January 2010


On the occasion of her blog’s birthday, Nicola Morgan wrote a comment on my post. First, she sent me to heaven by praising the way I wrote about SA. Then she wrote:

“It’s interesting to think about how shy children … sometimes become gregarious /extrovert and sometimes don’t, and how shyness can sometimes become SA and sometimes not. I wonder what the triggers might be that would make the difference between the common shyness that comes from all sorts of natural fear reactions, and the one that then tips over into something hard to live with?”

My first reply to this is that the basic premise is wrong. Social anxiety doesn’t always grow from shyness and I’ve never been shy. But I wrote about that before, so I’ll get off my high horse now. The fact is that in most cases social anxiety does stem from shyness.

One reason for this is that both are fed by sensitivity. Anyone who isn’t sensitive isn’t likely to be afflicted by either of them. Also, children who are shy might get teased for being shy and this can exacerbate their shyness and cause them to refrain from participating in activities that could help them to open up.

My answer to Nicola is that it all depends on what happens to the child during childhood. While shyness is usually a trait that’s inherited, SA can come later or alternatively the shyness can vanish. If the child is born into a loving, warm and supportive family and goes on to be popular and make friends, any symptoms of shyness are likely to disappear. If the child is made to feel different or inferior and is shunned or worse by other children, self-confidence will leak out and SA could take its place.

Not all sufferers of SA were bullied, although many were. But most went through things that lowered their self-esteem. This in turn caused them to abstain, voluntarily or forcibly, from parties and other social activities so that they didn’t know how to behave at such activities. The resulting embarrassment lowered their self-esteem even more. It can be a never-ending spiral that doesn’t stop at the SA barrier.

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“It’s bad to tell others about your social anxiety. They’ll think you’re strange, they’ll treat you differently.”

“The people I’ve told have shown a lot of understanding. I feel much better for having told them.”

So went the discussion at a group therapy session I attended a few years ago. I noticed a marked difference between the owners of these opposing views, a difference that must have influenced their opinions on this matter. The first one was able to hide his social anxiety. Talking to him, you wouldn’t know about all the illogical thoughts flying around in his head. (Illogical, that is, according to the therapist.)

The other participant in the discussion displayed obvious symptoms of social anxiety – stammering, hesitating, blushing, etc. What did he have to lose?

And that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I tried to hide it and failed. The attempts only make people think I don’t want to talk or I’m standoffish or just plain boring. So I have little to lose by explaining, and possibly something to gain.

Reaching that conclusion hasn’t made life easy. I’ve thought hard about every stage of my journey – about telling each person I’ve told, about starting this blog and more.

For me, so far, the feedback has been positive. If I can help to increase awareness of social anxiety – to make life easier for sufferers and try to prevent it from happening – I will feel I have accomplished something.

Warning: This post is not to be taken seriously.

I’ve been rather serious of late. It’s time for a bit of fun before I write about the next topic I promised. Don’t be put off by this seemingly serious question: Why do we vote for certain politicians? We like to think it’s because we agree with their policies, but is that always true? Sometimes, politicians don’t seem to have any policies and yet we still vote for them. Sometimes, it’s because of their looks. Sometimes, it’s because of their ability to talk, even when they have nothing to say.

Just now, where I am, it seems there’s another reason. We voted for a politician because we like to laugh at his wife. Because she says the most outrageous things. I can’t think of any other reason. So I’ve written an ode to her.

Sarah, this rhyme is to show we adore you,
Almost as much as we abhor you.
Whenever we’re feeling a little sad,
When the world is against us and thinks we’re bad,
We rush to turn on the TV
And on the screen we hope to see
Your shining face with its ready smile,
So confident and full of guile.
We don’t mind hearing you’ve overspent
On luxury hotels, hairdressers and scent,
Although the silver on your table
Comes from our hard work – those who are able.
Your soul we revere and adulate.
You are the mother of our state.

For the background, see this.

I was amazed, delighted and scared to receive all those comments to my last post. I suppose it’s like getting publicity for publishing a book. You know it’s good, but it’s still scary. At least two of the comments deserve a whole post as a response. This is one of those.

Sheila wrote: “I have 2 grown-up sons who are both on the face of it equally ’shy’ but only one considers himself to have this condition, and spends a lot of time networking online with others who suffer from it, and the other one doesn’t appear to be at all bothered by it but just lives his life, makes the friends he chooses to make etc. … In some ways I do not think it’s helpful for my older son to have defined himself in this way, but on the other hand I suppose it is useful to be able to pin it down to something instead of a kind of generalised anxiety.”

When I first discovered that there was a name for this thing I’d been struggling with for most of my life, my husband was against it. He said that defining yourself in that way is just an excuse to give up. As if I’d said, “What can I do? I have this thing and I’m never going to be able to get rid of it. So I’ll hang around online and offline (but mostly online) with similar weirdoes who have all decided to give up the struggle.” Hubby said that all I had to do was to decide to join in conversations more and to start new conversations and gradually the problem would disappear. Well, he would, because this worked for him, diminishing his symptoms of shyness.

But, we’re not all the same. In fact, we’re all different. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. I’ve tried that way and it hasn’t helped.

So, seven years on, I’ve continued to define myself as having SA. That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on “normal” society or that I try any less when I’m in it. But it means that I don’t beat myself up over failures. And it means that sometimes I explain to people why it’s hard for them to talk to me, if I think they’ll understand. Usually I do this online, occasionally face-to-face. It has become a little easier to do it, but not much.

I agree with Sheila that networking online with other sufferers is both useful and harmful. On the plus side, it’s a way of discovering treatments and strategies, of finding a sympathetic ear, of discovering others who are worse off. But the negative posts on SA forums can become depressing, and eventually the recurring themes become boring.

I wouldn’t advise everyone to follow my route. Those who can get away with hiding anxiety are probably better off never defining themselves as having it. And that also goes for the question of whether to announce it, which I will also blog about – maybe in my next post.

In the meantime,

If you’ve been reading my blog from the beginning, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’ve just arrived here from Nicola Morgan’s wild birthday party, then I’m sorry to be the party pooper but I think it’s very important that you should know. I’ll tell you why in a moment.

SA stands for social anxiety, which is a fear of people and especially of what those people think of the sufferer. I’ve seen SA defined as extreme shyness. While this is probably true for most sufferers, it doesn’t apply to everyone.

The origin of SA is a mixture of nature and nurture. Two people can go through the same experiences and only one will get it. Two people can start off with the same characteristics and only one will get it.

SA has been recognised as a disorder since 1980. A lot of people suffer from it. Yet most people haven’t heard of it. Even some of those who have it don’t know that there’s a name for it. That’s a shame, because not knowing the name means missing out on treatment, and support from other sufferers.

Of course, the best cure is prevention, and that’s where you come in. Even today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, quiet children are ignored. Children who disrupt classes or are violent are sent for therapy while quiet ones are simply ignored. SA is allowed to fester instead of being nipped in the bud.

So, if you’re a teacher, a therapist, a parent, a family member, a friend – in other words if you’re anyone at all – please do something to help a child who is on the path to SA.

And if you know someone who suffers from SA – someone who is quiet, appears to be shy, behaves awkwardly – please try to include them and draw them out. If it’s done tactfully, they’ll usually appreciate it.

Now I’ll let you return to the party. Do come back here any time. I’m not always this serious.

I’ve been very silly. I’ve left the last decade out to rot instead of putting it neatly away in the deep freeze. I’ve read what other people accomplished in the last decade and decided that I didn’t accomplish anything. But now that I think about it, I was at a very different place ten years ago.

Ten years ago, I was struggling to do things without really understanding why they were hard. Now, I still struggle but at least I understand what I’m struggling against.

Ten years ago, I was still attempting to keep my childhood out of my life, as if I could pretend that it didn’t happen. Now, I’ve come to terms with it and accept that it’ll always be there. Sometimes, it’s even useful.

Ten years ago, the people I went to school with were nasty, hurtful children. Now, they’re some of the nicest women I have met.

Ten years ago, I didn’t know Gill. Now I know her as a wonderful friend, one I will always be indebted to.

Ten years ago, I hadn’t even thought of doing any writing (apart from technical writing). Now, writing is something I enjoy immensely.

Ten years ago, my only social hobby was folk dancing. Now, I also look forward to the fortnightly meetings of my writing group.

Ten years ago, I lived in a small house in a beautiful neighbourhood. Now, I live in a large house with a beautiful garden in a less beautiful neighbourhood. You can’t have everything!

Ten years ago, I hadn’t visited India, Mexico and Guatemala. Now, I have.

Ten years ago, I didn’t have any online friends. Now, I have friends on Facebook, Twitter and more, friends with whom I can connect on a level rather than feeling like the unwanted poor relation.

Ten years ago, I didn’t have this blog. Now, I have the perfect tool for explaining all the things I couldn’t say.

As I hurry to pack up the last decade, I wonder what the new, fresh one will bring, where I will be in ten years’ time. I hope it’s a good place. And I hope all my readers will be in good places, too.