I thought I’d write a bit about my experience with social anxiety and how I choose between comfort and challenge on a regular basis. As anyone with anxiety realizes, there are very few days in which you wake up and complete an entire day without some moments or even hours of some level of anxiety, and this anxiety can spring up from a simple thought process, feeling just as strong as if you were in an actual situation with other people. Events that are days, weeks, or even months away can feel like they are urgently impending, and the weight of that anticipation and feeling, as though you know exactly how it’s going to feel and affect you, can be mind-numbing in its tenacity. Sometimes I feel like I’ve wasted entire days just trying to distract myself from thinking about that thing I have to do or that social gathering that I feel pressured to be at, etc.
We all make choices and try to shape our lives to be as conducive as possible to how we want to live, but, I think, as we get older, we do realize that there are some challenges in life that are worth surviving and getting through. For example, I know that I could quite easily hole up in my basement and refuse to see anyone outside of my husband for a very long time. Our circle of friends would miss me and send me texts telling me they hope I’m ok, etc. My husband could make up excuse after excuse about why I can’t go out and see anyone. But isolation is a one-way ticket to depression and loneliness, the symptoms of which I can see coming from a mile away now. I know that loneliness is one of the most painful things I can go through emotionally, so I make the decision to maintain relationships at a level that I am comfortable with while not compensating who I am and who I truly value in my life. Let me tell you about my social situation. I’m curious as to who else might relate.
I was married right after graduating from college. I met my husband in the last quarter of my senior year and we both graduated a few months earlier than the standard 4-year time frame. At that point, I’d hung out with lots of people over my time in college; some were partiers, others were Christian youth group attendees, still others were tomboys with whom I got together to play capture the flag on campus at night. I had fun with all of these people, but there was no connection outside of the context in which I’d met them and hung out with them. I could never hang out on a genuine level as a person with the people I partied and got drunk with, there was nothing substantial between me and the girls I played piano with and hung out with to listen to music. Music and our creative interest kept up our relationship as friends, but outside of that context, there was nothing really to grasp on to. This was evident soon after graduating, because no one remained in contact with me; and that went both ways. It was familiar to me, because I’d gone through the same thing in high school. I had lots of people around me in the context of extracurricular activities. I did have friends to hang out with and go to dances with and go bowling with, etc. But the friendships faded almost immediately once that context of school was taken away.
So, when I got married to my husband, instead of carrying friendships with me, of which I had virtually none, I adopted a whole bunch of his.
Peter is one of the most incredible friends I’ve ever met. He has a long list of friendships that have persevered since he was as young as middle school age. And he prioritized maintaining most of those friendships throughout his life. He regularly drives back home and to surrounding areas where his friends live. A few years into our marriage, a lot of those friends had had kids and couldn’t get away much, so it was mostly Peter who made the trek to and from his home town and our college town to see people he cared about. After our brief stint living in South Carolina, we moved back up to Ohio and lived in the same city as his brother and several of his close friends. I’d begun the long process of adapting myself to this circle of friends, a process that continues to be something of a challenge and sometimes an obligation in some cases. I appreciate his friendships and their open arms when it came to accepting me into the circle. I am in awe of how my husband manages to make time for all of them and be so entertaining when we are with them. I wanted to believe right off the bat that I was making real connections with them as well, but after years and years, I did come to the realization that I was never going to have the profound connection with them as friends that my husband has. And that’s okay. I can’t force myself to feel that way about someone, even if I really want to.
I read a post a while back about how people can trust that their connection with someone with Asperger’s is really strong if they’ve gotten to that level, simply because it’s difficult to get to. It doesn’t come easily, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. I’ve found this to be absolutely true in my steadfast and deep connection I feel with my husband. It’s not something that I can just offer anyone who waltzes into my life and calls me their friend. I’ve recently had to discuss certain boundaries in terms of who I feel comfortable around and who I like to spend more time with than others. Some of the people we hang out with really stress me out and I need to have a kind of prep period before hanging out with them to kind of prepare myself mentally and emotionally for that experience. Others, I feel much more comfortable making impromptu plans with. I felt guilty for a while when I came to these conclusions about how I needed to protect myself and minimize the stressful situations that can sometimes take over and form clouds over my day, week, or even month with the anticipation I described earlier. But, as the title of this post states, I want to emphasize the importance that I’ve placed on challening myself to an appropriate level, where I’m not making myself miserable, but I’m not avoiding anxiety 100 percent, either.
For one thing, there are some friends in our circle with whom I can comfortably hang out with on a once or twice a month kind of basis. Others, I’m ok with seeing on a weekly basis, and so on. As the holidays near, we have something of a big friend’s Christmas party coming up, and I can honestly say a part of me starts dreading this around Halloween. It’s not a constant feeling, but it does creep up on me on a regular basis from the time I start decorating for Halloween to the moments before leaving the house to head to the party.
A couple weeks ago, I decided not to do it. I said to myself, I fucking hate this, and I’m not doing it. I know it’s important to a lot of people, but it’s a complete nightmare for me, and I just don’t want to put myself through it. My husband has always been supportive when it comes to me and my anxiety, but he also tries to encourage me to consider how it feels when I overcome challenges, especially where anxiety is concerned. I was determined, though. I thought out in my mind exactly how I would word the email I would send to the hosts (talking face-to-face was out of the question, of course). I wasn’t going to make it personal, I was just going to explain that the combination of social expectation, noise, constant talking and chaos were just too much for me, and I’m not doing it this year. They would be disappointed, but I felt confident they would understand.
But for some reason, I held off on sending this email. A few days passed, then another few days, then the first week of December came and went. The party itself is now less than a week away, and somewhere in the last few weeks, I decided I had a game plan for getting through this party, and that the reward for conquering this challenge would be “worth the squeeze” as Peter likes to say. The trick for me was to realize that it’s not about pleasing other people or doing what’s expected. It’s about maintaining the positive social connections in my life and showing myself that I can be confident and focus on the enjoyable aspects while not letting the negative ones overshadow the experience. It only happens once a year, for a few hours, and I decided I could handle it. It’s about taking the chance to represent who I am and share whatever light I possess with other people, even if it’s as simple as a smile or a brief conversation. It’s about focusing on gratitude for the people in my life instead of the discomfort that social interactions can sometimes bring. I don’t have to open up in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t have to share some big secret or shower people with love and affection the way some of them like to. It’s not about conforming. I’m representing an autistic woman overcoming a social challenge, and it’s fine if I’m the only person who knows that.
So my wish and hope for all of you facing some kind of dreaded social situation in the coming weeks is that you focus on what it means for you to challenge your own anxieties and represent who you are, unapologetically, to other people. It doesn’t mean striding into a room with some grand gesture or spectacle (though if that’s what you like to do, go for it). And if you need limits, don’t feel guilty about putting those limits in place beforehand. Tell everyone you are only comfortable with staying an hour or two. Take breaks to go somewhere and be alone when you need to. Whatever you need to do to get through it. Use whatever support network you have in place and be open about what it means to you. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you feel you are the only person who sees this experience as a challenge. You are who you are, and there’s nothing wrong with you. You add value to other people’s lives with your unique perspective. Don’t give other people the power to make you feel like you need to hide away. The people who have a positive effect on your life are the ones who see you for who you are and are gracious in their acceptance of how you need to do things and how you live your life.