A professor asks you a question you happen to know the answer to. You have all the words at the tip of your tongue, ready to snatch up points for the participation grade.
But there’s just one problem: the thought of raising your hand in Goergen auditorium conjures up images of a boa constricting around your throat. In just a split second, you have managed to shred your unsaid answer to a thousand pieces, deeming it too imperfect and not worth stumbling over your words, looking anxious, or appearing boring, stupid, or incompetent.
The thought of walking from one class to another across a crowded quad seems exactly like what a valley of the shadow of death would look like: a paralyzing self-conscious journey of unkind scrutiny. To avoid this buzzy, nerve-wracking between-class walkway traffic, you’ve come up with a solution: setting the volume to its maximum on your airpods and looking down on your phone as you walk, a survival kit to avoid eye contact at all costs. Normally, after class ends, you wait until the quad clears up first so you can walk to your next stop without the debilitating and persistent fear of humiliation rearing its head. You’ve mastered knowing where all the quiet places on campus are, including the serene cemetery where you take regular long walks.
Choosing a place to study is also one of the most nerve-wracking experiences. While places like iZone and Q&I boast well-lit spaces and an open, often relaxed ambiance, they are also usually the most crowded, and the most judgemental, so you would rather settle with the quiet, wooden-chaired stacks. This is where you thrive the most: quiet places far away from conversations with strangers, an escape from the fear of sweating and shaking in response to your surroundings.
You’re finally in a cozy, intimate round-table class in LeChase with 11 people at most. It’s supposed to be your least nerve-wracking class. This is also the class where most students usually get away with saying the most random nonsense in the name of participation and still seem smart. But instead, this class is your worst nightmare. The size of the classroom seems to get smaller every minute, making you uncomfortable. You’re really doing your best to look relaxed, but to the person sitting next to you, you’re coming across as a bit standoffish.
The professor randomly points at you for an answer, and you realize that you spaced out for a few seconds, not really listening to the question. You choke up and find it hard to breathe or even process what’s going on around you. With all of the attention on you, you feel the gaze of people across the room like fine needles piercing your skin. This makes you so self-conscious that you’re already planning to miss your next class. The last time you explained your social anxiety to your professor, he told you to “face your fears” and “think positive.” This is not the first time someone has told you to get over your “shyness” by applying some kind of magical thinking or a strategy from a Norman Vincent Peale book.
Your friends invited you to a party this weekend, but you’ve been avoiding parties for so long. You tell them that you can’t go because you have other plans — this is the third party you’ve passed up this semester. They tell you to “learn how to not give a fuck and just have fun,” but you understand why they don’t understand. Because it’s easy to tell someone not to care until you realize that not giving a fuck is a privilege many people, like yourself, don’t have. Giving up, you decide to tell your friends you’re a shy introvert because — you know — they seem to understand introversion better than social anxiety disorder.