meet someone new?
One thing I have been trying to work on is focusing on curiosity instead of fear. One of the most anxiety provoking parts of my job each day is sitting with the child while my coworkers discuss the next steps with the parent. I am always extremely nervous any time I am alone with someone I’m not close to, let alone a child that has just disclosed horrific abuse of some kind. Even though my time one of one with the children has always ended up going well, often resulting in a swell of admiration and tenderness toward them, I still can’t manage to placate my fears for each new case.
I’ve noticed that when I am faced with these types of situations, my initial instinct is to shut down. All I want to do is run out the clock or avoid the encounter entirely. I also struggle to avoid prattling on about myself instead of getting to know the person I’m talking to. I guess I find it easier to talk about myself because it’s always easier to talk about what you know. And what do we know better than ourselves and our own experiences? I think this is also a subconscious attempt to control the conversation and avoid being taken off guard. When asking questions, you can never predict where the conversation may lead. One of the hallmarks of social anxiety is attempting to plan out a conversation before it happens. Obviously this never works. It just makes you less able to immerse yourself in the natural flow of conversation.
I’m working on letting go of my need to control the situation and open myself up to discovering what/who is in front of me. I would consider myself a very curious person. I am always wondering about the way others think and see the world, what interests them and why, what their goals are, etc. However, my fear easily overpowers that natural curiosity under the pressure of meeting new people, especially in a work setting. It’s always been hard for me to toe the line between authenticity and professionalism. But I’m hoping if I can keep guiding my attention back to that curiosity inside of me, eventually it will become easier to overcome my fear so that I may learn more about the person I’m talking to.
I want to practice shifting my focus from myself, my fears, worries, what this person may be thinking about me, etc. I’d rather focus on the other person and finding out who they are. I’m sure that with enough experience I can teach myself that there is nothing to fear. Sure, maybe it will be an uncomfortable conversation, but it may also be a lovely, enjoyable interaction. Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d have to say the latter is even more likely. Either way, I am going to keep trying. This world is filled with so many fascinating people with minds as mysterious and unique as my own. I can’t wait to meet them. That is going to be my mantra from now on when we have a new family coming in: I can’t wait to meet them! I wonder who they will be.