Here’s what helps (and what doesn’t) when going out.
First of all, let me explain what it feels like to be me, a guy with social anxiety.
Picture a scene that fills you with gut-clenching dread. A dark alley at night maybe. The edge of a windy cliff with no railing. A deep ocean, too dark to see what’s beneath you.
Think about how those scenes make you feel. That’s the same feeling I get in social situations.
Having social anxiety disorder means I experience intense, oppressive feelings of dread — sometimes even panic — just about every time we meet up with our friends or go out to a restaurant. It occasionally even happens when you come over, too.
None of that is your fault, obviously. There’s nothing rational about these feelings. I can take steps to fight the dread — and I’m fighting hard to do that, all the time, even when I’m exhausted — but in the moment of panic, I have no more direct control over my social anxiety than you have over your allergies.
Telling me "Everybody here loves you!" doesn’t get rid of my dread or panic any more than telling you "My cat loves you!" clears up your feline allergy. I wish it were that easy. Believe me, I do.
Having social anxiety isn't the same as being an introvert. It's also not the same as having low self-esteem or being shy or no fun.
Unlike social anxiety, introversion isn’t a clinical disorder; it’s a personality type. An introvert is a person who's "predominantly concerned with their own mental life." That doesn’t describe me. I care about you, and the rest of our friends, very deeply.
But I’m not an extrovert either. Neither of those terms fits me.
For me, a fun night out with cool people is every bit as energizing as a good movie at home. It’s just much easier for me to put on a movie than it is to fight my social anxiety for hours until I finally relax enough to have fun.
You know me, so you know I’ve got a healthy sense of self-esteem.
I’m not shy at all when we’re alone together, talking for hours on end about our favorite songs and stories and characters. We’ve laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. We’ve made up inside jokes that can’t be explained.
"Well, of course," you may be thinking, "I love all those things about you! Why can’t you bring that side of you along when we go out?"
Imagine if every time you wanted to go meet up with friends, you had to hike to the top of a mountain. No matter how much you loved your friends, you’d have to spend time and energy gearing yourself up for each trip — and you’d arrive exhausted. If you huffed and puffed your way to the top of the mountain only to find that everyone else had decided to meet atop a different mountain at the last minute … well, you’d be pretty annoyed, wouldn’t you?
This is basically what I go through every time I decide to go out socially.
My "night out" actually starts days in advance, when I first hear about the plans you’re making.
Right away, a mental alarm goes off: "DON’T GO," flashing in all caps. Once I’ve managed to deactivate that alarm, then the spiral of anxious thoughts kicks in — not just anxiety about what to wear, but over every possible outcome, every person who might potentially show up, every question or joke or come-on to which I might need to reply. Obviously this makes no logical sense.
I know. I keep repeating that to myself. I shout at myself: "This makes no logical sense! I’m fed up with this!"
By the time we go out, I’m waging all-out war against an army of vague and specific fears.
I'm battling uphill, taking heavy losses with every step toward the front door.
But at last, fighting furiously, I manage to gain the upper hand! I know where we’ll be going, who’s going to be there, which side(s) of myself I’m going to put on display, and which interesting things I can mention when the conversation converges on me. Every time the anxiety mounts a new attack, I’ve got an answer ready. I sit by the door, waiting for your text…
And I wait and wait and wait some more, continuing to fend off fresh waves of dread every 30 seconds or so, until you text an hour later to say we’ve ditched the old plans. Now we’re meeting up with some people we haven’t talked to in years, and instead of a quiet bar, we’re headed to the fairground for an outdoor food fair.
At the very least, I’ve got to lie down and regroup before I can fight my way to the top of a completely different mountain.
The thing is, I love having adventures with you! I love seeing new places. I love catching up with people I haven’t talked to in years.
It’s not like I sit at home and think, "How dare they change plans on me?" Exactly the opposite. I scroll through the photos you’re tweeting, and I think, "How dare I be such a burden? I’ve got no right to ask you to structure your plans around my anxiety." At least, I've been told all my life that I don’t have that right.
I definitely don’t want to be treated with kid gloves now that you know all this about me. I don’t want to make it weird next time we go out. That’s the absolute last thing I need: even more tension in my social relationships.
You know what would help me most of all? Two things: consistency and low pressure.
As long as I can assure my inner army of dread that I know where we’ll be going and what we’ll be doing and that I’m only going out for one drink and then I can leave — whether that turns out to be true or not — then I can usually keep the worst of my anxiety at bay, maybe so well that no one would even guess I have it.
That’s what I dream of more than anything else. Just to be able to leave the mental horror movies behind for a night and go out and have fun.