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Social Anxiety: The Bubble Theory

Bitches Bitches 

Everywhere

Nobody likes me

Nobody cares

Bitches Bitches

All around 

Mocking me

Insulting me

Shooting me down 

Heart in my throat, I repeat this mantra to myself as I re-enter my own personal bitch pit: my second year college class. I’m not really one for poetry, but, with my self-esteem wounded, I felt the need to self express. Printing the words into the back of my notebook, and later into my journal, I found myself feeling increasingly less frantic about what had happened that afternoon. The words felt lucid and true and this calmed me. But, of course, in the long run it wouldn’t change anything. The whole class, including my teacher, would still despise me.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I am well aware that I can be. Ever since early adolescence I have had an argumentative streak, a probable result of spending the first twelve years of my life as a doormat. Soon after I began secondary school, I became fed up with feeling invisible and unimportant within my friendship group, so I started to stick up for myself more. However, the new-found ability to self-defend quickly spun out of control, leaving me constantly enraged with the world. This left me feeling even more isolated from my peers, and marked the beginning of what I like to call “my social struggle”.

Fast-forward four years. Despite two years of intensive therapy, the social struggle is harder than ever before. I have just started college. It has been over a year since my last admission to the psychiatric unit. I had completed school, started afresh with an old friend and even attended the prom. Yet, in this unfamiliar surrounding, a place where a new beginning was well within my reach, I found myself feeling more socially incompetent than ever before. The prospect of starting from scratch scared the hell out of me, resulting in me becoming more involuntarily introverted than ever. At least at school when I walked the corridors alone, people knew who I was, and I knew who they were. At least when I was at school I had a private room assigned to me for lunch and break times, as not to be reminded of my solitude. At least there, some of the nicer students would smile and sympathise. But who could do that here? Nobody had any idea who I was or where I had come from. I made small talk with a few of the other students at first, and even threw some hints about my past to them, but as the days turned to weeks, socialisation became more and more emotionally draining, to the point that I came to dread it. In my eyes, I always said the wrong thing, or in the wrong way. Or I always gave away to much, to fast, in an desperate attempt for someone to get to know me. I spent most of my free periods writing or reading outside or in the canteen, observing my socially acceptable peers. It was was during one of these times, whilst scribbling melancholy thoughts into my journal, that I came up with the bubble theory.

Remember Violet?  The Incredible’s teenage daughter, who possessed the power of invisibility? She acts as an visualisation for this theory. As Disney fans may remember, Violet was able to seclude herself in a bubble, sealing herself off from her family and the rest of the world. For some reason that afternoon, I began to indulge in the idea that we all, no matter how socially active/confident we were, had our own personal bubbles that acted as an invisible wall between ourselves and everyone else. For most people, individual bubbles could link and merge with other bubbles for long periods of time, the walls paper thin and easy to break. But for me, the walls seem to be thicker for some reason, and whenever I found myself merging with another bubble, my original bubble would soon detach itself once more. Most of the time, socialising felt like an uncomfortable mask that made my face itch. Even when I found myself disclosing personal information, or even having a coherent conversation with someone, this social satisfaction would never last for long. It worked both ways; sometimes I’d be over-eager to merge bubbles, leading to frequent disappointment and feelings of rejection. Other times I’d find myself reluctant, feeling more comfortable and safe in my lonely enclosure. (Another social struggle was the overwhelming rumination that came with it. Even after having a relatively successful conversation, I’d find myself scrutinising the things I had, and hadn’t said. Things I should and shouldn’t have said. Whether I made sense. How I came across to my fellow conversationalist. Did I seem shallow? Was a giving off an unrealistic impression of myself? Was I stay true to my beliefs and my nature? Did I seem rude? Or did I seem to keen? Questions rushed through my mind like a dog chasing its own tail, endless and persistent. How could I invite others into my bubble if our communication filled me with such anxiety and self-doubt? If it caused such a degree of emotional exhaustion?)

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I suffer from social anxiety. I am not particularly shy, in fact, with individuals who don’t intimidate me, I can be confident as hell. Even with those who do, I try my best to make an effort. Nowadays it’s more about the aftermath of conversation than anything. Often my anxiety takes the form of paranoia, or focuses on a comment/behaviour I deem inappropriate or stupid, sending my brain into critical analysis mode. Most of it takes place internally, making it only identifiable to those who know me well. But it is there, printed in black and white on the abundance of letters from my psychiatrist. Contrary to what many of us assume, mental anguish is not always black and white. People who suffer from anxiety may not always come across as painfully shy, just as OCD patients are not always constantly cleaning or tidying. There are no boxes for these conditions, just a set of unimaginably broad guidelines we must be able to fit into. (Its simple, really. We all experience fear and anxiety in our lives, and the way we react to this anxiety is relative to our personality’s and life experiences. This doesn’t make our distress any less real or significant, it reinforces the point that nothing is as straightforward as it seems.)

Today, my bubble hovers a little higher from the ground. Potentially challenging social situations have become easier for me to conquer, and the blow of the after-effects has softened slightly. I still find myself paranoid on a regular basis, dissecting spontaneous conversations and comments until it seems like the only thing in the world that bares any relevance, but it no longer dictates my life. Sure, it still affects me. But no where near to the degree it used to. I still struggle to build and maintain consistent and healthy friendships, but I have come to terms with the fact, that, to a point, I will always suffer with a social awkwardness. And as long as I feel connected and socially comfortable with those who matter, this is good enough for me.

If you’re struggling to expand your bubble in social situations, resulting in you feeling stressed, anxious or unhappy, there are many ways you can seek help. Primarily, I advise you to contact your local mental health service, however the below numbers are also available for immediate and short-term support: 

Samaritans116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)

Anxiety UK08444 775 774 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm)

Sane– 0845 767 8000 (daily, 6pm-11pm)

Mind0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

Rethink Mental Illness0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm)

(UK only, if you know of any other hotlines available in different countries, please write them in the comments so I can add them to this list!)

 

 

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