For most of my life, I was known as the weird, quiet kid in the corner. The girl who was no fun and never wanted to play. My parents were slightly worried, but never truly concerned about how their daughter was an outsider at every playground she went to. To them, it was just a phase and would pass with time. So imagine my surprise when that time turned from years into a decade and the ‘shyness’ I was meant to outgrow still fit me like a glove.
I decided to take matters into my own hands and do what any sensible teenager with internet access would do, Google my symptoms. It was then that I found that my experience wasn’t just shyness. What I was suffering from was much more robust. I had social anxiety.
Most people nowadays are familiar with the concept of anxiety - the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomach that makes us feel on edge even when we have nothing to worry about. Social anxiety is triggered by the thought of having to socialise or interact with people in any way.
Social anxiety exists on a spectrum and can impact people differently. For some people, having social anxiety meant they would feel slightly nervous before venturing into new social experiences. For me, it meant burying the dreams of being the Serena van der Woodsen of my high school and living my best life as a 21-year-old-looking 16-year-old socialite.
For the longest time, I lived consumed by my anxiety. I was already afraid of approaching people and conversing, but finding out that I had social anxiety cemented the belief that I was destined to be a loner. I withdrew from friends and family and built walls around myself to keep people away. It didn’t take long for social anxiety to become my identity. It was no longer just something that I suffered from. It was how I defined who I was.
It got better. I never had a sudden eureka moment when I realised that I didn’t have to let social anxiety ruin my life. Things began to change for me once I started university. But I do remember one day in class. We were talking about Animal Farm and I found myself so enthralled by the discussion that I hadn’t even noticed that I had opened my mouth and started talking.
I could tell you that I became a regular part of class discussions, but that would be a lie (one big enough to have many of my teachers rolling their eyes). But what did become regular was my classmates coming up to me after class and asking for my opinion on the things we learned about.
Conversations about homework led to discussions about life, and to my surprise, I discovered that I was an incredible conversationalist. My struggles with my mental health made me more empathetic towards the people who came to me with their problems. And my years of being fixated on every tiny detail of every social interaction enhanced my ability to pick up on people’s moods and know when someone was upset or uncomfortable.
In The Art of War, Chinese general Sun Tzu famously said, “know your enemy”. Years of thinking people were my enemy had turned me into an unofficial expert in understanding how emotions work and reading between the lines of what people told me. And with that, social anxiety, the thing I thought would be the biggest obstacle in my ability to make friends - became my most effective tool in having meaningful conversations.
If this were a fairy tale, this is where all my problems would have gone away and I would live happily ever after. However, real life is never that easy. Though I have learned better ways of coping with my social anxiety, it still severely impacts my daily life.
Talking to people is still scary. On many days, I wish I could move to Antarctica. but I’ve learned that connection is a two-way street. Like picking up on my friends’ moods, and allowing them to know when I’m not at my best. It comforts me to know that when I withdraw into darkness, my friends will be there and will be able to pull me back towards the light.
This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.