The Blog

Social Anxiety: When Human Beings Are Afraid of Other Human Beings Without Really Knowing Why

I am determined not to allow myself to be limited by my fear of interacting with people. Whether I was born with an inclination towards social anxiety or whether I happened to develop it, I'm desperate to overcome it.

Michelle finds it difficult to tell other children to "leave her alone", resulting in being very weary [sic] of other children's presence. Once on her own, Michelle usually gets on with her activity.

These are some of the observations I found in a 1996 nursery report, taken a mere two years into my life. Now, it may not seem particularly noteworthy, it may even seem like the makings of the report of an average two-year old but I will explain its significance.

I'm pretty sure at this point that I have social anxiety. For as long as I can remember, my life has been plagued by fears directly related to people and more specifically interaction with people. This fear has prevented me from being myself when I am in company, resulting in my being unable to connect and feel close to others.

I am terrified of the potential judgement and criticism that I am exposed to when I am in a social situation. In fact, it is precisely "judgement" and "criticism" that I have spent my whole life trying to avoid; subconsciously I have done this by, well, not speaking.

I've often wondered why I'm like this. What happened in my life to damage my confidence so deeply? Was I born socially anxious or did I develop socially anxious traits in correlation with my surroundings. My guess is that it's a mixture of what they call Nature (my genetic makeup) and Nurture (my upbringing/environment) but the difficult part is ascertaining which one takes a bigger share of the blame.

But anyway, like I say, I managed to find a nursery report taken from when I was only two years old while I was going through the storage cupboard in my bedroom some months ago.

1996 Nursery report

The report was mainly about my progress with toilet training but was peppered with some fairly interesting observations about my tendency to avoid social interaction. And then it hit me, there was no way my environment could have affected me so much by the tender age of two that I would developed social anxiety in response to it. Therefore, I told myself, I must have been born socially inept.

I felt sort of vindicated; people have often been impatient with my introversion and indecisiveness but now I had some sort of proof that this was an innate part of who I was. Yet I also felt sad that it was such a deeply entrenched part of my personality. I didn't and still don't want to live my whole life being at unease in the company of others.

Before I get ahead of myself, however, I have no doubt that my exceptionally low self-esteem was at least exacerbated if not partially caused by a certain member of my family. From a very young age, this person had been an extremely damaging and hypercritical influence in my life. Just to be clear, I don't mean "hypercritical" in a nagging or annoying way but in a way that was very aggressive and intimidating. He scrutinised every little thing we did and said and everything we did and said was wrong in his eyes.

Whenever my brother and I did the dishes, he would stand behind us watching and aggressively reprimanding us and criticising every move we made. And even when we weren't doing a thing we couldn't escape his wrath. We could merely be sitting down on the sofa and he would manage to find fault with someone. Perhaps it was the way the way we were sitting. Or perhaps we'd had the audacity to close the door at precisely the wrong moment. It could quite literally have been anything.

This barrage of aggressive, unwarranted criticism affected me so much so that whenever I saw his car returning to the drive, I would frantically check to see if I could correct anything that was "wrong" before he came in so that there would be nothing to enrage him. At some point, I just retired to my bedroom every time I spotted his car through the blinds. When he noticed the pattern, this also made him angry. Why did I always go upstairs every time he came home? How terrible of me.

He craved praise and adoration and became belligerent in the face of criticism. Deprived of the right to criticise, and with no inclination to praise, we were left with a non-existent relationship. We barely spoke to him; I felt like I could go my whole life without saying a word to him. And then he got angry. Why did I never say "morning" to him when I saw him, first thing? How rude. From then on, I made sure I uttered the word "morning" to him, and forced myself to say "hello" to him whenever he arrived back home.

I have since developed a lot of internalised shame. I am constantly checking myself in order to avoid rebuke... but not just with him, with pretty much every other person on the planet. The only two people who are exempt from this deep feeling of unease are my mother and my brother. Yet I sometimes fear I will never be able to maintain a close connection with another person; that my life will always play out like that day at nursery in 1996.

Fast forward to nearly two decades after that very day and I'm twenty-one years old, timid as ever and spending a year trying to "find myself" in Berlin. What I have managed to find so far is a job, a flat share and I guess a newfound independence. For a girl who normally doesn't wander too far from her comfort zone, it hasn't been easy. However, I am determined not to allow myself to be limited by my fear of interacting with people. Whether I was born with an inclination towards social anxiety or whether I happened to develop it, I'm desperate to overcome it.

Before You Go