Not Knowing the Script: Social Anxiety

Introductions are Hard

I have no idea how to start this article. To be blatantly honest, I’m writing this at 1:02 AM and have tried rewriting that first sentence for the last twenty minutes, but I see no more fitting beginning to what I’ll be talking about today. If you’ve read anything I’ve written here before, you know I usually don’t say things so outright. But as I typed out these first few lines, I felt liberated. I feel that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not, that me and whoever is reading this are now on the same page and can move on with a greater understanding of my situation. 

The same premise applies itself to when we interact with others. So many times do I feel stuck in a conversation that feels overly tense or awkward, and I have to keep up this face of small talk and introduction. It feels slow and unprogressive rather than just being completely transparent and giving a straight forward run-down of who I am and how I feel. If I could just say, “Hey, I’m Alex, and I don’t know what to say right now so can you just lead the conversation?” that would fix the issue right then and there. However, this level of open-sharing isn’t generally accepted in today’s society. So, what we’re stuck with at the present moment are a lot of over-formalities that seem to be stressful for no reason. In the grand scheme of things, meeting someone and striking up a conversation isn’t what most people would imagine as the most anxiety-provoking scenario. But, to me at least, it becomes this weird almost game where I begin to have this mental checklist to make sure I don’t mess up the initial handshake, or stand in an awkward position, or say my name in a weird way. I start having this pre-interaction anxiety where I rehearse what I’m about to say in my head so I don’t make a fool of myself. What can be so frustrating though is that even when everything goes right and I can introduce myself as a nice, regular person, the other person usually has no idea of the preemptive build-up that was leading into that moment. To them, I was just acting as I should be and nothing more.

Nevertheless, what can feel even worse is the post-examination of our interactions where we critique the way we performed. Minute details that people probably don’t even bat an eye at become focal points of regret. As I said before, all of this stems from just trying to act like what we envision as a normal, functioning human being. But as I’ve talked and listened to more and more people, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who gets nervous in what we see as mundane experiences. For the most part, I believe that we tend to forget that most people share the feeling of anxiety from the most basic of social situations. In a way, it was kind of comforting in knowing that I’m not alone in having these rambling thoughts. I hope this blog post can give you at least some level of reassurance that social anxiety isn’t subject to just you, and that conversations can understandably be extremely difficult for all of us.

Awkward Social Situation Charades

To elaborate further on some of the micro-scenarios that I would classify as “awkward social situations,” I’ll give another example for you to run past your mind:

You arrive at a party, but realize that none of your friends are there yet. As you walk in, there are a bunch of other people that you don’t know who are all talking in their small groups to the side. You know the host, but don’t want to just follow and bother them while they’re busy. As you text your friends for their ETA, it’s going to be about fifteen minutes until any of them show up. So, as you don’t know anyone, you’re forced to either go up and talk to a stranger or just stand there awkwardly on your phone until your friends come.

I tried writing that social situation as dramatically as possible to capture the uncomfortableness, but I have realized that no matter how I write it, it still sounds deeply anti-climactic. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the prose to fully describe a scene as vividly as I’d like, but I am starting to think that it’s more that the situation isn’t as theatrical as I had imagined. However, I’ve been in that exact spot and remember being completely lost on what to do. I obviously went for that second option — the one where I look down at my phone for the next quarter-hour until someone I recognize appears — and it seems so comical that I would pick that one instead of just introducing myself to someone. But, at the moment, I know it’s not that easy to look at where I am objectively and take a leap of faith. I know going on my phone is the safe route, that I can control what is happening to a certain extent and kind of block out the other people around me.

People are unpredictable, and when things are out of our control we will naturally feel anxious. What can make social interactions so difficult is that we have to account for other people’s feelings while not knowing what they’re thinking. In the scene I just gave, I had no idea what these people like or dislike, what preconceived notions they have about me, or even how they’re doing in that present moment. I think it’s that fear of the unknown, of being put on the spot and misrepresenting ourselves, that’s the deeper root of our anxiety. When we eventually do get to know someone more comfortably, we understand that they have more information about us and know who we intrinsically are to some degree. If we do have a lapse of judgment, they’re far less likely to attribute it to who we are as people. But in many cases, we’re going to have to branch out and meet new people where we don’t know how the conversation is going to go. So how do we prepare for social anxiety when we can’t prepare for social interactions?

Line?

I heard the phrase, “Not knowing the script,” from a podcast, and I think it perfectly sums up this feeling of disorientation we experience in social anxiety. Everything around us seems to be moving with rapid succession, yet we feel stuck and confused. But conversations aren’t meant to be written beforehand; they’re meant to be spontaneous and witty and more like improv rather than a carefully choreographed play. The only part we have to play is ourselves, and we should be the best actors/actresses in doing that. If all our conversations were drawn up beforehand, there’d be no excitement in talking to other people. The reason we communicate isn’t for the sake of just doing it, but to learn more about each other and form closer connections. Being genuinely interested in others and feeling open to sharing about ourselves are two big steps in how we can feel more natural in the rush of discussion. 

While I speak on a personal level on social anxiety, I do not claim to have Social Anxiety Disorder or in any way generalize anyone’s struggles. That was not my intention in any circumstance and I apologize if it came off that way. If you are under the strain of high levels of social anxiety, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone close to you or a professional; life only gets better when we actively seek out help to make it better. I’ll link some resources below in case you want some additional information or need to get in touch with immediate support. Thank you all for reading, and wishing you the best in your social expeditions!

National Institute of Mental Health:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml

SAMHSA (finds treatment centers around you):

https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/

Crisis Text Line:

https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/anxiety/#what-is-anxiety-1

Works Cited:

“Anxiety: Understand Symptoms and Get Help.” Crisis Text Line, www.crisistextline.org/topics/anxiety/#what-is-anxiety-1.

“Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.” Home – SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator, findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.

“Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml.

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