Dear Liza: Breaking the Stigma of Social Anxiety

Dear Liza,

I have social anxiety. You'd think that's what I need advice on, but after years of therapy I know this mental illness like the back of my hand.

I see so many bloggers and people in general advocating awareness for mental health, and I agree with it. I agree that we should talk about it more and raise awareness to end the stigma. We should inform people as best as we can and talk about it. Problems is, I often feel ashamed for having this mental illness. There are not many people in my life who know about it, even though I want to treat it as something absolutely normal (because it is, and because if I don't perceive it that way, how will others?).

My theory is that this is my social anxiety itself acting up, and my fear of being judged by others. I keep thinking people will mock me and think I'm a loser for not being able to deal with people in a normative way. So I stay away from letting people know I struggle with this.

I not only suffer with this, I'm also a Psychology student myself. I want to be a psychologist and I'm all for ending the stigma around mental health. It's not mental health itself that's the issue for me, as I don't look at it as "something wrong" like so many people do, it's my social anxiety in itself. It's me having it.

What is your advice on how I should go around this? 'Cause mental health is a topic I am so strongly passionate about, and I want to contribute to the raising of awareness of it with my own experience too. Thank you in advance for your words!

Hey there, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and concerns with me.

One thing I notice a lot in my own life and by observing others around me is how often we have a completely different set of rules for ourselves compared to how we treat other people. It sounds like you'd never judge others for their mental health, and yet you don't expect others to treat you the same, perhaps you don't treat yourself the same - do you judge yourself for experiencing social anxiety? (It goes without saying that you shouldn't, but if that is the case I just want to call attention to it for the purpose of my next point). 

I read a quote today that resonated deeply with me: it's time we became our own admirers. I would love to see you do the same. It sucks that what seems simple for other people is so much harder for you, but don't you deserve endless admiration for trying even though it's hard? It sounds like you have a passion for mental health in a really cool way, and I admire you for that. Could you feel the same way about yourself?

I think you're right that your social anxiety is making it even harder for you to accept your social anxiety, because that's the very nature of it: it makes you fear the reactions of other people. It's a bitch, huh?

Sometimes what I have to do when I'm scared about admitting sides of myself is by practising with people that I really trust, starting out little by little till I can be more honest about it. When I have a good experience it builds my confidence, and each subsequent interaction is a step towards embracing that part of me. I have had very few bad experiences, and when I have it's been a reflection of the other person, not me. I recently made a video highlighting social anxiety and ways to be a good friend to someone suffering recently and the response has been amazing. You might be surprised by how many people are like you, but are also scared of judgement. It takes a huge amount of courage to get there, but if you can I'd love you to find a space to talk about it. 

And if you really can't, it doesn't mean you can't break the stigma and champion mental health. You don't have to tell everyone about your experiences, hell you don't have to tell anyone, and you can still be an awesome voice in bringing to light a difficult and painful subject. I say this not to discourage you from being open, but because I don't want you to feel like you're letting yourself down by not talking about yourself. Ultimately that is your choice to make. 

I feel like you know this already, because you sound like you really understand your experience, and you probably just need someone else to tell you this because sometimes we hear things better from friends or strangers. 

I wish you the best of luck in the future, and keep being awesome - because you are awesome, even if you're social anxiety tells you otherwise.