mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
This past weekend was my birthday and I wept for two hours because lately I feel like my social anxiety is so bad, it's overwhelming my circuits and things are spilling over in the worst possible way. I used to be more fun and care-free but blame the pandemic, social media…now all I do is try to control social situations before I enter them, rerun situations in my head after-the-fact, and vent to my friends ad nauseam about whatever social faux pas I feel like I've most recently done…
I've started to avoid parties or hosting (things I used to enjoy doing), [and] I've noticed I'm a downer and less present when I hang out with my friends. The worst [thing] is, I try to predict the future by anticipating possible outcomes before hosting or group gatherings (ie. feeling like I have to anticipate all my friends likes and dislikes so that no one hates the menu, the game, or activity in any way because I feel like I absorb their feelings if they’re upset). All of this combined leads to another anxiety: I get so anxious before, during, and after hang outs that I call all my friends in the lead up, make them come with me to the bathroom during, and call them after to explain my worries and ask them to validate me. I am worried that I am becoming annoying, but I can't stop. What can I do to alleviate this social anxiety? I know the simple answer is to try not to care, but that feels impossible right now." — itsgettingbad, she/her
Anxiety is intentionally elusive. Mine lurks in corners and masks itself as blurred vision, racing thoughts, and sweaty palms, then rests in its final form—unkind self-talk. It’s a shame that our bodies are capable of detecting things our brains cannot. Somehow, we reach the final conclusion that everybody hates us because we stuttered at a party. We become a threat to ourselves, punching down at someone who is already in need of our tenderness. These physical cues are our internal compass sensing threat, you just may not be able to name them while they gnaw away at your self-esteem until you feel numb.
Trying not to care has been a cause of your anxiety; not your solution. Start looking your anxiety straight in the face and ask what it really wants you to care for. Legitimize the toll a global pandemic, loss of community, looming economic disaster, and far too much time on our phones witnessing everyone pretend to re-acclimate seamlessly into this never-ending hellscape has had on you. Your body is sending you information about where your life raft is now that the tide has shifted, and nobody has a script for what to do next. Instead of shaming your emotional intelligence, consider your post-isolation interactions a social experiment in self-discovery. What does a New You—who is no longer beholden to pre-pandemic compulsive social obligations—feel comfortable and confident engaging in?
some things you can control, others you cannot
I am intent on giving me and my anxiety an enemy-to-lovers story, so I created an emotional check-in system. Prior to mingling, I make a list of perceived threats and decide whether or not those factors are within my control, i.e. location of party, other attendees, what I choose to disclose or not to others (it's worth noting here that the reactions of your friends to your menu or party games is their responsibility, not yours). Then, I decide if what is outside of my control is bearable for me. If not, I decide my comfort is more important, decline the invitation, and do something that makes me feel nurtured instead.
If I choose to go, I ask one single person, my best friend or a trusted person, if they can be my designated safe space to acknowledge my anxiety instead of letting it fester. It is important for me to keep my anxiety contained to these small moments with one person, if not just me. I resolve to trust them and to trust myself.
Support outside of yourself is imperative and you should not feel guilt for needing to rely on others, but your objective in doing so should be to ultimately return back to yourself. “None of us get through this life alone and there's nothing wrong with leaning on the people around you in tougher moments,” says Jor-El Caraballo, therapist and founder of Viva. “If you find that you are dependent on others to help you feel OK more frequently than not, that's a good sign that there is more you can be doing to hold yourself accountable to creating more self-trust.” With each frantic phone call to a friend, you are telling yourself that your opinion of you is not good enough.
give yourself a break
All of us have endured an incredibly traumatizing few years which has changed us at the molecular level. In 2019, 8% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety. This jumped to 37% by August 2021. Studies showed women and young people were impacted most, which is why I can assert that anyone you perceive as being perfectly fine stepping back into big crowds and loud rooms is actually coping with social anxiety in their own way. Even in distress, we are hardwired to do the best that we can with the information we have, and we need to have a realistic and compassionate expectation of what the “best” looks like.
Re-emerging at social situations, I noticed myself having an expectation for how my conversations should go with acquaintances I hadn’t seen in years. I expected both me and the person with whom I was interacting to be the same as we were prior to making life or death decisions every single day for years. I expected to operate with the same levity and grace as someone who hadn’t just been isolated for months on end and gone through significant global and interpersonal trauma. We both deserved permission to be weirdos because that’s exactly what the situation called for. “Forgive me for not knowing exactly what to do or say! I’m still getting used to this whole people thing!,” I’d say. I’ve done this for the last year and everyone has responded “OMG, me too!” Again, the anxiety dissipated when addressed. We moved beyond small talk, and talked about how we really were. Per usual, honesty sets everyone free.
accept your transformation
I’ve recently had to do one of the hardest things we humans will do many times over the course of a life—accept that I have transformed into someone else. This person enjoys connecting in intimate spaces rather than full-blown gatherings, she needs talk therapy once a week, and she cried with relief the day after she was officially diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, C-PTSD, and handed a subsequent prescription for SSRI’s. These diagnoses were not a destination, a last resort, a shame, or an immediate fix for my problems. They became a promise to give myself the best shot at happiness.
“Change is hard for many of us, but practicing self-compassion for yourself and how you've been impacted is crucial in moving forward with who you are now,” says Caraballo. “It may also be helpful to lean on—and look for— connections that affirm the reality of your change, too. No one should be making you feel bad for natural shifts in your thoughts and behaviors.” Making my anxiety “real” meant naming it instead of shaming it, seeking professional help and taking a pill with breakfast. No mental health care plan is one-size-fits-all, but considering help beyond your friends may be a necessary step toward alleviating undue tension in your life.
In absolute isolation, do you like who you are right now? Do you feel safe in your own hands? This should be the most pressing question. You may be projecting your discomfort in your own skin onto low-stakes interactions with people who are not nearly as scrutinizing of your awesomeness as you are. Whether you like you or not, your relationship with yourself is most deserving of preservation. This may require taking yourself out of rooms, group chats, and external relationships that amplify or reflect what your anxiety is already telling you, but you’re worth it.
Great post and solid feedback. Learning to be OK with a new "you" is not easy, but so necessary. We all deserve a fair amount of grace for figuring out how to be with people again. It's a work in progress. And thanks for letting me offer a few simple quotes to be included!