Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash
This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission.
“Six slick slim sycamore saplings and five thrifty, fun, fifty-somethings. . .” I chant along with the rest of the group as I try to slow my breathing. We finish our warm-ups and line up behind the door. Somehow, I end up at the front of the line, place my shaky palm on the door knob, and prepare myself to open it and walk on stage.
Three years ago, I found myself re-enacting that scene over and over—my hand on the door knob of my dorm room, just trying to gather the strength to turn it. Every weekend, I told myself that this time I would open the door and join in with the voices merrily chatting and laughing in the hallway. But instead, I would put an eye to the peephole like a periscope of a submarine far below the depths of social interaction and watch the brave people who weren’t afraid to leave their rooms.
After a semester stuck behind my dorm room door, I decided that something needed to change.
I started to look online for advice on how to make friends at college. I felt embarrassed, because it was a skill that I thought most people had developed in kindergarten, but as I looked at online forums and articles, I started to find stories of other people who had the same struggles. And as I read these stories, I started to see the words “social anxiety” appear over and over. When I looked up the term, I found that the definition suited me perfectly—a disorder characterized by feeling fear in social situations and of being judged by others which often causes anxiety and avoidance of social interaction. Check, check, and check. And while I wasn’t thrilled that I thought had a mental health disorder, I was relieved that my thoughts and feelings had an explanation, and that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.
Further reading on sites devoted to social anxiety helped me to learn that having social anxiety wasn’t a life sentence. I learned that I could change my anxious thoughts and feelings through cognitive-behavioral therapy. This type of therapy involves exposing yourself to situations where you feel fear and anxiety and learning through experience how to deal with these situations and how not to fear them. I was scared to think about facing my fears, but I decided I might as well try.
At the top of a page in my journal I wrote the words “Challenge List,” and started writing down all the things that I wanted to do, but that made me scared.
I called them challenges for two reasons. One was that I never backed down from a challenge. I always did the hardest problems on my math homework first and even went to middle school at a place called “The Challenge School.” The second was that these were challenges, maybe not for most people, but for me they were. They spanned everything from “saying hi to people I know when I pass them” to “asking someone to eat lunch with me” to “starting a conversation with a stranger.” And while they were my challenges, but I believed they weren’t insurmountable ones.
I chose a new challenge to be my goal for every week, so I could begin to face my different fears. For the first week, I decided to say “hi” to everyone I knew. When I passed someone on the sidewalk, I would briefly consider looking down and just walking by, but then I thought about my challenge and how I wanted to complete it. I would look up and greet them. From that first week alone, I learned that simply saying “hi” meant that I got into many more conversations than I expected. Even when it didn’t go further than saying hello, it felt good to be friendly and make little connections. No one thought I was strange or rejected me– they were happy to greet me back. I moved onto to the harder challenges. When I asked people to have lunch with me, I found that they were excited to talk to me and get to know me. And when I had conversations with strangers, I found that I made more new friends, and even when I didn’t, I enjoyed talking more than just staying silent.
Soon, I started going beyond the challenges—starting conversations with strangers even when that wasn’t my challenge or just going out of my way to engage in social situations. It became second nature to do these challenges. At the end of the semester, I no longer needed to pick a goal for every week because I was challenging myself daily and seeking out those ways to push myself every moment I could.
I found that these challenges weren’t so challenging anymore, and they just became part of my everyday life.
Now, I readily take actions that used to make my stomach tense and my mind fret for days. I always try to meet as many new people as I can. I often initiate going to meals or to events with friends. And my job as a radio producer means I talk with people all the time, and I record pieces that are broadcast to audiences every week. Yet, sometimes I still need a reminder to get out of my comfort zone, so I flip to that journal page with the list I made four years ago. I remind myself of those challenges that I’ve overcome and remember to keep striving to get out of my comfort zone.
And that’s what I was doing behind that stage door– preparing myself to tell a story in front of a live audience of my peers. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I saw the storytellers perform my first year, but I never believed I would make it up on that stage. Now, it’s one more challenge I decided to complete in my final year at college. I took another deep breath and thought about my resolution to keep facing my fears and how proud I am that I’ve gotten this far. Without another thought, I turned the knob, rushed out onto the stage, and I began to speak. When I finished the story, the crowd began clapping and cheering for my story, but the loudest cheer I heard was my own.