How do you live with the fact you'll have social anxiety for life?
June 23, 2022 1:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm slowly realising that this thing is never really gonna go away. I've started taking SSRIs again, even though I don't like the side effects and it helps, but I'm never going to function like other people; whether for genetic or environmental reasons this is, I think, how my brain works and I think my inability to reconcile with that is causing me a lot of pain. You really are not treated well or with respect as a nervous, jumpy, shy person - I've had quite rude feedback at work to "just stop being so shy" and it's painful that society as it is now, is brutally unforgiving to the socially anxious.

In a previous post I wrote about watching the ex in a webinar and it made me feel distraught. She obviously doesn't have social anxiety and, whatever other struggle she may have, this is not one and I think it was devastating to see, through her, how far a person can go if they aren't debilitated by it, like I have been. It also puts into context all the other successes in her life; I used to compare myself directly, like for like and beat myself up and still do to some extent, but ultimately it totally makes sense that she was able to achieve much more, be more social, find success and climb the ladder at work, have relationships and take part in loads of activities, if she is a more confident person. It makes total sense.

It's dictated everything in my life, my lack of hobbies,my friendships or lack thereof, my crappy (thus far) career in accounting where I thought I could hide from people; all my life choices. My sister who is very close in age to me and went through the same things as me, has other major issues but has been able to be successful in her career due to lack of social anxiety which definitely indicates to me that there is a genetic component to this; although the fact almost all my other siblings are also crippled by shyness points equally to the devastation of the effect of abuse.

Whether it's largely genetic or largely caused by childhood trauma, or both, it's wrecked my life and I'm now looking essentially at another 40 years of being like this. Meds can take the edge off but it will never really go away, I know that I'll never be able to reach the heights I would have, if I didn't have this impeding me.

How do you live with that? How have you reconciled yourself to your lifelong shyness/social anxiety?
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (24 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Sorry, but this has turned into exactly the same stuff you have posted before about your boyfriend's ex and your insecurities, and you are engaging in a chat here, which is not the purpose of the site. Please discuss with your therapist, because Ask Metafilter has already offered all it can on this. -- taz

Political analysis. We live in motherfucking hell, literal actual hell. It’s structural. You’re being treated badly because we’re animals cooped up in a sick system that is ableist and misogynist. It’s not your fault. Not at all. Truly understanding this and practicing the skill of being able to access this understanding won’t stop demons from being cruel, but it will remind you that it’s not your fault. Removing the self blame helps a lot.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 1:48 AM on June 23 [21 favorites]

To continue with The Last Sockpuppet's very sound analysis, self-compassion and being kind to yourself is central to living with the disappointment of being human.
posted by Thella at 2:11 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]

I know that I'll never be able to reach the heights I would have, if

My cure for this is to remember that even if I had made all the right choices 30 years ago, I might have been hit by a bus 20 years ago. I am alive now because my life direction so far has kept me from accidents and other causes of death. That makes this life direction a worthy one. Start from where you are today.
posted by Thella at 2:14 AM on June 23 [17 favorites]

Funny that I asked a related question just this morning about the lasting effects of a lifetime circumscribed by autism. I haven't figured out how not to have a ton of regret and sadness about it.

All I can do is try to stop masking the best I can, DO LESS (autism = less energy even for the simplest activities of daily living, just for starters), and recognize that what has been wrong with me is not because of poor character or laziness.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:56 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So I've been going through something similar but also different, not sure if this perspective will help.
It's recently become clear to me that a lot of the things I'm struggling with (social anxiety in particular) fit into a pattern of being neurodivergent.
In fact, a lot of what I was seeing as plain old social anxiety made a lot more sense when I was also noticing the neurodivergent aspects like not being comfortable in a social situation when I don't know the "rules" of interaction, having trouble dealing with sensory issues like noise, being overly focused on reading other people's non verbal signals correctly and anxious about that.
Feeling overwhelmed by other people's emotions.
Once I see that through the lense of neurodivergence, it became easier for me to accept.
This is how I am. It's not that there's something wrong with me (I'm too shy, too sensitive, clueless about social clues)
It's just that my brain is different.
And I'm not going to participate in society's messed up judgy attitude towards difference.
This makes it easier for me to figure out healthy coping mechanisms like figuring out what helps get me through tough social situations.
Deciding up front, with my partner, how long we will stay at a party. Giving myself permission to go sit by myself for a bit, or interact only with the dog.
This doesn't answer your question about how to deal with the impact this has on your life and career.
Maybe there is some mourning to be done for the life you thought you would have, so that you can accept the life you do have.
I can only speak for myself, but some of the things I value most about myself, are a direct result of being "too sensitive".
For me, learning to live with social anxiety has been about learning to know and value myself.
Not the self I wish I was, but the self I am.
posted by Zumbador at 2:58 AM on June 23 [20 favorites]

Yet another neurodivergent perspective:

I've concluded that my problem is that because the only model I've got for other people's minds is my own, and it's... not very representative... getting social interactions effortlessly right was never an option on the table. I think social anxiety is a pretty reasonable coping strategy for being unable to predict with any accuracy or confidence what other people are thinking or what their expectations of me are going to be. Viewing things in this light, I find I feel OK about the fact that my brain has chosen to use that particular strategy, I've stopped wondering what's wrong with me, and - except in the really bad moments - I've stopped being angry with myself for being like this.

However, I think I should acknowledge that I'm kind of handling this on easy mode, because shaping my life to suit the quirks of my brain has included shaping it in ways that make social anxiety less of a burden in the first place:
  • I have so many things that I enjoy doing by myself that I really don't feel I'm missing out by not having the sort of social occasions in my life that others take for granted, and I avoid contexts that cast that as a negative (in particular, TV ads, but also just generally comparing myself with others).
  • I can't perceive the undercurrents of office politics, so the fact that my social anxiety would impede me from playing the games never even comes to light.
  • I'm a software developer, so I don't have to talk to customers; and I'm not status-driven or ambitious, I just want to be good at what I do day-to-day, so I don't want the sort of career path that social anxiety would be a blocker for.
  • And finally, I don't have a partner (or children), and while how I feel about that varies over time, it does mean I have essentially no social obligations that I haven't chosen myself.

posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:33 AM on June 23 [5 favorites]

Partly through privilege and luck, I’ve shaped a life that works pretty well with social anxiety so it’s not a big issue for me or something I dwell on much anymore. It’s just part of who I am, the package of me that includes the anxiety and the neurodivergence as well as the things I’m good at and the things I enjoy. I would be a very different person without the anxiety, but I don’t know if that person would be better or worse - just very much not me.

I take my meds and I practice my therapy tools and I get on with the life I’ve made that works for me, which is a quiet and unambitious life but a mostly happy one. But I’m also in my forties and I would say it’s in the last five years or so that I’ve gotten really comfortable with who I am. Age and time and therapy did a lot of work there.

As a side note that may or may not amuse you, at least ten different people have expressed surprise when I tell them I have severe social anxiety, specifically because they’ve seen me do presentations and webinars and thought I seemed relaxed, personable, and comfortable. In fact I was uncomfortable and unhappy every second of those talks. But Ativan and practice at talking about the same topics and answering the same routine questions goes a long, long way. You just never know what’s going on in someone else’s head.
posted by Stacey at 4:20 AM on June 23 [6 favorites]

I was a very shy and socially anxious teenager/young adult, but have become more comfortable with overruling the fear. I won’t patronise you with “try these things to fix your brain, they kinda worked for me” as that’s not what you’re asking for (full disclaimer: the original version of this post was exactly that)…

I find it enlightening to separate “how I feel” from “what I do”. I haven’t been able to control the feelings of fear, and that’s the bit that I’ve resigned myself to. I will always want to curl into a ball around people, especially strangers. It sucks. I guess the way I cope is recognising that this is private to me, not a public embarrassment?

My actual actions, though, despite the fear, can be improved through practice and learning. Having “normal” interactions is also the only thing that makes my anticipatory fear subside in a given situation anyway; even something really awkward is less awkward (for me) than the anticipation. It can be tough medicine to swallow.

Final thought. These things are often over-manifestations of something otherwise valuable in smaller doses. With social anxiety, perhaps it can in part be driven by empathy: what will they think of me, what if I say something hurtful, I hope they took that comment the right way, what if I’m boring… If so, that is something to be treasured, if it makes someone understanding and forgiving too. Just, in balance.
posted by breakfast burrito at 4:57 AM on June 23 [5 favorites]

Being dissatisfied with your life and yourself is part of the human condition. I bet Adele wishes she was more like Beyoncé. Beyoncé wishes she was more like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson clearly hated himself. Marilyn Monroe was wracked with anxiety. Bill Clinton sullied his legacy because he was so desperate for approval and attention from a 20 year old intern. Look around at famous successful people. Are they happy? Most are decidedly NOT calm happy people. Look more closely at others and you can see that most people feel inadequate and insecure on some level, and it shows. And many other people feel it but just hide it well.

I have worked in film so I have hung out with a lot of famous successful beautiful people and they are all insecure and wish they were different too.

If you met me in real life, I bet you would think I was “present” like that woman you’re fixated on. I’m a polished speaker to the point of often being asked to speak professionally, and people actually compliment my “presence” at times. In fact I’m quite anxious, my mind is often racing or a million miles away, and have had major periods of depression, self doubt, self loathing, and panic attacks.

Nobody is has happy on the inside as you think they look on the outside. It’s just how life is.

I think you focus a lot on how you think your life should look and feel, and it’s the life equivalent of body dysmorphia and diet culture for your life. “I wish this guy loved me more. / I wish I could think faster. / I wish I could speak impressively on a panel.” All of these are just surface things, really. It’s like saying “I wish I was prettier. / I wish I was cooler.”

My life got better when I wrote a mission statement - of concrete, attainable goals - about how I would like my life to benefit others. I have longer term goals but here are some example of good starter goals: “My goal this year is to foster 2 shelter cats. / My goal this month is to collect used clothing from neighbours and distribute 10 winter coats to a homeless shelter. / My goal is to raise $100 for an organization that helps research a disease I care about. / My goal this year is to do 40 volunteer hours at Habitat for Humanity”.

So I do think you should do therapy, but that’s another focus on yourself … so I think you should also do more than therapy because you need to focus more on DOING and not appearing (surface) or feeling (subjective)

I suggest you set an actual GOAL with a number that benefits someone else. Try to achieve it. And then judge your life success on that!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:07 AM on June 23 [20 favorites]

I have also suffered from anxiety, social and otherwise, that has inhibited many of my life goals (even though to outsiders I probably look very successful and collected). I would offer two perspectives that have helped me embrace who I am, anxious warts and all, in spite of the disappointment of not doing or being what I dream of:

One is to stop comparing myself to others. This is hard, and I can't say I'm totally successful at it, but the more I concentrate on valuing myself as-is rather than comparing myself to a standard set by others - that isn't even a standard I necessarily want to achieve - the more comfortable I feel in my own skin.

Unlike Zumbador, I don't find I benefit from thinking of myself as "different" as a neurodivergent person (there are so many of us!). Although I fully recognize that our society rewards neurotypical and extroverted people, it doesn't mean that neurodivergent people are "different" - we're just pieces in a puzzle where all the puzzle pieces are different from one another. All are necessary to complete the puzzle, regardless of their size or shape, and everybody has that unique feature that makes them "different," but we're all different from one another.

The other perspective is to recognize all the ways that anxiety has shaped me in a positive way to help me become who I am. Due to overwhelming social anxiety as a younger person, I became an excellent student and a quick study so as not to draw negative attention to myself in class. I can thrive on doing things alone. Because I've mostly expressed myself in writing, I'm a good writer. Etc.

None of these practices are easy, and I'm better at them some days than others. But along with medication, therapy, and so on, they have helped me accept anxiety as part of who I am non-judgmentally.
posted by Ms. Toad at 6:09 AM on June 23 [7 favorites]

This is all good advice but are you still with the guy who is constantly comparing you to said ex?
posted by kingdead at 6:35 AM on June 23 [13 favorites]

The ex that you're fixated on, you have absolutely no idea whether or not she is a "present" person or someone who doesn't have social anxiety. All you have is the equivalent of looking at someone else's perfectly curated life and filtered through the perspective of her ex. You would be surprised at how many people that externally present as "present" and "successful" are a mess inside. Most of us are, in fact.

If you saw me on a webinar or a presentation, you may think I am confident and present, and that will be just a reflection of the fact that it is something I have done countless times previously and learnt how to do it reasonably well. In fact, I have learnt how to mask extremely well, but I also happen to be a recently diagnosed autistic woman in her mid-40s, with a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder and on and off eating issues.

You seem to be asking the same question again and again on AskMefi, others have mentioned therapy, that may be a good place to have the opportunity to ask that question but maybe arrive at answers that allow you to be kinder to yourself.
posted by coffee_monster at 6:49 AM on June 23 [11 favorites]

Hi. I have been thinking of you since your last ask and I am sad to hear that you are still struggling with your self-worth.

This is not about social anxiety.

It doesn't matter who his ex is. You are only fixating on her being this super enlightened and evolved being so that you can make yourself feel lesser.

I could go on forever about how you are cherry-picking your data about this person and also how you are dehumanizing her by hoisting her onto and affixing her to this pedestal in your mind. She is a whole complex person just like you and me.

But this is not about her.

You acknowledged in your last ask that you are using your fixation on this woman to abuse yourself. I am asking you again to please stop.

You are the only one with stakes in the game. This game has nothing to do with the woman you're using as a cudgel. You lack any objectivity about this person as you know.

This is about you needing to stop hurting yourself.

I am hoping you can remember to focus on that. Shut down this terrible habit of debasing yourself. Try your hardest to be kind to yourself.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:50 AM on June 23 [12 favorites]

I know that I'll never be able to reach the heights I would have, if I didn't have this impeding me.

Well I didn’t have social anxiety impeding me but my ADHD brain got in my own way and continues to get in my own way pretty often. Now that I’m old, I’m a lot more accepting of that. If you are not already in therapy, I am going to beg you to get into therapy or to start going to adult children of alcoholics/dysfunctional families meetings. You can go online, telephone, or in person and they help many people learn to accept themselves as they are.

This super-present person, this person you are constantly comparing yourself to? So what if she is more present than you are. There is plenty of science that says comparing ourselves to other people is the root of deep unhappiness. You need to stop doing that and you need to figure out a way to stop. That’s why you should go to those meetings, or see a therapist, or both.

The last sockpuppet is totally correct about our fucked up society and fucked up societies worldwide. That is an important consideration and well worth taking into account. That said, I personally Never found any sort of contentment until I was able to stop feeling victimized all the time. I was able to do that through Al-Anon meetings and lots and lots of therapy.

Finally, if your partner does not stop comparing you to his ex, then of course it will be impossible for you to stop comparing yourself to the ex. If you don’t want to break up with your partner, tell him to stop bringing her up. Every time your partner brings up the ex, leave the room or go for a walk or put on headphones and listen to music you like.

You are being poisoned. If you don’t stop it, you will be miserable for the next 40 years. You cannot control your partner’s behavior, but you can control your own response to it. Stand up for yourself. You are valuable exactly as you are. There will always be people who are more successful or more skilled. There will always be people who are less successful or less skilled. That’s just how life works. But that doesn’t mean you have to be constantly reminded of your partner’s ex. Don’t accept the unacceptable. If you keep doing that, that is on you and it has nothing to do with your social anxiety. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 6:58 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry all - final comment from me, this is literally*all* about me being unable to face the difficulties past and present in my life (including major social anxiety) and using her as a kind of twisted way to both pacify/distract myself and punish myself at the same time. It isn't even about my boyfriend either. I'll take this to therapy.
posted by Sunflower88 at 7:12 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

she realises she's halfway to being a Buddhist already

For what it's worth, I'd like to proffer an alternative reaction to someone saying that about themselves: rolling my eyes so far back in my head I give myself an injury. Buddhism isn't a personality trait!
posted by BungaDunga at 7:21 AM on June 23 [18 favorites]

I wish I could help you let go of your fixation on this woman. If I'm interpreting your username correctly, I'm just a couple of years older than you and have also been through some pretty miserable times comparing myself to others, and it just ain't worth it. Trust me, their shit still stinks. You're kinda right that you can't get the time you've already lived back, or change the past. That's true. However, if you continue to obsess over this, you're also giving up your future to it, and that's more time you can't get back. The best time to make a change is years ago. The second best time is now.
posted by Alterscape at 7:35 AM on June 23 [6 favorites]

You will have so much more energy and confidence one year after you ditch this horrible guy. One year of getting over him and finding new coping mechanisms and starting to heal from his constant veiled and direct insults. You can start that year tomorrow or drag it out longer.

she realises she's halfway to being a Buddhist already as "they try to keep their mind quiet and not have thoughts whilst focusing on everything around them, I'm like that most of the time already unless I get upset". So even in her own words she's genuinely a present person.

No real Buddhist would boast about how quiet their mind is, they literally hang out in silence on mountains to get to that state and still consider it an imperfect learning journey!

How convenient that she told a guy who’s fixated on her that she’s actually an amazing person on the inside, with just the exact trait he seems to admire most and rag on you for. She’s telling him how she’s better than you! But better deep inside her head where nobody can prove it, so just take her word for it! Honestly she sounds insufferably smug lol and also if she’s so deeply fulfilled, why is she boasting about it to him?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:04 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: This was like 15 years ago, when she was at university to be fair! I actually don't even think this is about my boyfriend though in many ways - I read that email when I was snooping on him, bad I know...he hasn't talked about her willingly for over 2 years.
posted by Sunflower88 at 8:11 AM on June 23

So, wait, you accessed your boyfriend's email without permission and read emails between him and this woman fifteen years ago? That would be a Serious Relationship-Redefining Talk incident for me, if I were in his shoes and found out about it, so you may want to think about that. Then again, you may also want to interrogate why you felt like you should do that -- is this a him thing or a you thing, or both?

It's really hard for me, as an internet stranger, to interpret if "he hasn't brought her up" means "He compares me to her subtly and is gaslighting me" or "he brought her up early in the relationship, and now I'm obsessed with her." The former is a DTMFA thing. The latter is a "get more therapy and change your unhealthy fixation" thing.
posted by Alterscape at 8:21 AM on June 23 [8 favorites]

I have a lot of compassion for you, because I struggle with this as well. I'm another awkward, shy, neurodivergent person. I've spent years beating myself up for not having more charm and personal warmth.

But I also try to practice radical self-acceptance, and every year that goes by, I'm a little more okay with myself. What has helped:

-Surrounding myself with people who _genuinely accept and appreciate me for who I am, not who I can't be_.

-Shifting to a career path that doesn't require me to practice interpersonal skills that don't come naturally to me (but it sounds like you're already there).

I also found a quote from the show Severance very helpful: "This is the life you've been given. And that's another life and you don't get that one. So do something with this."
posted by missrachael at 8:33 AM on June 23 [4 favorites]

We all have to work with what we get. You feel anxious, and there's only so much to do about that (although there is a lot you can do about it! social anxiety is pretty treatable, compared to lots of other things!). You are not helping yourself, though, by choosing, over and over, to seek reassurance from your boyfriend when you know that he is incapable of giving it to you.

As others are saying here, actions are WAY EASIER to change than feelings (and as a side effect if you change your actions it may actually improve your feelings). Actions can still be really hard to change, though - it seems like you're in a rut where you keep performing the same actions over and over. Can you replace those actions with something new, like nouvelle-personne suggested above? Can you break yourself out of the rut by doing something dramatic like moving or breaking up with your boyfriend (this relationship is not good for you, regardless of your or his intentions)?

The feelings will not change right away, and yeah, you may always be anxious. But you can live your best life with social anxiety, just like people live good lives with all kinds of conditions, whether it's acne or alopecia or asthma or a severe spinal cord injury or MS or cancer or something.
posted by mskyle at 8:41 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

>when I do, I don't get the response I want
I would gently offer that you are getting EXACTLY the response you want. You seem to actually WANT to believe you're worthless. If someone ever told me they thought their ex was better than me and I was a failure? I would be out of that relationship that very day. You on the other hand keep poking around to hear it again and again, either from him or yourself. Why do you want that? (Because your parents were mean to you so it makes you feel familiar, I think). Anyway, worth thinking about! It's actually not healthy or even typical to want to marinate in your flaws this much.

"My parents told me I was a slow failure, and now I'm dating someone who tells me I'm a slow failure... why do I feel so slow, and like a failure all the time?" << This is what you've been asking, again and again in different words. One answer is, "Get away from people who tell you you're a slow failure." Like literally, leave the relationship.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:03 AM on June 23 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Well you might be right. He said we were both failures and that this was to commiserate with me because he also feels bad in comparison to her. So really it's more a comment about him.

I actually think a lot of this is about me and I think I'm causing this reaction in him, like you say its something i seem to want to hear. I think its highly likely this dynamic is addictive to me and I think i have a significant hand in creating it. Either way, food for thought.
posted by Sunflower88 at 9:20 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

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