One of my friends recently told me that she thought I hated her when we first met. Hate?! That's a strong word, I thought to myself. I laughed it off with her in the moment, but later that evening, I anxiously thought her comment over. I know I don't give the most amicable first impression, but I never thought of myself as standoffish. After talking it over with some close friends and family (and a therapist), though, I learned that my anxious habits can make me appear distant, unattached, and even inhospitable at times.
I've got social anxiety, and the area I struggle most with is meeting people for the first time. I build up the moment in my head to an Olympic degree and convince myself that this stranger is going to witness all my shortcomings right off the bat — and immediately not like me as a result. I put up my defenses because I don't want to get hurt first. Unfortunately, the insecurity, self-doubt, and low self-esteem that my anxiety brings to the surface translates easily into indifference. At parties, people think I'm impolite or, worse, tedious.
I'd like to set the record straight, because I think there are a lot of other anxiety-ridden people out there who deal with the same misunderstandings. Here's what's actually happening when my anxiety makes me seem unfriendly.
If I'm Not Very Friendly When We First Meet, It's Only Because I'm Very Insecure
Anxiety and insecurity go together like macaroni and cheese. When there's a lot of anxiety on our shoulders, we automatically feel scared that people will judge us for everything, from what we wear to how our hair smells.
I only realized this in the past year, but my overwhelming anxiety can cause me to be quite cold to people when we're first introduced. All I can think about is all the things they won't like about me — the high-pitched sound of my voice, my handshake being too firm, my annoying laugh. So when we meet for the first time and I'm not a fountain of smiles, please understand that I'm not blowing you off. I'm just putting up a defense mechanism.
I Have A Hard Time Sharing Personal Information About Myself With Strangers
I've been at dinners where multiple people are meeting for the first time, willingly exchanging details about their lives with one another. They talk about their jobs, their love lives, and their recent home renovations. I wish I could easily offer up that information myself, but my anxiety often chokes me up. It may seem like I don't want to participate in the conversation, but it's not that I don't want to. It's just that I'm afraid to open up, especially to people I don't know.
It all stems from my fear of intimacy, which is a common side effect of anxiety. So don't be alarmed if you see me freeze up or clumsily exit the room when someone starts asking me personal questions. I know they're just trying to be nice, and that they're only asking the most basic things, but if I'm not feel fully prepared for it, I sometimes feel the need to remove myself.
If I Don't Laugh, It's Probably Not Because I Don't Think You're Funny
Laughing is a great way to break the ice, but if I'm feeling tightly wound from all the nerves, I might miss out on a few of the jokes that are being tossed around. Because of my social anxiety, I get so freaked out that I'll say or do the wrong thing that I often fall out of the present moment and fail to catch onto the surrounding humor. I might also feel so uncomfortable with everything that's happening that I don't feel like I have permission to laugh with abandon. It doesn't mean you're not funny (you probably are very funny, in fact), and it doesn't mean I'm a poor sport. I'm just trying to play my cards right so I don't make a fool out of myself.
If I Back Out Of Plans At The Last Minute, It Doesn't Mean I Don't Care
A devastatingly common symptom of social anxiety is refusing to show up to certain events because you're afraid to be the center of attention, or you're just not feeling strong enough to face a group of people. I've had to cancel numerous dinners and get-togethers because my anxiety had other ideas in mind. It may sound ridiculous to people who have never suffered from a mental illness, but it can feel impossible to put eye shadow on and go meet people in a crowded bar when you're feeling emotionally exhausted. No matter how far in advance I've made the plans, there simply comes a time when I hit a wall, and my time is better spent at home, eating a warm meal and enjoying the silence.
When I'm Awkward With Your Friends, It's Because I'm Nervous They Won't Like Me
Meeting my friends' friends is one of the most stressful things on the planet. It's almost as bad as all those standardized tests I had to take in high school. I love my friends, so I want the people in their life to take a liking to me. But you know by now that I'm not great with first impressions, so I may be a little awkward with your crew when we're introduced for the first time.
My anxiety makes me feel like I have to live up to a lot of expectations, particularly if these are people who mean a lot to my friends. I make myself believe I have to put my best foot forward, which puts unnecessary pressure on me. In turn, I get really jumpy and I doubt myself. Don't be surprised if I say a few awkward things or come off as reserved.
If I'm Quiet, It's Not Because I'm Mad At You
Talking, in general, is a difficult task when anxiety hits you hard. When I feel triggered, the first thing I do is shut down. I don't want to speak to anyone. I don't have the energy to carry on small talk. I wish people would understand that, so if they happen to approach me when I'm internally battling anxiety, they would know that my silence doesn't reflect on them at all. Rather, it's a product of the hectic reel of thoughts in my head. Being quiet and steering clear of social interactions just feels like the only way to handle the madness.
Please be understanding when I just don't have very much to say in a conversation. Let me take care of myself and get back on track, and then I'm sure I'll be back to my chatty self. Eventually. Maybe.