About 18 months ago I decided to create John (a fictional character) and wrote some posts about his experiences with social anxiety. The stories were all made up of real clinical experiences from more than 15 years of treating people with Social Anxiety Disorder.
John’s experiences typify those of people living with Social Anxiety and his reactions may seem familiar to some of you.
It turns out that these stories really resonated with a lot of you, so I thought I would re-post the most popular two stories about John.
But wait … there’s more!
That’s right – in a few weeks time I will be launching the first 5 chapters of my book that I’ve written about John and his daily experiences as someone suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder. I’ve put a lot of effort into writing it, it’s taken longer than I would have liked, but all good things take time right?
So stay tuned for more about John, for now, here are a couple of oldies, but goodies:
Part 1: How do I know if I have Social Anxiety? … Meet John
John came to see me at the start because he was very upset and angry with himself that he had recently been a best man at a wedding and at the last minute “chickened out” of giving his speech.
Instead he talked one of the other groomsman into reading out his speech – and just sat and listened to the words he’d composed.
“As soon as I did that, I felt relaxed, and I sat there as he was giving the speech. How could I could do that? What is wrong with me?!”
As John and I talked, it became clear that he knew that the feelings he experienced when he was anxious were out of proportion to the situation – but knowing that still didn’t help the situation. He was also aware that he was largely able to cope at work, but had great trouble with unstructured social situations.
“I can’t go out any more, I just freak out if I’m anywhere that I can’t leave easily. Pubs and parties are too hard. I’m worried that people can see how anxious I am: they can see me sweating and shaking, and are thinking – what’s wrong with him?”
It was clear that John’s anxiety meant he had learnt to be afraid of fear.
“After the wedding I tried to go to a friend’s party. I knew most of the people there, but sitting in the car outside I had a panic attack and had to go home. Now when I just think about going to a party, I start to feel panicky. I can go to work OK, but I work through my lunch so I don’t have to talk to anyone, and never go to drinks on a Friday night. People have given up inviting me.”
These are classic signs of Social Anxiety Disorder and create that spiral whereby people are aware of their anxiety and therefore avoid situations which may make them more anxious. This avoidance, however, causes further anxiety because they know they are missing out on a social life.
It’s not unusual for people like John to be able to “cope” at work, after all, work provides a structure and a clearly defined role. It’s also clear that John was able to avoid unstructured social situations to avoid anxiety – but this is no way to deal with social anxiety.
Part 2: My boss scares me! Why John’s social anxiety can make work tough
We’ve already seen how John finds it difficult to cope in unstructured social situations and will try to find ways to avoid either having to take part in them – or even go to them in the first place.
The workplace, on the other hand, is a different situation – one in which John knows his role and therefore finds easier to deal with, but one which can throw the occasional curveball.
John knows he’s good at this job. He tells me that he’s found his niche: a desk job that pays well and lets him keep to himself. As he’s already told me, he doesn’t interact much with his workmates and has turned down Friday drinks so often that he doesn’t get invited any more.
But he writes code for a big software company and he’s happy with the work he puts out. He earns good money and the company is happy with the way he works and his output.
Despite all these positive factors, and the fact that most of his interactions with his managers go well, he still finds he freaks out every time he’s faced with a performance review, or when his boss wants to meet with him.
“It’s like being called to the headmaster’s office, I just hate it! And if I know I’ve got a performance review coming up I feel sick for about three days before, and the night before I can’t sleep unless I take a sleeping pill. It’s hopeless.”
John says that it once got so bad that he almost quit rather than go to a meeting.
“And then when I did go, he praised me and gave me a raise! I couldn’t believe it. But instead of feeling happy, I spent the rest of the day and night feeling like an idiot, and giving myself a hard time. I couldn’t tell anyone, because then they’d want to go out for a drink or something to celebrate. Honestly, I get a pay raise and I’m miserable. How crazy is that?”
Just like when John had to give his speech at a friend’s wedding, something which ought to be a positive has been turned into a negative experience because of both the anxiety around facing the situation and the spiral of anxiety caused by the avoidance of that experience.
If that sounds familiar, you’re not crazy. It’s actually really common. One of the features of Social Anxiety is a fear of authority. John was quiet at school and his teachers gave him a hard time for not taking part more – but this created John’s fear for his teachers and this was then passed on to a fear for his bosses at work.
Often people feel afraid of their boss, teacher, even their parents – it’s only natural when they have power over you – but combined with Social Anxiety, that fear can spiral out of control.
At these points it’s important to be mindful of what situation John’s in: the fact that he is being judged is not a negative thing, it’s because it’s part of his boss’s role to judge his performance.
Once John starts to feel afraid, that is the overriding feeling and becomes John’s sole focus – regardless of the relatively usual state of the situation. Let’s face it John’s boss must carry out dozens of performance reviews.
In John’s case, helping him learn to regulate the fear by understanding that it’s a natural response to authority, and then getting him to recognise that anxiety and be gentle with himself when the feeling showed up, meant he could slow himself down and not let the anxiety spiral out of control.
This understanding helped counterbalance the anxiety he was feeling at.
“My boss still makes me nervous. But that’s normal I guess. Now I can keep the fear in check and know that actually I do a good job. Sometimes I even enjoy talking to my boss, he’s actually a good guy. I’m getting there.”