Interpretation errors

A few weeks ago, I was summing up (in my mind) the progress I’ve made within the three years I’ve consciously tried to tackle my social anxiety.

The report looked bleak. I felt bleak.

Consistent improvement:

1. being able to step into a store, look towards the sales person and say hello in 90% of cases.

Starting situation: stepping into the store, trying hard to be unnoticed, looking down and never making eye contact, thus usually avoiding the hellos too.

If that’s the only thing one has achieved after 3 years of efforts, it’s a failure, isn’t it? It’s not worth it and one might as well conclude the entire thing a hopeless and deluded quest.

But then – yes, it’s coming – I had the following conversation with a friend about courage and bravery. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I called my friend brave for something that I didn’t dare to do myself. He rejected it, saying he doesn’t feel brave, that bravery is when you are scared of something but do it anyway. Like Frodo going to Mordor.

I felt “But that’s the story of my life!” I must be one of the bravest people then, because most of my life I do things I’m terrified of. It felt empowering somehow to realise you are not the hopelessly cowardly person you think you are, but have a lot of bravery too. These don’t seem so strongly linked, but I’m certain this was the turning point and led me to re-evaluate my progress in social anxiety reduction.

It is true, there was no consistent improvement, but in no other year than the years since I started on my SAD reduction, have I experienced so many social successes, so many unexpected, out of the blue socially normative and brave behaviours. And when I looked at it like that, the overall level must have improved because what else could explain so many successful outcomes. I write down some:

1. I walked into the post office and said hello in a loud voice. I was stunned by this. I hadn’t planned it. It just happened that I said hello in a loud voice. Normal situation: talking very quietly.

2. I was at a party with lots of people I had never met before and acted comfortable and socially acceptable. Normal situation: sit quietly and not say a word throughout unless specificially asked or just talk to the one person you know and feel safe with.

3. I felt like dancing and hopping around in front of the stage during several concerts. If I had the right people with me, I’d have just gone and done it, but these people kept me back. Normal situation: not feel this, being much too self-concious.

4. I managed what was probably the best presentation of my life at school. I talked well, did not get mixed up, stumble on words or lose track. I even managed spontaneity well. It was the first time I felt a glimpse of a possible other world, a world in which I could perform in front of people. Normal situation: stumble on words, lose track, speak very quietly, get stuck on anything spontaneous, IQ drop of one standard deviation, great distress.

5. I was rude to a sales person on the phone. Rudeness in my case being defined as telling them directly “I’m not interested. Bye” instead of trying to phrase it as softly as I could. Yes, it matters.

6. I posted on the school forum several times. Normal situation: say something, even if online, voluntarily in front of a large group of people? No way. Only when I absolutely have to.

7. I wrote to teachers asking questions. Normal situation: not do this.

8. I do not interpret my social failures as negatively as I used to and don’t dwell on them, feeling embarrassment and wishing the ground could open up and undo it. I often just think “Well, whatever, I’m sure they’ve encountered greater eccentrics than me” or “This person said a lot of stupid things in class today too, it’s not just me”. During the presentation, for example, I did have problems with not knowing where to put my hands, but it feels trivial and you can’t have everything at once.

9. I have come to notice a lot more how other people also have social anxiety. It makes me feel less alone, less abnormal. A few of our lecturers show signs of awkwardness in front of the class as well: one doesn’t know where to put his hands and gesticulates strangely, the other talks very fast and gets mixed up at times. I’ve always felt I was the worst. There was no one as bad as me. Maybe it is true, given the life I’ve had because of it, but other people also have social anxiety. I’m not alone.

10. In connection to point 9, I finally feel able to talk about it without feeling the stigma. I’ve always felt I had to hide it away and try to be as socially normal as I could, pretend it wasn’t there, pretend I had a normal social life. Truly, writing about it here in the extent I’ve done, delineating how deep its roots and the things I find hard to do, it is not something I’d have done two years ago. Writing about it in my native language or admitting it to course mates is not something I’d have done a year ago.

After such a list, it may seem confusing how I interpreted all this as “no improvement”, but it’s all about consistency. Most of my successes have been random and sporadic. They don’t suggest daily improvement in SA levels. They’ve just unexplainably happened. I did experience similar things prior to my SAD management as well. The odd day or event when I wasn’t acting painfully awkward by my standards, so the fact that such things happen, is not novel in itself. It’s the amount and type of them that is new. And this I missed because there was no consistent improvement. I still find calling hairdressers or ordering a taxi as hard as I did three years ago, but something good seems to be going on to account for the number and type of successes I’ve had.

And lastly, the strange thing is, not just concerning this facet of life but others too (like finances), when you got nothing, nothing is given to you by the world, but when you already have a little something, more of it gets given. As pleasant as it is to have fought my way up to this position when I already have a tiny something, the way it works before is disheartening.

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