After mumbling my way through my 9th grade report on Romeo and Juliet, I braced myself for the critique that would come from my English teacher sitting at the back of the class. Instead of finding flaws in my examination of Romeo’s romances he announced to the class that I needed speech therapy. The problem wasn’t a stutter but that no one had heard a word of what I said. If I hadn’t been so mortified of being told I needed speech therapy on top of having just given a public presentation in front of my classmates, I would have used all my mental power to shoot daggers straight at my teacher’s head. Fifteen years later, I can still feel the blood rush to my face.
I have Social Anxiety Disorder meaning I am irrationally afraid of social situations. In fact, at times, I am so afraid that I do not speak at all. You know how some people have no filter between their brains and their mouths? Well, I have a filter in jumbo size and it’s clogged. Clogged with words I can’t make myself say.
Do me a favor and make your hands into fists. Now imagine those fists squeezing all of the organs inside your chest. Your lungs, your stomach, your esophagus. Now twist them. That is how it feels when I speak. Every word I speak must be forced through this twisted mass, and when I do speak, it tends to come out in an in-audible whisper. My only reasoning for speaking so softly is that my brain is fighting a war with my fear. The fear that what I say is unimportant and uninteresting.
A boy in high school asked me crudely one day, “Why don’t you just speak louder?”
“Oh! I didn’t think of that! I’ll speak louder from now on, thanks!” I said in response. Or I would have if I had been able to speak.
Countless times I’ve been told to repeat myself and to speak louder. Years and years of this. I was too quiet, too shy. I was stepped on and ignored. I made an excellent door mat. I was angry and I blamed others for making me feel that way. But it didn’t change anything. Instead I decided I needed to change. So I created a way to speak over my anxiety.
These are my tips.
When your coworker says “hi, how are you?” and the vomit comes into your throat, take one deep breath. Give yourself a moment. Send your anxiety to a box. Let your insides unknot. You are in charge.
2. Say it.
“I am in charge!” Out loud or in your head (preferably in your head if you are in a conversation). Say it until the box of anxiety is locked.
3. Fake it.
You might not want to talk but do it. Say hello back. Say, “I’m good, how are you?”
Desensitize yourself to social situations by doing it over and over and over. It’s going to suck but every time is going to suck a little less. Practice with someone you trust and work up from there. Work your way up little by little with strangers. Say hello first.
5. Remember that you matter!
Your opinions are worth hearing. Even if others do not agree or even like your opinion, they will respect you more for having one rather than saying nothing. I’m still learning how to do this.
Writing down how I feel has kept me sane. I keep so much inside my head that it needs a place to go. Unclog your filter and write.
6. Do something with your hands.
Giving your hands something to do It’s a great way to channel your anxiety while you talk. Thumbing a ring or necklace, or squeezing a stress ball. There is even a device I recently came across online called fidget cubes made just for this purpose.
7. Talk to a doctor.
When I was seventeen my mom took me to a doctor and we talked to him about how my anxiety crippled me. I went on anxiety medication and I’ve been on it for ten years. It is not a cure but when I didn’t want to speak it helped me to get over the fear and take the first steps. I’m not telling you to go on medication. There is so much more to it than medicine and maybe that’s not for you. Talk to a doctor and see what they say.
8. Don’t use drugs and alcohol to help you socialize.
It’s cheating and it won’t feel as real as what you say sober. The effects are temporary and the issues will still be there when you sober up. Don’t walk down that slippery slope. It leads to a very dark place.
I didn’t figure this out overnight. It took a lot of years and a lot of courage. I still feel my insides twisting when I speak. Sometimes the words still don’t come out, but now I know I can beat the anxiety down. If you struggle with Social Anxiety Disorder remember to be patient with yourself. You are worthy and wonderful and other people want to know you. So screw your anxiety. It may never leave you, but you can keep it in its place.
P.S. If you are one of the socially capable people out there and you find yourself in a social setting with someone who is the quiet and shy type, do a few things for me. Don’t talk about them in the third person when they are right in front of you. Give them a chance to speak as they probably will not interrupt you. Be patient and keep talking if they don’t respond. Let them warm up to the conversation. If you need them to repeat themselves and you feel especially generous, blame it on your hearing. And finally if you are not a doctor or a counselor do not tell them they need speech therapy.