“I want to dare to exist, and more than that, to live audaciously, in all my imperfect, lumpy, scarred glory, because the alternative is letting shame win.” ~Shauna Niequist
I kept my head down. Staring at my plate of food.
I could hear the laughter of the other people around the table—work colleagues, my bosses, a couple of high-profile clients. They were having a great time, enjoying the company and their expensive meals.
I felt light-headed and clammy as I battled to fake a calm and relaxed appearance. My finger nails left painful, crimson marks where I dug them into my palms to distract myself from the overwhelming anxiety.
The whole situation was a nightmare I wanted to escape. But I couldn’t have refused my boss’s invitation. Not again.
I had dreaded this evening since I learned about it. The prospect of social interactions with my superiors in a formal setting made me sick with worry. I tried to prepare myself, convince myself that the event was no threat, work up confidence beforehand.
But still, once I arrived, I went blank. My words failed me as I was introduced to a new team member. I stammered like an idiot, hating myself for my social incompetence.
From there, the anxiety spiralled. My body ached with tension as I stayed quiet, smiling and nodding politely to acknowledge the conversations. But the discussions and banter seemed far away, the sounds muffled, drowned out by my hysterical mind.
I was terrified of humiliating myself again. What would they think of me if I accidentally made a disgusting smacking sound while I ate, had food stuck to my cheek, needed to pee. or said something stupid? What would happen if…
“Do you have anything to add to this, Berni?”
My boss’s voice cut through my anxious thoughts. I looked at him, shocked, my stomach cramping. I had been so preoccupied with my disastrous emotional state that I had no clue what they were talking about.
“I am sorry,” I mumbled. “What did you say?”
My heart was racing, my chest tightened, I couldn’t breathe. All eyes were on me. They saw my blushed face, red with shame. They noticed my distress, awkwardness, and pathetic weakness.
I sensed the judgment in their gaze. The anticipation of their ridicule and laughter was too much to bear. I jumped from my chair, stumbled away from the table, and fled to the bathroom.
And then I cried.
When Social Anxiety Destroys Your Life
After that fateful evening, I plummeted into a chasm of self-punishment and self-pity.
Embarrassed and self-conscious, I was horrified of returning to work the next Monday. Sure, I had excused myself from the restaurant pretending to be unwell, but they all knew. They had witnessed my mortifying breakdown.
I wanted to retreat into myself, hide in the familiar, safe comfort of my home, never to emerge again. Meeting other people meant panic, humiliation, and suffering, which I could only avoid if I shut out the world and everybody in it.
Yet, I felt so lonely. I yearned for human contact, a casual chat, coffee with friends in the city. Sometimes on the weekends, I didn’t speak to anybody, watching TV in seclusion, wallowing in the misery of my isolation.
Social interactions were agony. But so was the loneliness that condemned me to a passive, stale, and dull existence.
I knew my social anxiety was irrational. But the more I told myself that the threat wasn’t real, the more damaged, inadequate, and pathetic I felt. What was wrong with me?
Why was I incapable of coping with situations that came natural to most others?
My life had become a constant struggle. Trapped in a downward spiral of anxiety, self-loathing, and shame, the stress of my all-consuming self-condemnation was unbearable.
I couldn’t live like this any longer. Something had to change. I had to conquer my social anxiety.
If only I knew how.
My Hopeless Fight Against Social Anxiety
I started by searching online. It felt like my life, happiness, and sanity depended on finding the answer to overcoming my fears. The solution had to be out there.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy seemed to be the best treatment option recommended for social anxiety. Research had proven its efficacy and the praise of the cured echoed through the Internet.
But I couldn’t get myself to try it.
Participation in an active, structured therapy group, sharing my thoughts with strangers while forcing myself to make eye contact was too daunting to even comprehend. The irony burnt like hot needles in my throat. I was too socially anxious to overcome my social anxiety!
I was a disgrace, a failure, a hopeless cause. Depression and despair tried to overwhelm me, but I fought them down. I desperately gripped to the belief that life could be better, that I could be happy and confident.
I read countless self-help books, tried meditation, yoga, and every relaxation technique I found. But while I saw some positive changes in my life, my social anxiety raged on unaffected.
I was ready to admit defeat, resign myself to a life of loneliness, shame, and fear. Accept the misery as part of my destiny. But then, an amazing coincidence saved my life.
The Eye-Opening Realization That Started My Healing Journey
“You should have come earlier.” The doctor looked at me with compassion and slight concern. “That’s quite the infection. Cat bites are the worst, you know?”
I was nervous, uneasy, shuffling back and forth on the chair in her office. My hand was throbbing. Swollen, hot, and purple where my cat had mauled it a few days earlier.
“I will prescribe you pain killers and anti-inflammatories to manage the symptoms,” she continued. “But you will also need antibiotics to eradicate the bacteria that are the real cause of the infection. Without treating the root cause, your problems will only get worse. You can’t just treat the symptoms.”
I stared at her, shocked. The sudden epiphany left me breathless.
As a health scientist I knew how antibiotics worked. But the doctor’s explanation sparked a new thought in my mind.
I always assumed that social anxiety was my main problem. And that the shame, self-consciousness, and self-hatred were by-products of my social incompetence.
But what if it wasn’t the real cause of my struggles? What if it was a mere symptom of a bigger issue?
Yes, I could treat it, fight it, try to overcome it. But without healing its underlying cause, it would return without fail. Just like the symptoms of an infection return if the bacteria are left to roam.
If I wanted to be confident and comfortable in social interactions, I had to uncover the true source of my struggles. And I knew I had to dig deep.
It was a long journey, I can’t remember how many times I wanted to quit. But I persevered, I found the answers. And today I want to share my realisations with you.
The Physiology of Social Anxiety
On my quest to unveil the source of my social anxiety, I read hundreds of books, participated in online courses, and trained to be an energy healing practitioner. Along the way, I realized that anxiety in general is a malfunction of our fear triggers.
You see, any dangerous situation activates fear triggers in our brain, which starts the release of hormones, such as adrenaline. As a result, our breathing and heart rates accelerate, blood pressure increases, muscles tense up, and blood is redirected to the arms, legs, and brain. The body prepares for fight or flight, to either combat the threat or flee from it.
Once the danger has passed, the response is meant to subside until it is triggered again by the next peril. However, when we suffer from anxiety, the fear triggers fire even in the absence of a physical threat. The body’s panic response is real, though, no different to what we would experience in a life-threatening situation.
As such, the fear during a social interaction is not irrational. It is erroneous.
But why did social gatherings activate my fear triggers? Why did my subconscious perceive meeting new people as a threat? What had gone wrong?
On Self-Judgment, Past Trauma, and Subconscious Shame
My social anxiety was characterised by extreme fear of humiliation and rejection. I was horrified of other people laughing at me. I expected them to disapprove of my unnatural, awkward behavior and the way I looked, talked, or ate.
And I soon discovered that this fear stemmed from my high school time. For some reason, I never fit in. No matter what I tried, how I adapted and changed, my classmates still mocked and rejected me. Every time.
It was a painful period of my life full of hurt, resentment, and heartbreak. But it was in the past. No current evidence confirmed that I was unwanted, unacceptable, and bothersome to others now.
In fact, I was surprised when I returned to work after that humiliating incident in the restaurant, hanging my head in shame. I expected ridicule and criticism, but instead my colleagues and bosses expressed genuine concern about my well-being. Which ramped up my anxiety even more.
Because my mind kept insisting: “They are just being nice to your face. But secretly they think you are an embarrassment. They laugh about you behind your back.”
And suddenly I recognized the truth: It wasn’t the others who judged me. At least not any more. It was me!
I believed I was unacceptable. I thought I was inferior to others. I was ashamed of myself.
But why was my opinion of myself so low?
The Root Cause of My Social Anxiety
All my life I had considered myself flawed beyond repair and redemption. I believed I had no worth, no value to anybody. In my eyes, I was the only unworthy creature in a world of superiors.
I was convinced that I could gain some sense of worth through winning the approval, respect, and appreciation of others. And that every humiliation, rejection, and mistake would leave me worthless once again. That’s why social interactions caused so much fear.
Because I thought that every person I met could see my worthlessness as clearly as I did. As if I had a massive “LOSER” tattoo on my forehead. And I expected them to reject me for it like others had done in the past.
I assumed that they would make fun of me, dislike me, turn their backs, and walk away. Taking with them my measly bit of hard-earned worth.
I didn’t even give them a chance to form their own opinion about me. Even if they wanted to know me, involve me, spend time with me, I never allowed it. I distanced myself anticipating humiliation, criticism, and rejection.
Because, deep down, I was ashamed of my unworthy existence. I couldn’t accept my inadequate, imperfect self. I didn’t feel good enough to deserve their love and respect.
I viewed myself through a black veil of unworthiness and transposed my self-judgment and self-prejudice onto others. Social anxiety was only a symptom. My real issue was lack of self-worth.
How I Healed My Social Anxiety
I now knew that my social anxiety, the symptom, would disappear if I healed my low self-worth as its root cause. And so I went to work.
Every day, I practiced forgiveness to release the past. For a few minutes a day I pictured the people who rejected me in the past. I told them why I was mad at them, then forgave them and set them free.
And I worked on forgiving myself. For all my shortcomings, past mistakes, and failures. For all my faults and imperfections I was so ashamed of.
I started to listen to my mind from a distance. I observed the toxic self-talk, negativity, and self-condemnation it reiterated on autopilot. And whenever I noticed that my ruminating thoughts started to judge me, I replaced self-judgment with self-acceptance by affirming “I love and approve of myself.”
But my true transformation began when I realized that my perception of myself as devoid of worth was flawed. Because infinite, unconditional worth was the essence of my being. An intrinsic part of me.
I was worth. Personified.
As such, it was impossible for me to be worthless. My true, inner worth was absolute, unchanged by rejection, humiliation, or judgment. And I was worth as much as everybody else, not superior or inferior to others.
Accepting my true worth was the key to overcoming my social anxiety. So, at least ten times a day, I told myself “I am worth.”
At first, my mind resisted. Conditioned to believe in my worthlessness for too long, the new paradigm startled it. I wept, fell back into old patterns, and almost quit many times.
But I was determined to stick with it for as long as it took to transform my life. Every time, I picked myself up again, persevered. Persistently and consistently I repeated the affirmations, reminded myself of my true, inner worth.
Until I left my social anxiety behind. Not overnight, but step by step. Every day a little more.
Now, the stress, terror, and frustration of a social interaction are a distant memory. A faint echo of a past life. I am free to live my life on my own terms.
I can meet other people with confidence, open up to them, and let them in. Because I am no longer ashamed of myself. I no longer judge myself. I no longer need to hide.
No humiliation, flaw, or imperfection will ever diminish my inherent worth. I am lovable, valuable, and good enough, worth as much as everybody else. No matter what happened in the past.
Every day is a new day. Every day I can choose to let go of shame and self-judgment. And to believe that I am worth personified.
And so can you.