The loud, colourful, confident impression I give in life is, largely, a false one.
I suffer from chronic (though usually hidden) shyness and moderate social anxiety. This is a difficult combination to manage, partly because some of its manifestations have made people query whether I am mildly autistic (which is certainly possible) or dangerously lacking assertiveness (again, a distinct possibility) or just unfriendly and stubborn (both of which may also be true!).
I have learned, over the decades, to hide this affliction beneath a persona who is larger, louder and more colourful than life! Many people are taken in. I am not. Nor have I ever truly become the persona through and through. We exist in a state of uneasy balance, Ms Loud Rude Peacock-Coloured Ali and I…
The social anxiety started very early and showed itself in strong psychosomatic tendencies from the first: The very thought of my own birthday parties used to bring on either asthma or hay-fever, or both. Now, social occasions affect my tummy or my head: I usually get digestive problems and minor migraines when I have to mix socially.
I tend to make a few, deep friendships, rather than a large group of perhaps slightly less intimate ones. This is partly because trust has always come hard for me, but mainly because I have almost no ability to conduct polite chit-chat. Trying to do so counts as one of life’s premier horrors and stresses for me.
And yet, ironically, I am a very good listener and can devote hours to hearing what another is saying (and what they are not articulating!).
Why am I writing all this?
I will tell you. In late August, I am going, with my son, to a close family member’s wedding – and I am absolutely dreading it. Of course it will be lovely to see this child, now a grown woman, getting wed to the man she loves; of course it will be delightful to see my siblings and nieces and nephews again…
But, I fear my own social inadequacy to such an extent that I am already getting platoons of butterflies in my stomach. I am dreading the casual questions concerning my ex-partner – which are bound to come my way because I have kept the details of the divorce very quiet, and some people may not even realise what has happened at all. I feel sick at the thought of having to interact at a level I find so very painful and difficult.
It is very different when I go to the annual Silent Eye workshop weekends, I think because we are all on the same metaphorical page and our conversations tend to move through the social layers into deeper territory almost immediately.
I also feel great wedding-related anxiety about my appearance. Unlike Cinderella, I do not have a Fairy Godmother to clothe me in radiant beauty – and, when it comes to clothes, I am clueless and, at present, a tad strapped for cash! There is such unspoken pressure to look presentable at such events, isn’t there? And I have never been an expensive-dress-and-hat-and-accessories sort of a gal! I fear letting the social side down by looking like Worzel Gummidge’s aunt!
I was trying to identify what the basis of this polite conversation allergy is before I set fingers to keyboard. I think it is partly because I have long seen myself as socially clumsy and, in some ways, a misfit – but also because I do have a hunger for friends, for people in my life, but want to connect at a higher level than the social, the gap between the real person and their social side yawns wide. The saddest thing, for me, is when I sense that someone is predominantly operating on the surface, and either doesn’t want to go to another level, or cannot.
I am not blaming others for my weaknesses, however. The basic flaw is in me: It is my total inability to chat. I wish I could. I have tried all my life. I have watched the A* exponents of the art in admiration and self-denigration.
I suppose social interaction is a game we humans have created – and some people are better game players than others.
I am not ruling out the possibility that I will, eventually, become socially adept and confident – because I rule nothing out! – but I think it a little unlikely.
This social anxiety-and-shyness combination is, of course, what gave me the impetus to write in the first place – and, having knocked myself for the lack all these years, I confess I did find comfort in the quote I include below:
Not in any way excusing my social handicap, but it would be lovely to think that this has an element of truth in it!