Oftentimes when we experience social anxiety, we feel as though we are performers on a stage and that each social encounter is just that, a performance. We feel as though we must meet the expectations of others and “be something” in particular as opposed to however we actually are in that moment.
Of course this “expectation” is completely self-induced, as we never verify with the other person what exactly they are expecting from us. Despite that, we are sub-consciously convinced that we must be entertaining, funny, interesting, smart or conversational.
Personally, I remember experiencing this with a friend of a friend we will call Jeff. Jeff moved a few streets down from us in our old neighborhood. He had seen me in some of my more affable moments over the years, some of which were probably fueled by a beer or two. Whenever I was walking my dog and I ran into him, it dawned on me that I was experiencing social anxiety, so much so that I started to convince myself that my dog and I preferred a different walking route!
I then realized what was happening. I had convinced myself that Jeff expected me to be “on” every time I saw him. When I gave myself permission to be “off” or quiet if that’s how I felt in the moment, I stopped viewing conversations with him as threatening. Oddly, I used to tell myself “if you decide to become an absolute mute in the exact moment that you run into Jeff, that is more than ok.” This paradoxical approach lifted all pressure from the encounter and I stopped caring “how I did” in conversations with him.
The cosmic joke is that others are most likely expecting nothing in particular from us and are experiencing a similar level of self-consciousness as we are. After all, struggling to generate interesting small talk and come up with creative answers to “what have you been up to lately?” are common human experiences that are the downside of our species’ capacity for language (at least for us introverts of the world).
But say that someone is actually expecting for us to fulfill their expectations in a conversation, is it our obligation to do so? As Joe Pesci famously asks in Goodfellas, “what am I like a clown, am I here to amuse you?” In the book The Courage to be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi points out that our level of freedom in life is dictated by our willingness to NOT meet others’ expectations. In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of authenticity.
This being genuine is rewarding whether it is on a large or small scale. Whether we pursue our passion by going to art school as opposed to follow our father’s footsteps into the engineering business or we simply allow ourselves to be quiet and reserved if that’s how we are feeling in the moment as opposed to trying to match the bubbliness of the extrovert that we run into in the grocery story, it requires us to be “true to thine own self.” And the reward of this genuinenss is in fact, freedom.
As the blogger Mark Manson said, “Live man, just live. Stop trying to be this or that.” And I would add to that…and just be whatever the hell you actually are.
If you are ready to take back power from anxiety in your life, I can help you.
Reach out to schedule a consultation. You can text or call 804-210-7891 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about my approach to therapy, visit www.richmondanxiety.com.