It’s been a big week. The response I’ve gotten to my two previous posts has been profoundly eye-opening for me. It’s shown me that if you are willing to open up, be vulnerable, and drop your mask, you’ll be stunned by the amazing people in your life who step forward to meet you in that place of honesty and accept you as you are.
All my life, I’ve thought that if I could just get past my “issues,” I would be happy. I would be “there,” in that place where I feel okay in my own body and mind. If only I could get past my shyness, past my body image issues, past my imperfections… that’s what I thought the answer was. So I learned to “fake it til I made it” by adopting the mannerisms of people I considered more socially graceful. I turned my people pleasing powers on full strength and tried to become the Perfect Friend/Guest/Hostess/Whatever.
But… I still couldn’t connect deeply with people. There was still this barrier for me, this emotional distance. I held my true self back. At all costs, I tried to hide how shy and awkward and lost I truly felt. I didn’t want my discomfort to make anyone uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be the high-maintenance friend who needs reassurance and encouragement just to be herself. I didn’t want my anxiety to inconvenience anyone or make them question my affection for them. So I put on my Socially Acceptable Mask and stuffed my fretting down deep inside.
And I became miserable. I felt like I was standing on the outside of most of my relationships, looking in through a window clouded by my own fear of being truly authentic and vulnerable. Yes, I could speak candidly about myself, but only in an abstract way devoid of any true vulnerability. I was desperate not to let anyone see how nervous I was.
I was also desperate to learn to control my uncontrollable “tell”: my blushing. It betrays me every time. I’ve worked so far to stifle the blushing, hold back my nervous tears, and steady my shaky hands. And if there were situations where I knew I wouldn’t have that control (public speaking, for example, wherein I erupt into a map of red splotches all over my face, neck, and chest), I would just avoid them.
Of course, people aren’t stupid. To most people, my “great life-altering revelation” that I have social anxiety is something they have known and accepted for a long time.
And that’s the thing… they already accept me. Even though I’ve been holding back. Even though I retreat to my fortress of solitude (read: basement of hermitude). Even though I hesitate to make plans and waffle over keeping them.
So why am I trying to “stifle my blush”? Who am I stifling myself for? What if it’s not about getting past my fears, but rather accepting them and working with them?
What if I just decided to allow myself to be in situations where I know I’ll blush and people will see that I’m nervous? What’s the worst that could happen? What if instead of stifling it, I embraced blushing as my body’s way of expressing the honesty I’m having trouble voicing? Instead of feeling myself get all blushy and flustered and wanting to push it all away and pretend I’m okay, why not just own it? Why not say, “I’m feeling a little anxious right now” out loud to the person I’m with instead of engaging in that destructive inner monologue where I berate myself for not being “socially normal”?
I know it’s not that easy. Mental health never is. It’s taken decades to train my brain to think the way it does, and it will take time, therapy, and sustained effort to learn healthy thought patterns. Baby steps, right? Just having this introspection and insight is a step in the right direction.
Yesterday I went to a friend’s house for coffee (decaf, because according to my psychiatrist being hopped up on caffeine can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety—WHO KNEW RIGHT). When we made these plans, I told him not to let me flake out, because I would want to flake out as the day drew near, but it wouldn’t be because I didn’t want to spend time together. This was the first time I ever truly opened up in a vulnerable way about how anxious I get before social occasions. He had already demonstrated in the past that he is a supportive friend, so I decided to just be ruthlessly real. He totally met me in my anxious place and, as a true friend would, extended a hand to help me climb out.
I was still anxious, even once I got there, but I didn’t try to hide it. When I noticed that my foot had fallen asleep and I had been holding myself in a tense, awkward position on the couch (that’s an anxiety thing), I just took a quick breath and blurted, “Okay-I-have-to-move-my-foot-because-I’m-going-to-die-but-normally-I’m-too-anxious-to-move-in-these-situations.” And he chuckled, said some supportive friend stuff, and generally made it clear that he was not inconvenienced by my need to move my leg. (To be clear, he was on the other end of the couch and could not in any way have been bothered by my movement. My rational brain knows this. To someone with no anxiety, this entire thought process will probably sound beyond ludicrous. Muscle tension and freezing up are totally real symptoms though.)
And I survived. We had a great visit. I left feeling like I had shown almost all the cards in my anxiety deck, and my friend had accepted me. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.
And today? Today I feel good. Optimistic. I feel like I want to try out this whole “accepting the blush” thing some more.
This week has really driven home a piece of advice I learned a while back:
You can’t move past something that you can’t even talk about.
So I’m making a commitment, to myself and to the important people in my life, to keep being real. Not in an abstract, airy, “Ha! Ha! Oh silly me, I feel anxious sometimes but it’s no biggie” kind of way. In a concrete, vulnerable, “I’m feeling anxious right now and I need help stopping the hamster wheel of self-hatred going on in my brain” kind of way.
I’m going to shoot my brain-hamster! No. Fuck. That’s not inspiring at all.
I’m going to rock my blush!* Better. Saner.
*Most of the time. Probably. On good days. When I’m feeling brave.