I’ve lived with social anxiety for as long as I can remember. My parents tell stories of a young, bold version of me who approached other children with reckless abandon, but I have no memories of walking through the world in this way.
I often think my social anxiety and sense of self came into being as a package deal. Once I knew what it was to be a person in the world, I worried about people’s opinions of me.
One of my earliest memories supports this theory. In it, I sit on the carpet in my kindergarten classroom, waiting for story time. The sacred rule of story time is that we must all be quiet in order for it to begin, and of course, I am silent. I am a good girl who follows rules.
My friend, however, chatters cheerfully beside me. I stare straight ahead and do not respond, because we aren’t allowed to talk during story time.
Our teacher issues both of us yellow cards anyway.
The injustice of this fills young me with rage — my card has never left the good, green standing before, and I don’t deserve it now. My neurons fire together and form a personal law that will dictate the next decade or so of my life — speaking up is against the rules, and it is dangerous.
I won’t claim this single incident sparked the social anxiety I carried forward, but it is the earliest I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my behavior. The first time I realized other people watched and, presumably, judged me.
The vibrant, talkative girl I’d been in preschool faded into silence as I forgot how to approach other kids on the playground. I hated recess, a time where I would stand on the fringe, watching, waiting, and hoping to be invited into the games and play I witnessed around me. I simply could not get my legs to carry me towards them, or my mouth to open and speak words.
As I grew older, I continued to struggle with a sometimes crippling fear of doing or saying the wrong thing in social situations. This led me to a near-constant silence, such that every report card read “needs to come out of her shell” in spite of the fact that I loved school and adored all of my teachers. Sure, I was terrified of them and my peers, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to be there.
Like the “no talking during story time” rule, I collected social norms like laws I could follow. I came to believe firmly that every situation in life comes with a set of mandated, expected behaviors. If I knew these rules for a specific situation, I felt safe, and I could put myself somewhat at ease.
I enjoy a good chat with baristas and grocery store employees for this reason — it’s an easy, prescribed exchange with a definitive beginning and end, letting me fill up my social cup in a scenario where my role and the other person’s are clearly defined.
On the other hand, walking into a new situation is about as terrifying to me as trying to outrun a lion. I have to rehearse and plan and prepare myself for simple things like visiting a new hair salon, or restaurant, or yoga studio.
Any new location brings its own set of social rules I don’t yet know, and my brain treats the potential for mistakes like a deadly threat. The first time I went to Chipotle, I pretty much came undone at the streamlined ordering system that everyone except me seemed to understand.
As you can imagine, I’m a lot of fun at parties. Group gatherings present the challenge of fast-paced conversation that often moves more swiftly than I can gather the courage to contribute. By the time I’ve mentally rehearsed a sentence enough times to speak it aloud, the conversation has moved to a new topic and the cycle of trying to insert myself begins again.
I tend to find myself stuck between conversations on either side of me, not really participating or even fully listening as they go on without me. For a long while, I just let this happen, and understood I would be miserable at parties and other group scenarios, but also haunted by FOMO if I didn’t make the attempt.
And then, I found my social anxiety superpower.
My first tarot deck found me in a magic shop in Glastonbury. A friend and I browsed the shops, both determined to bring away some witchy souvenir from our time in this city, which felt deeply steeped in magic. She gravitated towards a pendulum, while I felt pulled to a tattered old deck of tarot cards labeled The Tarot of the Cat People.
The little blue deck of cards stayed with me for the next couple of years, ever-present but unused. I didn’t quite know what to do with it, at first. But the memory of that first night glancing over the cards on the floor of our hostel stuck with me.
There, as I laid out the cards to look at them, people approached me without the slightest effort on my part. Their curiosity about the cards and the notion that I might be able to offer a reading seemed to draw them in, and before I knew it, I found myself in conversation with perfect strangers.
In my post-college life, I felt a strong desire to learn something new. I’d been in school my entire life, and not having a course of study felt strange. So, I decided to finally learn how to read my tarot cards.
If you’re not familiar with tarot, the basic framework is this: a traditional deck has 78 cards, 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Major cards, numbered 0–21, are said to have the biggest energies or biggest impact.
The Minor cards resemble a deck of playing cards, with four suits (pentacles, wands, swords, and cups) and cards numbered 1–10, plus face cards. Each suit has a particular area it governs, and the numbered cards interact with those meanings to give a general sense of how to interpret the cards.
Typically, you’ll find deck-specific interpretations of the cards in the guidebook that comes with them, and the general archetypes remain consistent across most decks. Some readers rely heavily on these prescribed, universal meanings, while others prefer to read using intuition. You can imagine, I’m sure, which category my own readings fall into.
I took some time with the little white book that came with my Tarot of the Cat People, doing readings for myself with a variety of questions until I felt basically comfortable with reading a basic spread (the pattern in which you lay out the cards). Then, I started bringing them to parties.
My experience in the hostel all those years ago had given me a hypothesis I wanted to test. If I brought the cards out at parties where I felt the creeping failure of not connecting with anyone, would people begin approaching me to ask for readings as they had back then?
The answer turned out to be yes.
Packing the cards into my purse became a habit whenever I headed into situations where I knew socializing would be a challenge. I didn’t always end up needing them, but it was a comfort to know they were there, that I could pull them out if I felt lonely in the crowd.
This secret superpower hasn’t failed me yet. Spread the cards out on a table as if doing a reading, and someone will inevitably ask about it.
Tarot helps me navigate social anxiety because it lets me communicate with people on an individual level. The cards become an easy framework for the conversation to flow — I tell the person what each card means in its given position, and they, in turn, share how that applies to their life. The structure breaks me out of my fear and allows me to get to know whoever I’m speaking with.
I’ve met some of my closest friends this way, and have gotten brief snapshots of so many people’s lives by offering up free readings whenever I’m asked. I have gotten to hear about people’s hopes, dreams, careers, and love lives with the assistance of these cards and their archetypes.
I’m not suggesting everyone with social anxiety should run out and learn the tarot, but I do think there’s a valuable lesson in how I unlocked my social anxiety superpower. I thought about past situations where I’d gotten my desired outcome — people approaching me one-on-one and came up with a way to recreate that experience. I played to my strengths of preferring a structured conversation and let that be my guidepost.
It’s been a while, now, since I’ve had to rely on this safety net. In my day to day, especially right now, I don’t interact with large groups of new people very often. But as always, it is a comfort to know that the cards are there waiting to give me a structured conversation when I need one.