When Anxiety Kills Your Self-Esteem (My Story)
Living with social anxiety is a constant battle. My mind won’t stop working in anticipation of an upcoming social event, which could be anything from stepping outside to meet friends, to going to work. My mind will start to come up with countless scenarios where things might go wrong. I tell myself a million times, “it’s going to be okay, no one’s judging you.”
But, the futility of that attempt becomes all too real when my heart continues to pound away, my mind races, my hands shake, and I begin to sweat. Then begins the paranoia:
“Do THEY notice?”
Immediately after that, a group of girls walk by and laugh at a joke someone in the group made. But, I automatically assume they are laughing at me.
Surprisingly, I am unable to look anywhere else.
“What’s going on?”
My thoughts are now in such disarray that it feels like the world is spinning.
“It wasn’t a coincidence,” I convinced myself. “They’re laughing at me because they KNOW how WEAK I am.”
I couldn’t look up because I felt weak. Not the kind of weakness you feel after an arduous workout, or when you’re about pass out.
It’s the kind of weakness that makes you sick to the stomach. The kind that makes you hate being you, and that wants to convince you that you’re not who you thought you were. And that maybe if you looked up, you’d have to stare at a “truth” you’ve been running from.
I rejected that weakness long ago. But with the adrenaline pumping through my veins like a drug addict, these thoughts went unnoticed. Before I realized what was going on, they became a part of my sanity.
So, I began to attach people’s laughter with fear and self-doubt. Unfortunately, recursive irrational thinking is like yeast inside dough for the socially anxious:
It expands by feeding on your rationality.
At the time, I didn’t know about social anxiety disorder. So, I continued to experience those thoughts and feelings regularly and did nothing about them. Then my anxiety became more pronounced and easily triggered. Its progression invited an unexpected new visitor in my life.
The storm of my anxiety no longer stood on its own. A tempest had now picked up with newer, more troublesome circumstances.
The traveler’s name was hopelessness, a lurking fiend that lives in the shadows and feeds on self-pity and self-loath. He mirrored my internal struggle.
It was clear to me then that I could no longer remain idle. I had to face my new circumstances.
Then, the ragged traveler crept towards me and presented me two wooden plaques. Etched at the top of each one is “choice” followed by a number. At the center of plaque 1 is etched, “endure this pain” and on plaque 2, “avoid this pain.”
These choices stunned me for a moment. I knew that no matter which one I picked, nothing would ever be the same. But I had to make a choice.
Looking back, I didn’t realize the storm had gotten so bad. Maybe because I was in denial. I mean, who wouldn’t be? To have your life change so drastically.
At first, it was the occasional fear that something bad would happen. But everyone recovers from that, right? Well, yours truly missed the memo. I became terrified of feeling anxious. I never wanted to feel petrified and ashamed ever again.
A peek into the past
When I was younger, people used to tease me for being sensitive. They would make fun of me for crying or make me feel bad for wanting something. The average kid would bounce back and persist.
But, I was different.
Being judged deeply hurt me, so I feared it. I wanted people to stop teasing or laughing at me for being me. So, I adopted a way to avoid getting hurt. I noticed that when I didn’t cry or showed vulnerability, no one made fun of me. I liked not getting hurt.
So, I made a promise to myself to never show weakness to anyone ever again.
Weakness was being vulnerable to people. Any action on my part that enabled others to trivialize my feelings. I prided myself in my ability to remain calm and show no emotion. So, when I felt hurt, I swallowed the pain and remained still.
“You cannot move that which you cannot break.”
I hated that people could make me feel hurt. Some might think, “grow some balls,” right?
Well, I considered that only to be faced with the fact that I already possessed two. Any more additions would have me face Amy Schumer’s Three Buttholes dilemma — it drives your friends and even lovers away. I don’t need any more of that in my life.
Okay, all jokes aside. Somewhere along the line, I conditioned my mind to associate my anxiety with the pain that I felt when people judged me unfavorably.
Experiencing my frailty anew as an adult, unearthed all the hurt that was buried. The hurt laced with fear reinforced my faulty adaptation to anxiety. It has made me believe that I should be ashamed for letting people make me feel like a victim. That I don’t deserve to heal. After all, “I am weak” and the weak do not deserve to sit with the strong.
But, How Could It Get So Bad?
I imagine the effects of the anxiety disorder as an ax and my self-esteem as a tree.
My anxiety steadily began to chip away at my self-esteem. So, I started to worry excessively about how others perceived me:
Is my shirt on right? Do I look fat? Am I breaking out? Do I offend? Am I too skinny? Am I ugly? Do I sound okay? Am I saying the right things? Am I shaking? Do they notice that I’m embarrassed? Do they know that I’m anxious?
No matter how I broke it down, the most fundamental question left unanswered boiled down to:
Am I good enough to be myself?
Well, am I?
We both know we are good enough to be ourselves. That’s how we were all raised. Sadly, that’s the foundation my anxiety attacked. It has shaken the very core of who I am.
More than just anxiety, it’s social phobia
When my anxiety began to trigger fear and self-doubt, everything I did was like taking one step forward and immediately after three steps back.
the ax had triumphed over the tree and only the stump remained.
You eventually start losing the strength to fight back and it becomes easier to just settle — settle for the traveler’s plaque 2 and accept that you are not good enough.
Your self-esteem is split and you’re left incomplete. As if the ax had finally cut the tree, leaving a stump (a scar), you are half a person — one whose body is whole but whose mind is broken.
Social anxiety disorder will make you feel as though you will never get better.
To fight back is to believe that you deserve better. But, what if you’ve stopped believing that you deserve better? That you deserve to be whole? Social anxiety disorder will make you feel as though you will never get better.
All the times you wanted to go out but had to say no because you weren’t feeling well. All the opportunities to better your life, missed because you’re so afraid and so drained from fighting all day, every day. The worst part is few people, if any, know about it. And still, they can’t relate.
How did I cope with my social anxiety?
Not well, to be honest. Not well at all.
You may or may not have had a healthy social life before your anxiety. Me? I was the life of the party. I went out almost every weekend, more times sober than I can count.
The average person believes that we hate socializing. But that’s not true at all.
I was absolutely having fun. Who doesn’t enjoy dancing all night long?
Was I running from my anxiety? You damn right, I was.
I was anxious about being a party pooper, about failing to reach my unusually high academic standards, and about being alone. So, why not “fake it till you make it?”
My anxiety rapidly took control of my life. Kind of like Venom taking over Eddie Brock in Spider-Man 3.
It started with me dressing down more often than usual and wearing a hat every day. But, the anxiety didn’t stop. So, I started wearing “comfort” clothes even if they were the same clothes to stay under people’s radar. That also had the opposite effect.
It made me even more noticeable because I wore the same clothes — behavior that’s ripe food for social anxiety disorder.
I tried to remedy my fear with temporary fixes only to be more anxious, hurt and disappointed the next day. Then winter break came around and I made it back home. Relief, right?
My anxiety turned into this overwhelming, persistent fear of leaving my house. Just thinking about stepping outside to throw the trash out made my heart pound against my chest like a tambourine. And I felt like there were invisible eyes darted at me throughout the day.
So, I’d sit home all day long on my computer thinking about how difficult navigating through school will be.
If I even go back there.
Can you believe I seriously considered that option? Like my future doesn’t feel bleak most days already. To add insult to injury, I lost weight during that time. Most of it was from my waist and legs. Mind you, I was already super self-conscious about my legs.
But, I didn’t find out about my chicken leg syndrome (it’s a thing) until I noticed people staring and some laughing. I had to stop wearing my skinny jeans — the bane of my existence. And not much changed when I wore different clothes either.
So now, I’m embarrassed to wear almost anything (a bit of body dysmorphia). I feel trapped in a vortex of conflicted thoughts and emotions.
Academic no more
Winter break was over and everyone was eager to return to school to brag about the fancy vacation they just had on some fancy beach in some fancy state. Me? I was just glad I was alive and had the guts to come back to campus.
At the start of the semester, I attended classes despite my anxiety. But, it became harder and harder to do that every day. So, I stopped and dropped all my challenging courses as a result. My grades plummeted and I barely went out.
Up until recently, I stayed in my room all day and only went out to pick up food. I’ve been ditching my friends so much that they’ve even stopped inviting me out. Can you blame them? That doesn’t stop them from being incredulous every time I decline, though.
“What happened to you, dude? Like, I never see you anymore.”
Oh, the feels! I just want to tell them, “you have no idea how much I want to go out with you guys. But, I’ll just end up in a vortex of unpleasant feelings. I don’t want to poop it for you.”
Even getting food was really challenging since I had been avoiding people like a plague. So, I’d only go outside super early or super late when my anxiety was much lower.
The only times I went out midday was to take exams. But there have been times when my anxiety got so bad, that I had to skip them altogether. It’s difficult to not feel like a failure after that.
Over time, you start rationalizing your irrational thoughts and identifying with them. Then you avoid situations that trigger your anxiety, which is tantamount to fearing fear itself.
That is the worst way possible way of coping. You don’t live. You simply exist.
On the road to recovery
Anxiety has changed my life drastically. But, I haven’t been sitting with my arms crossed. I’ve learned some of the most effective ways to overcome the low self-esteem that may come with social anxiety.
They have helped me face my anxiety even when I wanted to just give up.
One mistake to absolutely avoid is to not assume the conclusion based on your feelings. I learned the hard way that cutting corners will leave you in a ditch.
Trust me. I got carried away one night because I saw some improvements in my mood. So, I went to a party.
I was convinced that because I felt good, somehow people’s stares and laughter would stop bothering me. That everything would be back to normal.
It only took a minute to realize my naivete.
The second I got there, so many thoughts flooded my mind that the fun left me faster than you can say fast. Thankfully, I brought my anxiety starter kit along with me:
- Incredible scouting skills: I had identified all the escape routes and had a timed escape, shinobi style.
- Distraction tools: a fake smile, a busy look, and a smartphone.
Seriously, you know you have a problem when you need to distract yourself from your thoughts at a party where everyone else is having fun.
The next few days that followed, I wouldn’t go outside. I couldn’t because I feared that I’d be overwhelmed all over again. I ordered food with money I could have saved and stayed in when I could have been building confidence being in the presence of others.
I felt much better with practice but ended up underestimating my anxiety and overestimating my confidence.
Presumptuously taking on too much too quickly will worsen your fear and anxiety.
But, I learned to be fair to myself by being patiently active and to not take on too much too quickly.
Your biggest enemy is losing hope that tomorrow will be brighter. It may not be as bright as you’d like, but it’s another day to love and to appreciate life in all of its glory.
If you liked this story and these bits of advice, be sure to follow for more and share it with your friends.
And please, do share your experience in the comments section. I’m eager to hear about you. Thank you for reading!
Originally published at overthinkingwithme.com on May 19, 2017.