Goodbye, Social Anxiety: How I Finally Learned to Speak Up

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Pictured: not giving a crap anymore. Also, lipstick. 

Until recently, staying nervously silent as often as possible was one of the main goals of my day-to-day existence. You could say I come by the trait honestly.

In one of my first memories of social frustration, I was three years old and a store clerk at Albertson’s tried getting me to talk to him. The little girl in front of me in line giggled and told him all about her recent vacation, and I cringed at her foolish, cutesy behavior. When the clerk asked me how I was doing, I just stared, blankly, from my seat in front of the cart, mastering RBF before I even knew what that was. My emerging sass melded nicely with the well-established shyness, and a legacy was born.

By the time I started school, things got weirder. The first half of the year, I hardly talked to anyone, especially the teacher. She’d bring it up in parent-teacher conferences and my Mom would come home asking why I never talked. By the second half of the year no one could get me to shut up around my friends, but I still hesitated every time I had to say anything to a teacher. Authority, especially attached to people I admired, brought out a piercing fear of failure I’m STILL trying to combat.

Entering the Young Women’s program as a 12-year-old was a bit of a nightmare. I knew I was supposed to be having fun, but couldn’t believe I was expected to function around all the cool, angsty older girls I’d known my whole life. Nothing scared 12-year-old me more than 16-year-olds with boyfriends who went to seminary and stake dances. I showed up to just about every activity but hardly spoke for the first few years. Luckily, some excellent leaders, the entire premise of girls’ camp, and an extroverted best friend helped me through the later stretches of the church youth program, but my struggles with socializing were far from over.

In high school I met my closest friends during freshman year band camp, and didn’t stray much from that group. Honestly, I chose my friends based on how equally-unpopular they were, which is actually fabulous advice for high school students. My fellow uncool friends, to this day, are some of the loveliest people I know, AND I never even came close to confronting the sex-and-drugs variety of peer pressure. We, collectively, had no idea how to obtain either.

One friend I made later in high school, also a band child who’d moved in before the start of Junior year, told me that she thought I disliked her because I’d never have actual conversations with her in our first class together. She’d try and engage with me, I’d reply with the required number of pleasantries and perhaps a bit of nervous laughter, and promptly walk away. Because that’s just who I was. Once I realized how many mutual friends we had, things picked up and became decidedly less odd, but hearing her side of things forced me to wonder what was wrong with me for the first time.

I learned soon enough that staying quiet was a coping mechanism that prevented me from embarrassment, regret, and social rejection. If I didn’t say anything, the odds of saying something stupid or wrong were virtually zero. It seemed like a win-win to me.

Things didn’t get better in college. My professors, as much as I loved them, freaked me out even more than my high school teachers – they had doctorate degrees! And some of them had written real-life, actual books! Saxophone lessons were weekly one-on-one anxiety sessions. I dreaded introductory small talk with my peers. I could get into decent conversations with my roommates and coworkers, but the ever-present nature of those relationships hardly gave me a choice. In most public spaces – church, classrooms, the universe at large – I aimed for the path of least resistance. For me, that meant silence.

My first creative writing teacher – a young, tall, dark-haired, super smart, married-with-a-baby, glasses-wearing, vegan, feminist grad student – terrified me. I loved her, wanted to be her someday, and felt entirely unworthy in her presence. I could hardly get a word out when picking up assignments from her after class. To this day I’m sure she has no idea the kind of impact she had on me, because that’s not something I could ever tell her. She was far too cool – I couldn’t even imagine forming a meaningful student-instructor relationship with her.

Soon after I started realizing how frustrating some of my tendencies were. Why did I constantly fear raising my hand in class? Why did sending professors practical emails result in instant, foreboding regret? Why did my heart race every time I had to make a phone call to someone I didn’t know? Why did I label soooo many people as “cooler” and therefore not worth talking to? Why did I over-analyze every tiny moment of awkwardness for weeks – EVEN YEARS – after they occurred? Why did I assume most people disliked me?

The funny thing about social anxiety is that once you acknowledge its existence, it’s hard to give it much power. When I realized my lack of self-confidence – a bigger problem than occasional shyness – was keeping me from making meaningful connections, I knew change was in order. I had to learn to love myself, and acknowledge that even if other people didn’t love me, that was none of my business, and nothing I should take too seriously.

The diagnostic work began.

For a spell, I did actually try fitting into the dominant culture here in Provo. Freshman year I attended FHE, every single’s ward activity, game nights with our neighbors, gruelingly-awkward blind group dates. Though I tried convincing myself I was having ~tons of fun~, that fantasy didn’t last long. I hated the constant pressure to date, the fakeness of people trying to befriend the quiet girl out of Christian obligation, the awkward home teaching appointments. I realized pretty quickly that socializing, if done right, shouldn’t be deeply uncomfortable.

As it turns out, the single’s ward is not the greatest place for me. I tried to make it work and I still attend regularly, but I’m beginning to learn that any real sense of belonging will likely only exist outside the bounds of Sunday school, and that’s okay. For me, gaining control of my anxiety meant realizing that maybe I wasn’t always the problem, that maybe YSA church activities would never feel especially fun and that I simply hadn’t found my place yet.

I studied abroad sophomore year and learned that professors – even the amazing ones – are, in fact, people. They have families and friends, do laundry, eat Nutella by the spoonful at night time, wear pajamas, and have grouchy days. I was surprised to learn that they actually like conversing with their dedicated students, sharing their knowledge and showing them beautiful British places. It was the first time I could semi-comfortably talk with my superiors, it felt great, and I realized how much I could gain by leaving my silent comfort zone.

After coming back to the anxiety cesspool that is Provo, I took another creative writing class from a lovely man who had written an essay I studied in the previous course. To me, he was famous, and that didn’t even scare me. I engaged fully with the workshopping process, submitting mediocre essays and learning not to freak out when my classmates discussed my work. I eventually learned to love the undivided attention (crazy, I know), and enjoyed offering tips to fellow writers when their turns came. My professor helped me realize my potential, encouraged me to develop my skills, and still assists me in figuring out my journey to grad school and beyond. If I had let his success intimidate me, none of that could have happened. Learning from his expertise, far from of reminding me of my own inadequacy, helped me realize who I could potentially be someday, and that is AMAZING.

These days, when I meet authoritative figures/potential role models, I don’t cower in unworthy fear. Instead, I wonder what I can learn from them. How can their awesomeness turn me into a better person? How can I get to know them and learn from their ample experience? It’s a pretty exciting prospect, and I think it has turned me into a better, kinder, more thoughtful person.

I found happy spaces. I have English major friends now. I took a seriously life-altering women’s literature course (which yes, I think I mention in just about every recent blog post, and I’m not even socially anxious enough to care about sounding too enthusiastic). I met new friends who love books and women, two of my favorite things as of late, and hate Donald Trump, which is great and deserves no comment beyond that.

I’m registered for the Women’s Studies colloquium, and love surrounding myself with women’s studies minors who care about the things I care about, learning about amazing, admirable women doing good work in this world. I’m interning at the writing center, and learning how to connect with students who can benefit from my help has been a great experience. Making money doing something that isn’t horribly stressful has also turned out wonderfully.

I’m also learning that my peers – even the scary-competent ones – are actually great people going through the same things as I am. They don’t, as far as I know, think I’m a huge loser. After attending a previous classmate’s book club, I told her how much I enjoyed it. I explained how bad I am at attending gatherings alone, especially when I don’t know anyone well, and that I was glad I ended up going.

To that, she responded, “No worries! You’re one of us,” and I kind of melted. Was I REALLY one of them? I’m still not sure. As far as the anxious bit of my brain knows, they’re all more successful, normal-er, cooler people than me. Fortunately, the critical-thinking part of my brain has gained traction lately, and tells me that as long as I’m here and they’re willing, I might as well join them.

I find myself now with a post-anxiety high. I want to make up for lost time and befriend everyone. It’s kind of freaking me out. Now that I’ve started talking, I literally have no idea when to shut up. I find it both horrifying and hilarious, and overall empowering.

I’ve learned that maybe, possibly, I’m allowed to sincerely believe people when they compliment me. That maybe they aren’t only saying nice things to hide the fact that they dislike me. At the very least, they care enough to make something up, and want me to feel good about myself, and maybe I should; I’m certainly not hurting anyone by dropping the self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still as introverted as ever. I delight every time I come home to an empty apartment, and I love an occasional home-bound weekend. I love books and the internet and by-myself writing time. Everything about this social journey exhausts me, but it doesn’t scare me anymore. I’ve learned that interacting with other people is far less worrisome than I’d always assumed, and that choosing to love them unapologetically instead of fearing everything about them is a much healthier way of approaching this world.

I’m still not perfect. Who’s to say this will last? Maybe I’m only experiencing a small moment of grace, and those old insecurities threaten to return at any time. The future is obviously a giant black hole of not knowing, but for now I’m choosing to go with it. Maybe, if I can commit to this beautiful goal of never shutting up again, I can convince even the quietest of girls that her voice is, in fact, worth something – that we, as people, are born with the right to speak.

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To The Thin Person I’m (not) Supposed to Be

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Built like a brick (and ultra stylish) since 2006. 

A few months ago I listened to one of those episodes of This American Life.

If you’re familiar with the podcast, you might know what I’m talking about. It was the kind of episode that makes you simultaneously want to laugh, cry, punch someone in the face, and hug your friends. The kind with a message that sticks in your brain and will likely change the way you view just about everything (thank you, NPR).

In it, Lindy West – whose new book I’m dying to read – describes her life as a fat girl and the steps she’s taken to own her identity in a world uncomfortable accepting her body as it is. She courageously says what many fat people wish we could have said all along: she’s here, she’s fat, and she’s done trying to change it.

“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state,” she says with a tone of playful disbelief. “You’re just a thin person who’s been failing consistently for your whole life.”

When I heard that, I laughed. And something clicked: she was absolutely right. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be thinner – not necessarily because I wanted to improve my health, but because I wanted my body to reflect normalcy; to be “correct,” and not a sign of ineptitude. I felt that the way my body looks – and honestly, has always looked – was a mistake I’m responsible for fixing. Neglecting to put forth extensive effort means I’m doing something wrong, that I’ll never be as valuable as those people in the weight-loss ads on TV.

And you know what? That’s garbage! It’s as garbage as saying my blue eyes are inferior and I need to do everything possible to turn them brown, or that my toes are too short so I better make a New Year’s resolution to lengthen them. It’s laughably ridiculous.

Because even if I lose fifty pounds, fatness and my body will always go hand in hand. I could train to run a marathon, go vegan, do any number of miserable things I’d probably hate, but I don’t think anything could change my wide-set shoulders, brawny biceps, chunky calves, or childbearing hips.

I’m finally learning that I’m a large person, I am female, and it’s totally okay to be both of those things. Taking up space is not something to be self-conscious about. My tummy is my business. I shouldn’t have to defend myself for weighing more than a BMI chart says I should.

I was born five weeks premature and still weighed nearly seven pounds, bigger than many full-term babies. Growing up, I was always the tallest, and usually the chunkiest kid in class. Sure, it was weird and alienating at times (every fat kid has their own set of baggage), but it’s who I am. It’s what my body is. There’s literally no sense in moralizing it one way or another.

And let me be clear: this isn’t about healthy eating and exercise. Those things are great, important, even necessary habits. They benefit mental health and physical well-being, both of which are things I strive for. There have been times in my life where those goals are somewhat attainable. There have been other times that they just weren’t going to happen. THAT IS OKAY, AND NOT A REFLECTION OF MY VALUE AS A PERSON.

Sure, we’d all be healthier if we ate more plants and less sugar, but it’s not my job to decide if someone is eating incorrect foods or not. I know enough thin people who live off of cheese and pop-tarts and enough fat people who do run marathons to understand the nuance of the so-called “obesity epidemic” in this country.

Why don’t we just start approaching weight pragmatically? If you eat fewer calories and spend more time on your feet, you’ll likely be thinner, because that’s how human physiology works. If your life is in a place where those things aren’t possible or you have more pressing matters to worry about, you’ll weigh more. That’s it. No need to moralize things. No need to assume every fat person you meet is lazy, stupid, or dirty. Unless you’re a diamond or a literal piece of meat, size does not reflect value.

I’ve had to tell myself that a lot lately. Since Thanksgiving weekend I’ve gained ten pounds. With the stress of finals and the following three weeks of lazing around at home eating Christmas treats, my body has responded by gaining back 10 of the 25 pounds I lost last semester due to my busy, on-my-feet, occasional meal-skipping lifestyle.

To that I say, so what? Soon I’ll be back to the real world and dropping weight again, but I shouldn’t feel anxiously inadequate until I reach my previous low. I don’t have time to worry about those things.

Starting in May I’ll be hiking 200 miles over the course of seven weeks, and likely a hundred more after that. It’s likely I’ll lose lots of weight. It will be marvelously fun, and I’m sure I’ll feel great. But guess what? I’m not expecting to keep up that kind of activity level once I’m back to the daily grind, writing papers and reading books and working a desk job. I might try and incorporate more healthy habits, and I hope I do, but the fact is, I’ll likely never stay as thin as I’m sure to be immediately post study-abroad. THAT IS OKAY.

How about we love our bodies for being our bodies? They change sometimes – for some of us, quite often. This is not something to freak out about. In fact, it’s something we should cherish. Our bodies, in so many ways, reflect the lives they live. That can be a truly beautiful thing if we let it be a beautiful thing and not a dark force rooted in horror and discomfort.

I would like to insist, if not shout from the rooftops, that we need to love our bodies even when they weigh more than we want them to. When they’re sick and keeping us from living the lives we wish we had. When they trip and fall, literally and figuratively. When they’re trapped in addiction, self-destruction, unimaginable anguish. Without body love, there’s no hope of getting past any of those mortal struggles. Believe me: it’s ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to value and care for something you despise.

After all, if you’ve been taught your whole life that your body marks your own failure, why on earth would you be motivated to change it? Why would you put in the effort to keep it healthy with wholesome meals and daily physical activity if you’re convinced that no matter what you do, it can never be enough?

When we eat salad, we should do it because we like eating salad, and it makes us feel good. When we forego donut number two, it shouldn’t be because we want to fit into a dress five sizes too small; it should be because we don’t want the sugar crash two hours later. When we go for a run, it should be because we love our bodies and the things that they can do, regardless of how much faster or stronger our neighbors might be.

If you’re exercising everyday because you hate your body, the habit won’t last. In that state, even losing a tremendous amount of weight can only result in temporary happiness – it will only be a matter of time until those lingering feelings of inadequacy return, either in response to nearly-inevitable weight regain or that always-inevitable plateau.

We need to stop this way of thinking! It’s time we cut ourselves a break. Not when we lose the weight. Not when we feel like we’ve met every one of our lifestyle goals. Now!

It’s time to stop whining about things we probably can’t change, and start treating ourselves the way we would treat our make-believe, skinny alter-egos. In making healthy lifestyle choices without setting an explicit goal of trimming down, we might accidentally lose weight. We might not. I’m telling you now, it really shouldn’t matter.

I know that there are times it feels like it matters. That employers are judgmental and most men find fat unattractive. That straight-size stores rarely carry anything larger than a 12. But next time you’re at a store without a single piece of clothing that fits, don’t get mad at yourself for failing to fit into the arbitrary mold the business has made for you; get mad at the fashion industry for being so narrow-minded, and spend your money elsewhere! Date where you can, and know that it’s their loss if they can’t accept the way you look. Exude the confidence of that imaginary, thin self, and never look back. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.

And I get it. Learning to love something you’ve been taught to hate can be hard. Brussels sprouts come to mind. Personally, I love me some sprouts no matter how unpopular of a vegetable they are. I could hear a hundred “Brussels sprouts are gross” jokes on television or in magazines, and still love them with as much enthusiasm as I do now, because I decided years ago that they’re good, nutritious, tasty little cabbages that make my life objectively better.

The same goes for my body. I can watch TV shows that make fun of fat people (which, to be clear, I avoid like the plague), I can spend all day hearing about the hangups society has regarding female bodies. I could obsess over every offhand remark about large women I happen to hear in public spaces. I could give into that discomfort I’m supposedly meant to feel on several levels as part of my birthright. But I won’t.

I won’t let the fact that my body weighs more than most of my friends’ bodies get me down. I’ll stay away from influences that tell me my body is gross or unworthy of pleasure or love or acceptance. I’ll embrace my womanhood – my fat womanhood – like I embrace Brussels sprouts. I’ll choose to savor it, to doctor it up with bacon and balsamic vinegar, to roast it until its caramelized and delicious, to do everything I need to do to make it palatable, until I don’t even question my undying self-love; it will simply be another beautiful, amazing, worthwhile part of my being.

Because guess what, skinny alter-ego? You’re not real. It’s time I stop pretending that you are. This January, I choose both healthful living and body acceptance.

In the wise words of fat superhero Lindy West, “Why not try to figure out how to be happy now?”