I have my own social anxiety group on Meetup.com. I started it because there was nothing else in my locale that seemed to cater for anxious neurotic types like myself.
It’s been going for a couple of years now and one thing I have noticed is how different people are who label themselves Socially Anxious.
There are those who turn up and seem to be talkative, open and friendly. So much so that it makes me wonder how socially anxious they can be.
They seem so different from people who like myself are reluctant to talk at all. Those like me who hold themselves back, second guess everything they do and wonder what they look like to others.
It brings home the reality that social anxiety and shyness manifest very differently in people.
Compartmentalised or systemic?
There are those who have it compartmentalised. They have anxiety in certain situations, or it manifests at certain times in their life. Whilst dating, living in a new place or conversation with coworkers. Apart from this issue their lives are normal. They have friends, maybe even a partner.
Their anxiety is contained, temporary localised.
The other types are those like myself. The fear and anxiety has affected their whole life, back even into childhood. This is the systemic pervasive anxiety which is very hard to shake.
I can look back and see how my school life and young adulthood has affected me.
Even today I find it difficult to ‘put myself out there’. I anticipate how difficult it might be and this imagining makes me feel so anxious. It has affected many aspects of my life. From work, to personal relationships including conversation, travelling, meeting new people. Sometimes I can’t face all the newness of it
For me it’s the instinctual feeling that no-one wants to get to know me. As a consequence I don’t have a habit of reaching out to others. Instead I keep to myself, and use distractions to avoid those feelings of loneliness.
This is the true prison we live in. Our own mental framework, our habitual ways of thinking and acting. We see the world in certain ways and think that what we see is accurate.
We are all slaves to our past, and it may not be possible to give up old ideas, old habits completely. But as I have learned in the last few years it is possible to change. To see the world in a different way and to change bad habits for better ones.
What troubles me is how few people seem to understand how much anxiety can affect an individual’s whole existence. I had this from those ‘compartmentalised type anxiety’ sufferers. They fail to grasp how much of a burden anxiety is for some.
Why so sensitive?
The explanation for why some of us are cursed with such systemic anxiety is complex. Involving both nurture and nature.
Our childhood experiences shapes who we are as adults. Abuse, bullying, distant parents, or lack of role models play their part.
Then there’s the nature component.
Some of us, about 15 to 20% are highly sensitive. It’s a genetically based predisposition to notice the world more finely, more detailed, and to feel emotions more deeply.
Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person goes into more depth about this personality trait.
She characterises it further through the D.O.E.S initialism.
- D for depth of processing. HSPs use more brain areas when processing sensory information, and compare new experiences to past ones. HSPs are more aware of what’s going inside and outside their bodies.
- O for overstimulation. With all this processing going on there comes a time when it begins to wear HSPs out. HSPs can suffer greater with stress. It’s the problem most people see in sensitive people.
- E for emotional reactivity, also empathy. HSPs react more strongly with positive and negative experiences than non-HSPs. HSP’s also experience greater brain activity when seeing other people’s facial expressions. HSPs can understand other people’s intentions and feelings to a greater degree.
- S for Sensing the Subtle. With such deep processing HSP’s can notice things that a non-HSP would miss. It’s not so much they have better senses as much as they process the information more finely, carefully.
It shows that a lot of our personality, our character is based upon our genetic predisposition. Something we don’t have any control over.
But it would false to say that this trait determines an individual’s personality. You might expect introverts to have this trait, but surprisingly extroverts can also have it.
Born touchy, feely
All this shows that those who are highly sensitive don’t have a choice, we can’t ‘get over it’. It means that we need to spend time taking care of ourselves even if that means disappointing others.
The answer to friends and family not understanding you is not to get angry, though that’s the easy way. But to remember that their empathy is not a prerequisite for your own happiness.
Instead offer compassion for those who don’t understand, and most importantly for yourself.
Let go of your expectations that everyone should understand you and like you.
Also try to educate even if they can’t fully understand.
Moreover one thing I will say is that as a sensitive type we should try to avoid using it a an excuse to not do things. It’s so easy to avoid going out or partying with friends because you dread the overstimulation.
But instead of staying at home all the time, give yourself a time limit of how long you will stay, then make your apologies and leave without shame or guilt.
We must be brave and do those things we know will be difficult for us. But make sure that afterwards we take care of ourselves, and let other people know how important it is for us to-do so.
In so doing we can prevent the anxiety we feel from becoming systemic and and enjoy life more fully as well as deeply.
Being highly sensitive is difficult. Most people are not aware of how it can affect a person’s life. It can be hard to feel the censure of others just because they don’t understand.
So it’s important not to place your own well-being and self esteem on other people’s acceptance.
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