TL;DR: Dealing with social anxiety feels like that old game Operation. BZZT!


One of the things I made a resolution to work on this year is my social anxiety. That's a hard thing, as it's got a lot of inertia behind it and I need a lot of self-convincing to change it.

Life's pretty, pretty good

Overall, life's pretty good. I'm productive and successful. I work from home. I shop from home. My main hobbies—writing, reading, tinkering, gaming—they're all things I usually do at home. I even socialize from home!

Thanks to the internet, I'm an elusive hermit who can go days without changing out of pajamas or even walking outside. I could be living on a space station, except the network latency is better here on the ground.

The only person I see every day is my lovely wife. By some miracle I've yet to fully understand, she's one of the few people in the world who does not fill me with terror. At least, not unless I've done something that warrants it.

Being with her is almost like being alone, but she helps keep me from going completely feral. She reminds me that other people exist and need to be considered.

She's also a lot of fun to be around and my life would not be possible without her.

Relatively functional adult

That said, I do manage to strike out on some expeditions. Grocery shopping, though a challenge, is a thing I've been known to do. We order take-out and I often pick it up. Haircuts and doctor visits are harder.

So I guess I'm a relatively functional adult. I've read that it's usually only worth addressing a condition if it affects your ability to live and achieve goals. I do a lot of that. I'm doing pretty well—so why change it?

But, I often forget that this hermitage is bounded by anxiety, because I've so successfully built my adult life within that delimited space. There are times when I would like to interact with live people. That's usually from a perspective of great conceptual distance, like when I'm writing in my journal.

I think of myself as the kind of person who should participate in events like Penguicon. I imagine I'm the kind of person who should be an active community member at a maker space like i3Detroit. You should see me often at Detroit-area gaming & tech meetups. I should have many nerdy friends with whom I meet often and have great times.

In reality, I am an elusive hermit of whom sightings are rare. When you do see me, it's likely that I'm pushing down some serious terror. I may act awkward & spazzy. I may look shifty and have my eyes on the exits.

On being gelatinous

Here's a thing that happens a lot: Say there's an event I'd like to attend—one of the fortnightly i3Detroit member meetings, for example. When the day comes, I start getting nervous when I get out of bed. By afternoon, I'm feeling worn down by the day. I start telling myself I should just skip it. And this is also how I end up just kind of disappearing from things: If I skip enough times, it starts to feel like that's not a thing I do anymore—and going back is awkward.

If I'm lucky, I can summon up this kind of Super Mario Star Power state where I can be "on" and pass for human temporarily—before collapsing into a gelatinous blob once I'm alone again. Huge success! I did the thing and it wasn't so bad!

If I'm not so lucky, I manage to do the thing but I'm a wreck about it. Once, I had to spend ten minutes with my head down on the steering wheel in a parking lot trying to pull myself together before an event. I fought down the urge to sob from frustration. I dragged myself in by sheer willpower, but I wanted to retreat at each stage: putting on shoes; getting my bag; turning the key in the car; driving to the venue; leaving the car; walking in the door.

This strange year

Addressing this problem has taken on new importance this year: I feel compelled to do strange & new things—like make daily phone calls to my representatives in government and politely inform them of my preferences. Everywhere, I read things like "in 90 seconds... be done with it" or "spend 5 minutes, make 5 calls" and I laugh & laugh. It turns a bit maniacal, this laughing.

It takes me hours to make calls: That includes build up & procrastination beforehand, as well as the subsequent release of nervous energy afterward. Or, of course, there's the extended self-flagellation if I don't manage to dial the phone. Doesn't matter that I'm not leaving the house—phone calls are just as bad as anything else!

It takes a steady hand!

It feels like that old battery-powered game Operation. It goes like so: You have metal tweezers. You need to extract plastic bones from metal-rimmed recesses in the game board. If your tweezers contact the sides, a harsh buzzer blares and you lose.

Extracting a positive outcome from my head is like that: If I can thread myself through the anxious thoughts and not touch any of them, I win. I can do the thing easily. But, if I touch any of those thoughts with attention, they all pile in on me and I lose. I still might be able to do the thing, but only with an exhausting effort of will. And then, there's little energy left to use during the event itself.

This forms a cycle: The next time I consider doing a thing, I remember the gamble. Can I turn on the Star Man Power? Or will this be an uphill climb with a parking log sobbing session at the peak? It's not always predicable. The same regular event can summon up either outcome. I've given talks before large groups and felt good before & after. I've gone to a friend's house for a small party and felt like sprinting away.

The problem with this problem

And here's the meta-problem: Knowing all of the above doesn't seem to help. So silly at a rational distance, yet it always catches me by surprise in the moment of truth. Still, I often wonder—is this real? Am I being melodramatic? Is this just some kind of habitual affectation in which I've decided to wallow? Can't I just suck it up and power through like everyone else apparently does? Should I even be writing this precious little blog post?

Why am I writing this blog post, anyway? My inner critics accuse me of seeking attention, but that doesn't quite seem like me. If anything, I want these thoughts out of my head for the sake of catharsis. I wouldn't mind connecting with other folks who are going through this too. Additionally, I suppose it could serve as an explanation to folks who might be confused by why I'm such an elusive hermit.

So, uh, what now?

I don't really know what to do from here. I turned 41 last year and I've been dealing with this issue for most of those decades. I'm under no delusion that I'll find some magic self-help cheat code to turn it around.

I guess I'm just going to keep plugging away at it, trying to alter my habits and trying to do the things. Maybe having written this and admitting the problem will help? Maybe this makes my efforts this year more real?

Who knows? But, feel free to chime in with comments!