I have had some level of social anxiety my entire life. I have always felt like an outsider, and only truly comfortable when alone.
I could never speak freely, always shouldering the burden of my family’s secrets. Never showing the real me. I was taught to lie or exclude information to always appear perfect. Nothing’s wrong. Don’t look at me. I’m fine.
I learned to be a great listener, never speaking unless directly asked to. Even among friends, I always assumed my words would be a bother. I always assumed their words meant I was nothing, or mildly tolerated, but certainly not wanted company.
Going out into the world with a bit of self-worth has changed all that. Now when someone says something, I may wonder briefly what was meant by it, but not obsess, and not direct it inwards as proof I am no good. If you don’t know what I’m talking about – I’m happy for you! If you do, then you know how devastating and exhausting simple social interactions can be.
I have joined a parent volunteer committee for a local children’s theatre troupe. I let several productions go by without letting anyone know I am an artist and helped out in other ways. Last year I finally felt secure enough to join the scenery crew. I was terrified though. All these new people. Would they accept me? I knew I could design and paint lovely scenes for them. But could I make it through the committee meetings?
The first few meetings I just listened to all their ideas, not wanting to step on any toes. I went home and researched images online, printed some I thought might work and asked if they wanted me to paint them on the panels. At first they laughed, and I was horrified, thinking I had made a mistake, and inwardly kicked myself for speaking up. But then they saw I wasn’t laughing. The chairman asked, “Can you actually paint that?” I said “Yes, I can paint anything you want.” It turns out they were laughing because they thought I was joking, that I could paint something so intricate. They immediately got excited, and wanted to see if I could actually do it. He said “That would be beyond awesome” and pointed to a panel for me to get started. Now I had never painted something so large, my panel was 4 by 8 ft. But I used my same process as usual, and got to work blocking out colors, then slowly shading and transforming until my panel matched my printout. I was vaguely aware of people coming and going, moving and working around me, and even some comments or exclamations of “Wow, look at that – she’s really good!” My daughter came by and would say “That’s my Mom – she’s an artist”
I felt proud, but only a little. I take my talent for granted I guess, it is just a part of me. Just something I can do, not really sure why I can and others can’t. I have great respect for the other parents helping to paint – I don’t have the typical artist ego, and I don’t want to be in charge. But here’s what happened. They put me in charge. Slowly but surely, design questions were asked to me “The artist”. Ugh. I just want to have fun here and support the troupe like everyone else. So I was taken aback when I found other parents putting themselves at my service. Did I need my brushes rinsed out? Did I want them to block out some color areas for me to add details to later? Could I help them mix the perfect brown? This made me terribly uncomfortable. Didn’t they know I was worthless and that painting was a worthless waste of time? Or wait – Was I wrong? Had my Dad been wrong? Is that voice in my head, leftover from Dad, WRONG? Yes. Yes of course it was. But accepting that made me dizzy. It meant I had to believe I was just not accepted here, but DESIRED here. (Insert image of Lost In Space Robot flailing his arms- “Does Not Compute Will Robinson . . . . Does Not Compute”
And so I now wear the artist crown. I unintentionally dethroned the previous best painter that no one called an artist. I was afraid she is hurt or jealous, although I invented that, not by anything she did or said. I still hang on her words more heavily than the others, but I always come to the same conclusion. She didn’t mean anything by it. Any discontentment or negative tone or funny face was more likely because her kids were interrupting her, she was hungry, her Mom was ill, her shoes are too tight, she has gas or any number of reasons NOT having to do with me. I can let my down my guard. These people are not out to hurt or shame me. MOST people are not out to hurt or shame me. Most people are thinking of themselves, and what to make for dinner, if they need a haircut, if they have bad breath, if they paid the water bill and if they have time to go shopping before picking up the kids. They are not thinking of You, so relax, and let odd words slide off you.
Another example: I was talking to the registrar while I paid my fee for my dance class. She was chirping happily and excitedly that her husband was at the pound, picking up a dog for them. She’s younger than I am, and only married a year. A dog was huge for them. She even showed me a picture of the dog. So when I asked her, “Is she already here?” I meant, “Is my dance instructor in the classroom and should I go ahead to my class now?” But she thought I was talking about her dog, and said, “No, not yet, but my Husband might bring her here to visit on their way home.” I realize my question had way too many pronouns, but it just proves how most people are thinking their own thoughts, and not about you at all.
So next time you are left wondering what someone meant by that comment? Let it go. It probably meant nothing at all.