How I Came Back from Paralyzing Social Anxiety to Lead a Healthy, Happy Life
I can remember the terrifying anxiety I felt when going to a friend’s birthday party.
I was just 4 years old (I’m now 34). It was time to break the piñata. I had to go in a room with other kids I didn’t know.
Rather than go in and score some candy, I clung to my father’s leg. I can still feel the intense heat in my face when I think about it today. And I was sweating bullets too.
Now, when you’re a 4-year-old boy, it’s cute. Funny. Sweet. But when shyness (AKA “social anxiety”) follows you into adulthood, it wreaks havoc.
It took away jobs, friends, romantic relationships, increased the stranglehold of addiction, ruined my performance in sports, and made me a generally insane person.
Today though, I live with it successfully. I’m married, have two dogs, own a house, and enjoy a happy and peaceful life.
But it took a ton of hard work to get.
I Always Felt Inadequate, Unworthy, Alone, and Afraid
In my opinion, I think my shyness/anxiety has a strong biological cause. My dad was a shy introvert. My mom worried about people and situations, which I’ve come to identify as general anxiety.
The shyness gradually gained intensity as I got older. My parents did not know how to handle it. My mom’s impatience and anger, and dad’s denial and ignorance, only made it worse.
In grade school, I remember wanting to play basketball. But, I always got terrified when I went on the court in front of everyone.
Someone would pass me the ball. I’d pass it right back. It was a relief to get out of the game. I still wanted to play. But I didn’t like the public performance.
That grew until I became a teen. That’s when I remember my palms starting to sweat. So, of course, that made the ball hard to hold onto. I was afraid I’d drop it or it would slip out of my hand as I shot.
Many times, I’d see the fear and anxiety coming up before a game. I’d tell myself I wouldn’t do it. No, not this time! I knew I had it under control.
But it happened anyway.
The shyness had certainly caused its difficulty. But it hadn’t done its worst yet.
Somehow, during grade school I was able to perform decently in basketball. I scored 18 and 16 points in two different games I think.
We lost the championship game. That was terrifying! So much pressure. The team had beaten us before. How we would do this time?
My coached yelled,”Fire up out there!” at halftime. He launched a piece of chalk at the wall, shattering it into shards. He could see everyone was tight, anxious, and flat.
We lost that game by two. I had a sick feeling in my stomach afterward.
Girls and boys also paired off. But not me. How did this happen? Why wasn’t it happening to me?
I was too afraid to talk to girls. All I could manage was stuttering a sentence or two at most. Sometimes, just a look.
Somehow, I found myself having a few girlfriends. Nothing lasted more than a few weeks. One kissed me. We rarely even spoke. But I blamed myself each time a “relationship” ended.
At this point, I don’t have too unusual of a story. This probably sounds familiar to many, and perhaps to those without social anxiety.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not super unusual for junior high, right?
Unfortunately, social anxiety had only begun its reign of terror over my life.
While the effects weren’t devastating (yet), they grew exponentially. Kids on the bus teased my friends and me daily because of our religion. The teacher didn’t like anyone in either of our classes. So, we had to deal with his moodiness.
And my dad was an active alcoholic. He would drink, shut down, and isolate himself from our family. Meanwhile, my mom would angrily try to control everything – including me.
This skyrocketed my anxiety. The ride to and from school was hell. School itself was unpredictable because you’d never know when the teacher would get angry and take it out on your class. And then I had to come home to a mess where everyone was consumed with their problems too.
So, it should be no surprise I’m an addict also. I used the addiction to cover all the shame, fear, guilt, and loneliness.
…But it’s only a temporary fix.
Those feelings come back 100 times more intense when you’re not using your addiction to cover it up. Fear became terror. Shame grew into despair and self-hatred.
And then you need your addiction to cover all those feelings again. It’s a horrifically painful cycle. You can’t stop it on your own. And it took me decades to learn how to stop doing it and do something else.
And Then Social Anxiety and Fear of People Took Control…
High school was really a mess. The social anxiety only increased its stranglehold on my life. To start, I moved from a small religious grade school with a class of just 10 to a local public high school with the largest class in history (110 or so).
Some of my friends came too. So, I wasn’t totally alone.
Yeah, I grew up in rural Wisconsin. Doesn’t sound like much to you. But it was an enormous change for me. One I couldn’t handle.
I could hide my social anxiety in grade school. But no more in high school. I’d say really mean, nasty, or negative things. Not to keep people away. That’s what naturally came out. It revealed how desperately insecure I was. I’d avoid talking with others where possible too. I’d be so anxious that strange things came out of my mouth. Things I didn’t even want to say. Not necessarily bad. But, not the words I wanted.
Despite hating it, I seemed unable to change. Victories happened on occasion. But the fear and anxiety only intensified.
Sports? Performance only got harder. Sweaty hands stayed. And now that got coupled with shaky limbs.
Have you ever shot a basketball? The two things you don’t want are sweaty hands and shaky limbs.
I still managed to be a valuable contributor. I was a great defensive player. But I couldn’t do much offensively.
And it was frustrating as hell.
Teammates would tell me,”Shoot more.” I said,”Okay.” And I knew this game would be “the game.”
But instead, I went right back into the fear and anxiety. I shot infrequently. I passed up open shots. And I came away from games angry, filled with shame and guilt. Not really wanting to live.
I felt worthless. Like a has-been. I let everyone down – again.
I was even suicidal at times. Fortunately, I never followed through.
Women and dating? Seemed to be the same old story. I was too afraid to approach anyone.
Heck, I was certain no one would want to date me anyway. I knew my social status. I was at the bottom rung.
The only people with any interest repulsed me. Of course, some others wanted to date me too.
But I knew that if they knew the real me, they’d just leave anyway. Or I’d say or do something stupid to cause that.
So why bother? The outcome was inevitable.
When we changed classes, walking through the hall was terrifying. My heart leaped into my throat, and a gigantic crater of anxiety filled my stomach.
Who would I see? What would I say? Would I say the wrong thing and upset them?
Oh, all I could manage this time was,”Hi.” I say that every time. I’m boring. People don’t like me.
Sure, they act nice. But only because they have to. As soon as we part ways, they’re running me down behind my back (or so I believed).
I basically repeated that process to varying degrees for all of high school.
Social Anxiety Nearly Killed Me, My Sister, and a Friend
One day, I was so depressed and anxious I wasn’t focusing on driving. It was February and snowy and icy out.
I was driving my sister and a friend home from school. We were heading over a hill, blind to the other side. At the peak, another car was in the middle of the road.
Startled, I whipped the wheel right. We hit an ice patch and started sliding. The car plowed into the snowbank and rolled.
“Get out of the car!” I screamed. I didn’t want the car to start on fire or anyone to get burned.
We all could have died that day.
Turns out, I rolled the car four-and-a-half times. My sister had small scratches from glass on her face. My friend had a sore back. I wasn’t injured at all. No one even needed to go to the hospital.
And my anxiety played a role in the crash. I was so down on myself. I was moody and irritable. And that led to my overreaction, whipping the wheel when I saw the other car.
Sometime in high school, the friend in that wreck with me introduced me to alcohol. What a perfect solution!
It seemed to eliminate all my shyness and fear. Sure, I was completely wasted and didn’t remember anything, but who cared?
Plus, it turned out my drunken antics were hilarious. I became popular overnight. In fact, you could say I was the most popular person in high school – and you might have been right.
But of course, I was still fraught with anxiety and deeply ashamed. Drinking merely eased the fear temporarily. Inside, I was still mortified of others and hated myself.
To cover all this up, I also resorted to video game addiction. This was around 1996-2001.
Online gaming was still “nerdy.” But a lot of people did it. I didn’t know what else to do. My parents were lost in their own problems. So I spent most of my waking hours playing computer games.
I got sick of it. Didn’t like it. But I did it because it felt soooooo natural. At least I had some excitement.
I was lucky through all of this though. I managed to maintain a good core group of friends. Women at least showed interest from time-to-time. So, I had opportunity.
Many social anxiety sufferers don’t even have that much connection.
Life as a Young Adult Didn’t Go Any Better
After high school, things didn’t improve. No surprise. I was still acting in the same old ways. So, I got the same old results.
I spent much of my time isolated. I gamed a lot. I was too afraid to talk to others. So I spent many Fridays and Saturdays online. Or watching TV or movies by myself.
That might have been for the better. The only other thing I knew to do was drink like a maniac. Which of course only caused trouble.
For me, employment was rough. In retrospect, I shamed myself and took too much responsibility for other people’s actions.
I still felt like a generally worthless person.
My first employment experience as a teen was for two guys who trained dogs for hunting. This wasn’t any dog training. People with way too much money shelled out $30,000 a year to have their dogs trained by these guys – two of the best in the nation.
…And neither of them were nice people.
One went out of his way to harass and curse me out to my face (and other co-workers too). The other wouldn’t do that. But he would frequently lose his temper on other workers and me.
So, for a socially anxious person, that’s as bad as it gets. Unpredictable outbursts of anger? That felt a lot like home.
Just as I did at home, I concluded it was my fault. If I wasn’t so stupid, lazy, or so…whatever, people would be happy.
I couldn’t get out of the job for years because my parents were so out-of-tune with me they thought I had a good job. The truth was they didn’t know the first thing because they never asked what a day was like.
For me, it was hell.
I would wake with anxiety in the morning. Then, I would feel a pit in my stomach before work. At work, I would feel constantly tense and anxious because I would never know when someone would lose their temper. I felt some relief when I went home because the job was worse than my home life.
But only a little bit. And it would just be hours until the new day started and the whole mess repeated.
With that foundation setting my perception of work, I went to college to prep for employment.
I nailed college. It was easy. Pulling a 3.8 wasn’t hard. Dean’s List was routine. Social anxiety bothered me somewhat in classes. But it didn’t destroy my life.
I still spent much of my time alone and isolated. My addictive and compulsive personality, along with the social anxiety, ran my life.
I remember a teacher, who I knew liked me, see me in the hall. I liked him too. He was a nice guy. Fun. Interesting.
He looked at me. I turned my head and hid while walking by in the hall. I was afraid. Most of me figured he really didn’t like me at all. So I didn’t want to say anything.
I turned around to see where he went. He had a frown on his face as he looked partially in my direction while walking the other way.
I had hurt his feelings. I plummeted into shame and guilt as I continued on my way.
The last semester of college, I had to do an internship. I was fairly nervous. I had never worked in an office. And heck, it was my first real work away from home.
I was happy just to get it. The administrator for my computer networking program was one lazy dude. Few people got internships because he didn’t bother to do the work to set them up.
The internship turned out to be hellish too. Two employees went out of their way to harass (and curse out) the interns.
Again, not just me. Everyone. But it was doubly hard for me because of my existing social anxiety. I took it personally. They could only do it, in my mind, because I was a lousy intern.
Somehow, I struggled through that one without extreme anxiety. I passed with a decent grade…and promptly got the hell out of there!
That internship didn’t build my hopes up about work. I was happy to be out of school. But, it was also 2003 – just two years after the 2001 dot com crash. So everyone in my industry was fighting just for entry-level work.
My first job made the hellish experiences of the recent past look not so bad. For somebody with social anxiety, it couldn’t be a worse fit.
I got hired to take the shifts no one else wanted – third and weekends. It was stressful work. You had to monitor computer networks across the country. You had to notify their administrator within 13 minutes of an outage. If you didn’t, the network owner could cancel their contract with you without any consequences.
You can guess what happened to employees who made mistakes.
The boss was a highly dysfunctional person, to put it mildly. He was going through a divorce. When I worked next to his cube, he would curse out loud and pound his fist on the desk with every little “mistake” I made.
I’d answer the phone with a friendly greeting, but not the exact one he wanted. That was enough cause for anger and frustration. And of course, that only built my anxiety.
Once again, it seemed like I was a crappy employee. I couldn’t do anything right. Everyone was angry. I was frequently the target of the anger.
Must not be a good person – that was my figuring.
I started hating that job on Friday when I knew I was scheduled to work on Monday.
Not long after, I quit.
The anxiety was too high. It was sheer hell. Again.
I had just a few hundred bucks in my bank account. And no other work.
My parents got upset about that. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t take it anymore.
Even though this was during the aftermath of the dot com crisis, I managed to land a second job within a couple months or so. How fortunate!
Again, I was quite afraid coming into it. Would I be able to deal with my boss? How would I perform?
The boss seemed less crazy than the other one. As it turns out, that was about right.
He was constantly irritated, frustrated, and annoyed with everyone else. He didn’t go out of his way to harass. But he did have an explosive temper.
I came into the job extremely anxious. I wanted so badly to do well. Not necessarily to be a superstar. But to be a valuable member of the team.
My performance anxiety made this job difficult too. I knew how to do things. But, I got so anxious that I’d second-guess myself. Then, I wasn’t sure what I just did. I got so confused I didn’t know what was going on.
And then my boss called. He’d be angry because I couldn’t give him straight answers. And he made it known he did not care about anything else.
I was so anxious I would hesitate even to try. I would sit around on my computer, avoiding the real task I should have been doing.
So, this cycle got worse and worse. I began to show my dislike for the job in passive-aggressive ways by leaving parts of my job undone.
I can still remember just dreading the ringtone of the Kyocera Phantom cell phone I had. I knew it was him. And he would not be happy. Again.
I didn’t want to do the job anymore. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do this their entire lives.
I got fired.
Dating-wise, things continued to not work out. I’d get too anxious. I didn’t want to get to know anyone. Because if they’d get to know me, they’d leave. I’d fail somehow. And the whole thing would fall apart.
At 21, I managed to have a steady girlfriend. It was reasonably happy. I’ve since talked to her and she recalls happy memories from those days.
But even in a relationship, I still isolated emotionally. I wasn’t amazingly happy. But I enjoyed our time together. Unfortunately, I knew she wasn’t the right one.
So I broke up with her.
For a Long Time, Nothing Seemed to Change
Progress seemed to happen. And then wham! I’d be right back in the same old place again.
Though anxious, I did quite well as a therapist for autistic children. I loved the job. But when I got promoted to manager, which terrified me, I felt everyone’s eyes on me.
I was being evaluated. People couldn’t wait to attack me and see me fail (or so I believed).
And that’s precisely what happened. My fear of this happening actually perpetuated it happening. I got afraid. Employees and clients saw it. They got nervous. And then they lashed out. Eventually, I was laid off.
My employer started the training…but never finished it. That didn’t help. Combined with my fear and uncertainty, that wiped me out.
Of course, I felt horrible. I didn’t tell my then-wife because I felt so ashamed.
She learned about it a couple years later because I forgot and told her the story.
And Finally, After Years of Tormenting Myself, Breakthrough!
Up to now, this story sounds pretty disheartening. Everything that could go wrong did. Life for me was numerous negative events interrupted by occasional successes.
I tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and tried to break the cycle of anxiety and addiction.
But I could not do it.
I was stuck inside myself. A prisoner inside my own head.
My mind ran the show. Actually, the part of my mind that I didn’t want running the show had taken over.
I knew exactly what not to do. I told myself I would not do it. And I found myself doing it again anyway. Even though I knew the fear and addiction would help nothing.
A dreadful pattern that filled me with consuming despair.
Weekends were awful. I knew I’d find myself back to real life in a couple days. And I knew it would be rough. I wasn’t looking forward to it. The last thing I’d get on the weekend was relaxation.
I stopped doing things alone and inside my own head.
I never realized I was trying to solve all my spiritual and psychological problems on my own. I learned to keep all my issues to myself. I’d try different actions to work my way out of them. And none of it solved my anxiety or addiction.
An impossible situation.
Instead, I had to do the opposite of what I had been doing. I had to open up and ask for help. I had to talk about what was going on with me. I had to do things that terrified me, instead of avoiding them.
I had to ask others for guidance. And take it.
I had to let go of what happened. Stop taking responsibility for outcomes outside of my control. Accept life as it occurred.
I had to get the focus off of “me.”
Because if I could have solved my problems, they would have been gone long ago. I’d be happy, joyous, and free.
The way I was approaching life had to fundamentally change.
Or, I would continue repeating the same old hellish cycle. And it would likely get even worse.
It took me years of going to recovery groups and talking with others to understand this.
More than a decade.
But once I earnestly tried this different way of living, it worked.
Not fast, mind you.
But it worked far better than anything else I tried.
What did I do? This:
- Became willing to accept help from others. I realized that even though I couldn’t defeat social anxiety and addiction on my own, that’s 100% okay. In fact, humans are designed to help one another.
- Stopped trying to control everything in life and make it go my way. Control doesn’t work. It only apparently works.
- Accepted life as it is. Since I don’t have control, I have to accept life as it is. That relieved a ton of anxiety. Because everything around me was no longer my fault.
- Focused only on now. This is astonishingly difficult to do. Anxiety always had me fearing the future or beating myself up over the past. I learned to focus on exactly what’s happening right now…and a minute or two from now. And that’s it. I no longer obsess about the past or future for hours or days on end.
- Let others be themselves. I only have a small portion of responsibility for what others do and say (like 5-10%). They have 90% responsibility for their actions.
- Concentrated on what I can do for others. For most of my life, I only thought of me and what I wanted. To maintain sanity going forward, I had to serve others first, expecting nothing in return.
- Allowed myself the freedom to make mistakes. Everyone makes them. That’s how you learn and grow. If you learn from them, that’s okay. “Failure” is simply not trying. That’s not okay.
- Didn’t beat myself up. I never had a healthy relationship with myself. I intensely judged, blamed, and shamed myself when things didn’t work out. When that happens now, I simply say,”Oh well,” learn from it, and move on.
- Shared myself 100% honestly with others. To really let go of anxiety and fear of others, I have to talk about my innermost thoughts and secrets. That removes them from my mind so they don’t grow into catastrophic problems.
- Chose my friends wisely. I can’t control other people. But I can control who I spend time with. Today, I have 10-15 people I can talk with openly and honestly…without any fear of retribution. I minimize or eliminate time with those who don’t support my goals.
- Made amends for past harms. Making amends for ways you’ve harmed people clears away a lot of anxiety and fear of others. I didn’t want to do it. I don’t think anyone does. But I did it anyway. And wow, what a difference! It’s the greatest healing practice in the world. Bar none.
- Let go of grudges. When you have many negative experiences in life, it’s easy to hold onto the anger. But, that didn’t help me at all. Eventually, I did my best to forgive others. Some, I’m still forgiving. But I don’t do it for them. I do it for my own peace of mind. It works.
- Acted into healthier ways of thinking. Try as I might, I could not change my thinking by simply making an effort to change my thoughts. That works to a limited extent. What really works is taking actions because I don’t want to take them. If I’m afraid to stand up for myself, I do it anyway. If I don’t want to talk about something, I force myself. A rush of anxiety happens. But I feel better afterwards every time.
- Trust life will improve. Without trust, I have no reason to live. I might as well give up. And you know what? Things have gotten better. More on that in a sec.
Today: Life 100% Rocks
Okay, so maybe I lied (but only a little). Life rocks 98% of the time. Crummy things still happen. Because, after all, I don’t have control.
But for the most part, they’re good.
Life is more serene and happy than ever. I’m much more confident. I wake up excited to start the day (instead of rolling over and dreading it).
I’m happily married (Bekah would say so if you asked her). I love my work (sales writing for businesses). I own a house. Got two Great Danes and two cats.
I have a group of friends I can count on. And I’m continuing to improve daily in countless ways.
When I analyze how I’m doing, I can often say,”Wow, I don’t feel afraid to call customer service and stick up for myself anymore.” Or,”It doesn’t bother me when clients complain.” Or,”Yep. I was wrong on that one.”
And this despite financial woes (business has been a struggle of late), Bekah’s frequent emergency room trips (which have improved significantly recently), and $30,000 in medical debt piling up as a result.
And I think all this financial chaos we have now will pass in the future – though I’m not sure how.
Feeling joyful during the day in these circumstances? Excited to wake up? If you asked me a year ago, I’d have said,”Who’re you talking about?”
…Yet here I am. Happy. Peaceful. Confident. Free. And getting more of each every day.
Change isn’t easy.
But it is good.