An intrinsic part of growing up is learning the ability to “fit in”, but at what point is the line drawn between social chameleon and complete fraud?
For many months now, after any kind of social engagement, this is the question that I have been taunting myself with. It seems ridiculous to complain about being able to fit into social situations, I am aware, especially after many years of being terrified of exactly the opposite. Realistically, having people like me at all should come as a sigh of relief, and to some extent it really does. However, after recently being told by friends (who didn’t know me as an awkward teen) that I look like I always seem so confident, I began to feel like a slight fraud. It was true, that having progressed out of youthful idealism of hoping to be a complete individual, I had landed into early adulthood with a realisation that the only thing worse than fitting in, was standing out.
For anyone that has experienced high school, unfortunately they will probably understand what I mean by that statement. It’s a terrifying ordeal for most. To combine that with suffering with social anxiety, it felt like the equivalent of now needing to cough in public…a disaster waiting to happen. The term ‘social anxiety’ was not something I was even aware of when beginning school or for the six weeks prior that I didn’t sleep, when my parents thought it was “just nerves”. Realistically, for the entirety of my first year it was exhausting and the only thing that got me through any of it, was having my twin sister to hide behind and rely on for support. It wasn’t until much later, after undergoing CBT counselling that I even knew anxiety is what I had been dealing with.
With roughly 1 in 10 people suffering from social anxiety (according to Anxietyuk.org), I am mindful that there were probably many others in a similar position. Had I known that so many people were in situations like myself, I may have been marginally more open about my fears. Instead, what I had developed through counselling was a slight ‘fake it till you make it’ type attitude. Like the kind of false confidence that people tell you to adopt for a job interview, I had adopted to life.
When I began university, nearly 3 years ago, I realised that it would probably be the biggest challenge for me as of yet. For the first six months I contemplated dropping out at least once a week, despite having met lovely people, because I just didn’t feel like I fit. I refused however to let it show because a large part of me knew the feeling was an internal struggle. No one had ever said or done anything to cause this stress, in fact finding friends had been fairly easy. The issue was my anxiety led me to believe that I was surrounded by people who all spoke slightly “nicer” than I did, who all knew more than I did and who weren’t terrified like I was. My coping mechanism again was to adapt. Subconsciously, I found myself speaking with a voice I knew wasn’t entirely mine and talking about topics I actually knew not a lot about, and I didn’t know how to stop.
Slipping from one version of myself to another, depending on the group of friends I was with felt silly, but it had become such a habit to staying afloat, that at times I barely noticed I was doing it. With so much worry that I would never particularly fit anywhere, fitting in everywhere seemed like something I should applaud myself for. However, what people don’t tell you is that by being so concerned about others liking you, it leaves little time to work out who you really even are.
Which is why, five years on from counselling and three years on from starting university, at some point in the last few months I decided enough was enough. Take this as my declaration in attempting to be honest with who I am, regardless of fear. Trying to fit every mould is impossible. Despite my best efforts I am not a shapeshifter and not everyone has to like who I am. To the people that do, I love you dearly and am very grateful.
In a time where so many of us feel the pressure to be accessible and likeable at all times, this is me telling you and myself that you don’t have to. Social anxiety is tricky and even without it, it’s okay to want time away from people. There doesn’t need to be an excuse for turning down plans. This year has been hard enough on everyone as it is, without feeling like we have to keep up false pretences, in fear of others judging us. Some days I will be the loudest person in the room, other days I will not say a word and that will have to be enough.