When I was in Elementary School, our entire class went to sleepaway camp as part of the 5th grade curriculum. I have several distinct memories from that experience, but one, in particular, stands out:
The camp had a pool, and despite it being early spring in Pennsylvania, many students were eager for the opportunity to swim. One warm afternoon, the girls in my cabin donned our swimsuits and headed down to the pool, but when we got there, we discovered that the water was frigid (insert pre-teen squeals). Having been the victim of a particularly relentless bully all year – one who liked to call me a “goody two-shoes” and a “scaredy cat” – I had been determined all week to prove myself. Since I had practically been raised in a canoe by a nature-loving dad, I had found myself at an advantage many times throughout the week, and I was not going to let a little cold water freeze my growing confidence.
While everyone else teetered at the edge, I took a deep breath and jumped in.
As I came up for air, feeling victorious in my display of bravery, I was met by an audience of shocked faces, and then I heard one of my friends scream. Blood was gushing from my nose. More than likely the shock of the cold water caused the nosebleed. Aside from complete embarrassment and new fodder for my bully, I was totally fine, and for most of my life, the event has been shelved in my brain as nothing more than a lesson in why not to jump into cold water.
Nowadays, I wade in slowly.
Recently, however, I was asked to participate in what, for me, was the social equivalent of jumping into cold water, and I suddenly realized that this real-life experience is a pretty accurate metaphor for my social anxiety. In an effort to encourage community, my supervisor had asked us to come to a meeting with a few of our favorite things to give out. I thought we would use them as opportunities to learn about or connect with other members of our team, but instead, we were asked to go around the building, introducing ourselves and distributing our favorite things to people we didn’t know.
When I am confident and comfortable in what I am being asked to do, I can come across as extroverted, but generally, I am extremely introverted. I am incapable of participating in small talk that doesn’t feel awkward or forced, and I would rather be a wallflower than ever socialize with people I don’t know without some clearly identified commonality or specific purpose. For me, socializing with people I don’t know is like jumping into a cold pool, and I’ve jumped into enough social pools to know that I’ll probably come up with a bloody nose.
While the activity was well-meaning and an easy request for everyone else, I found myself in a state of panic. I did not want to jump into this pool of people I did not know. It felt weird and awkward to go around and introduce myself for no real reason other than to meet new people.
Need someone to take the lead on a project? I’m your girl.
Want me to talk about myself to random strangers? No Way!
(Yes, I realize the irony of this post about myself being read by complete strangers, but the written word is my comfort zone, and you, dear readers, are getting the fully developed and edited version of me, not the socially awkward version.)
My very understanding work besties agreed to circulate with me, but unfortunately, the exercise did nothing to assure me that my irrational fears were unfounded. I had brought chocolate snack-cakes as my favorite things, and every person I attempt to give them to either disliked chocolate or was on a diet.
I literally couldn’t give my favorite things away.
While I realize their rejection of the treats was not really a rejection of me, it was almost painful to have to continue to introduce myself because nobody wanted what I had to offer. And that is the reality of my anxiety. The shock of hitting frigid social waters always leaves me fearing bloody mortification. I can’t foolishly enter the pool with the overconfidence of someone with something to prove. And though I know none of these awkward interactions will ever cause any permanent damage, I’d rather avoid the potential embarrassment. Just like at the pool, I’ve learned it’s better to ease my way into social interaction with others: a nod of recognition, a shared but purposeful experience, a short but meaningful conversation, a sense of connection or camaraderie.