When I was a teenager, I frequently felt like I didn’t quite know the right things to do when it came to interacting with people. What do I say in this situation? How do I word that request? What can I expect here? What was expected of me there?
I woke up the other morning to the spontaneous discovery that somewhere deep down inside me, I still feel like that kid who doesn’t know the rules of social engagement.
The Joy and Pain of Self-Discovery
While I willingly engage in all kinds of socializing, I’m becoming aware of a sense of vulnerability at the base of it all. There’s a level of relaxed self-acceptance that I find hard to achieve during polite conversation.
Till now, I never thought beyond the fact of my extraversion. That was all I believed I needed to know. Socially speaking, the story was, “I’m an extrovert, so I’m fine.”
The truth is, I’m often less comfortable in social situations than I want to be. It’s pretty subtle, so I’m not sure how much it shows on the outside. One friend called me in response to my post, How We Change, to say, “What are you talking about? You’re one of the most open people I know!”
In some ways, I am open. But there’s something else I can feel on the inside. I’m not as relaxed in my skin as I thought I was. … Damn!!! Who wants this kind of self-awareness? Well, too late. It’s here.
Now that I know how I really feel, I realize I’ve known it all along. But there’s knowing something, and then there’s knowing it.
This realization explains a couple of things.
For a few years after I started my private therapy practice, I facilitated a group for people with social anxiety. It was hard to keep it running, probably because it was a group for people who hate groups. Finding “live ones” to commit to coming every week was not easy. So, regretfully, I don’t offer it anymore.
(Click to read my article, Social Anxiety: 8 Mistakes Sufferers Make)
Now I know why I always felt such empathy for the people in my social anxiety group. I don’t usually experience conscious distress in social situations. But I’m on the spectrum, as it were, because of my apparently deep-seated concern about “getting it right.”
I was like the simple country cousin to my group members; I may have been ignorant of all the ways of Social Anxiety City, but I was still family.
And maybe the family is bigger than anyone realizes.
Misunderstood … But Not Alone?
There’s a second thing that became clear through this realization of my let’s-call-it social insecurity.
I now understand why it’s so painful, and even alarming, when my actions or words are interpreted differently from how I mean them. If my actions or words are misinterpreted, my fear has become a reality: It feels as though I failed to communicate in the “right” way. And that triggers shame. Which makes it hard to relax.
… Unless the interpretation is charitable, of course. Like when my partner, Mike, thanks me warmly for making popcorn even though I only made it because I thought he wasn’t home and I could hog the whole bowl to myself. That’s the good kind of misinterpretation.
What I told my social anxiety group members is absolutely true: Social anxiety is not a yes or no proposition; we’re all on the social insecurity continuum. If we didn’t have concerns about how we’re doing in social interactions, we’d be sociopaths. And nobody likes a sociopath. (Not that sociopaths care.)
If you’re on the social insecurity spectrum too, let’s celebrate! I’m pretty sure it means we’re human and, quite possibly, normal.