Lessons From Social Anxiety

I think I have the world’s strangest form of anxiety disorder. I can stand in front of hundreds of people and speak without batting an eye. On a daily basis I have intense conversations about major life issues with patients from multiple different backgrounds without a tinge of nervousness. But if I am invited to a small social event or a dinner with people I do not know well I am a nervous wreck. I get sick to my stomach before the meal even begins.

I do not often show my nerves during the actual events and my wife is the only one who can tell that I am uncomfortable. I join in the conversations, tell stories and crack jokes, all the while wondering if I have said anything inappropriate or unknowingly offensive. I typically spend the drive home rehashing the evening, spending more time wondering what other people may have thought about something I said than I do on the actual events.

I found myself reflecting on my social anxiety after a recent church event. Everyone was kind and there was not a harsh word spoken yet my customary sense of inadequacy was waiting for me in the car ride home. As I thought about my feelings I wondered if others may have similar struggles. I wondered if anyone else present had been similarly anxious.   I thought of those who had declined their invitations and not come at all and wondered if some of those who were “unable to make it” were in truth “unable to deal with it.”

I realized that I had never considered the possibility that there might be others present with similar feelings and fears. As is often the case my anxiety limits my ability to consider and respond to the feelings of others. I have always assumed that I am the only one feeling inadequate in a given situation. As I reflected on the evening I gained a new understanding of the tendency for some people to form cliques, to migrate toward those they know well and to seem to wall off those with whom they are not familiar. Actions I have often considered to be selfish and inconsiderate might actually be about emotional safety.

I wonder if there might not be two social assumption traps into which we typically fall. The first trap is the assumption that no one is like us, the second trap the assumption that everyone is like us. I have fallen victim to the error of assuming that everyone in the room is comfortable except for me, that I am the only nervous person present. I wonder if others who are comfortable may wrongly assume that everyone is as comfortable as they are and also be oblivious to those who are struggling.

I wish I could sat that I have come up with a brilliant solution to the dilemma I have identified but I can’t. The only response that seems to be appropriate is grace. I need to be more gracious in my assumptions about what others are thinking. I need to choose to believe that people are not thinking negatively. On those occasions when others do think negatively, I need to be forgiving, realizing that they may be struggling in the same way I am. I need to be gracious to those who are quiet, gracious to those who talk too much, and gracious to those who I do not understand, for we are all alike in one important way- we are all imperfect, and we all have room to grow.

- Bart

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