Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.
This is my problem:
I spend all my days trying to avoid people who might speak to me, because it terrifies me. What is going on?? I used to be SLIGHTLY like this, and now being anti-social is like a full-time occupation. Like, I think about buying a coffee and then am like “no no self, you can’t do that – you would need to speak to a person.” I mean really. Any help would be v much appreciated.
Hermit in Training (??)
Hey Hilda, it’s me Riese. Is it okay if I call you Hilda? Okay good, because I’m going to! I volunteered to snatch this question from Laneia’s quick-and-dirty hands because your situation reminds me of one I’ve been in (and managed to get myself out of) quite a few times. I’m pretty sure that’s why you sent us this question, because you wanted one of us to project all of our feelings onto yours and then tell you how to fix your problems, as we personally define them. That’s what we do here at Autostraddle.com, You Need Help division.
Social anxiety and introversion are near and dear to my heart. The idea of going to a party, a networking event, a bar or anything that involves socializing with more than three people or any strangers at all makes me despondent/nervous. I agree with that comedian who said that for introverts, “canceling plans is our crack.” I’m a homebody who prefers eating take-out and watching Netflix with my girlfriend over ever going to another bar, ever, for the rest of my life. Like most quasi-hermits, I also really enjoy my own solo company, and I imagine you’re the same way.
So, the first step to conquering your problem is recognizing that in order to live a life that is often solitary, which’s a top priority for many introverts, you must also be willing to speak to a lot of strangers. The good news is that the strangers you’ve gotta talk to are interacting with you in a strictly transactional manner — it’s unlikely you’ll be subjected to small talk or asked what you do for a living, you just need coffee and they’re being paid to give it to you. You can’t go to a movie alone without talking to a ticket-taker, you can’t make dinner alone without talking to a grocery store cashier, you can’t work out without asking the front desk guy to scan you in. These interactions might seem to operate in direct opposition to your social needs/wants, but in fact they are perfectly aligned with them.
The first time I got myself out of one of these funks was via “shock therapy.” After nearly a year of interacting with only a select group of friends who indulged even my worst personality quirks, joking about being Emily Dickinson, eating all meals in my room to avoid any roommate interaction and doing my best to pass as male to avoid being talked to by strangers on the street, the rich liar friend who’d enabled me to be a hermit for so long left me on my ass by pulling out of a moving-in-together plan at the very last minute. This led to me having to crash at my then-girlfriend’s house for a month while I looked for a new living situation. She lived in Long Island and worked in the city, which meant every morning I had to take the train in with her and find a location with free WiFi to work in all day. AND I’d just returned to an old part-time job that required lots of phone calls and talking to strangers. Suddenly I went from interacting with 1-2 close friends and maybe one roommate a day to interacting with my girlfriend’s parents and shit-tons of strangers in order to be a human. It was shock therapy, but it worked. I had no choice, so I adapted. The first few days were hard, I felt like I was riding a bike I hadn’t mounted in years, like would my voice sound strange? Is anybody looking at me? Was my order weird? Should I slip my ticket onto the railing or just hand it to him when he passes? ARE THERE RULES HERE THAT EVERYBODY KNOWS BUT ME?? CAN THEY TELL THAT I JUST LEARNED HOW TO TALK? But eventually that one weird interaction with the barista gets lumped in with the ten less-weird interactions until they all flow together in a big muddle of interactions called “life.”
I made a lot of progress, quickly, and sustained this level of capability for a long time — and then it happened again, Hilda! It was last year, I was profoundly depressed and the one person I could rely on for some daily human interaction joined a gym and made some new friends and was getting home later and later. So I barely spoke to anyone, ever — I knew I needed shock therapy again if I was going to be a functioning human being. After a series of mental breakdowns about a really stressful work situation, I decided I needed to take some me-time off, and so I did. I took a weekend trip upstate where I basically planned on getting cheap massages and a haircut and maybe reading some books.
Once I got there, I became immediately terrified.
At 18, I’d gone all the way to Europe by myself, and in all the ensuing years, solo travel has always been a personal passion of mine. So what the fuck was my sudden problem? Before my massage I walked around the spa building smoking a joint like I was staking the place out for a drug bust, trying to figure out where the clerk would be when I walked in, what the room might look like, how busy it seemed.
Later, I eschewed the possibility of interacting with food service professionals by wasting a ton of money at an overpriced grocery store for what I told myself was a “snack plate” but was really a bunch of sad crackers. So the next night, I was gonna do it. I was gonna go to a restaurant and eat by myself! First I paced around the block for an hour in the dark mentally preparing myself. In retrospect, this seems wildly absurd. I cannot relate to that girl walking around in the dark, or understand what she was worried about. In New York and in college, I’d go out to eat by myself several times a week! I walked by the restaurant a few times, giving myself a pep talk before finally going in, honestly afraid of what my voice might sound like when I opened my mouth.
I was confused about sitting at the bar or a bar table and confused about who my server was and convinced that everybody there thought I was a lunatic the whole time and I took the leftovers home even though I didn’t want them ’cause I didn’t want them to think I was wasteful. It was exactly as awkward as I predicted. But I lived to tell the tale. The next few months were transformative, and I quickly found myself back on the road again, eating alone, visiting my activity partner, fending for my own damn self as much as possible.
I’m telling you all this, Hilda, because although your problem might feel deeply embedded in your psyche, it’s really not: you’re probably just out of practice! Which means you’ve gotta make the conscious decision to start practicing again. You’ve gotta put yourself through shock therapy. The best way to do this is to take a trip by yourself, but that might not be affordable for you right now. So, instead, I suggest you do at least one of these things every day for a week:
+ Go to the coffee shop and order something
+ Go into a deli/restaurant, make an order for take-out, wait for it to be ready, pay for it, take it home, and eat it.
+ Go to a movie by yourself
+ Go to a library and check out a book
+ Get a life-related errand off your to-do list done that requires interacting with people (going to the doctor or the DMV, etc.)
+ Call a human being and talk to them.
+ Cross a phone call off your to-do list
Then work your way up to things like eating at a restaurant with waiter service by yourself, going to a coffee shop, attending a group exercise class, volunteering or getting a job where you’ll have to interact with other people. You just have to give yourself a little kick in the ass and do it. It might be like riding a bike, you just have to do it and eventually you’ll remember how it’s done. I’m still hopeless at parties, bars, networking, making friends, and pretty much anything where I’m supposed to genuinely connect with people. But I can handle transactions withs strangers!
Of course, if you feel that this is a social anxiety that is bigger than you’re able to tackle with your own brain and heart, therapy is a good place to start, if you can afford it.
As per usual, feel free to pitch in your own advice in the comments!