Social anxiety: the feeling that you’re not growing at the rate everyone else is

This was what dawned on me when I, by chance, met up with a couple of my classmates – all of whom I hadn’t seen since high school graduation and some of whom I call friends – at my sister’s own ceremonial school-leaving on Friday. I talked briefly with those I used to always have discussions over lunch with but there was one conversation with one guy – let’s call him Chase – that specially stood out to me, for it was my catching-up with him that really drove home the realisation that forms the groundwork of this post (my very first; finally! got around to it).

Now Chase – dearest Chase – is, I suspect, either an INFP like me or an INTP (you will have to forgive what will be my recurrent recourse to a tool as unreliable as MBTI when I’m describing personalities in the future) and we, if my memory serves me well, shared a friendship that was littered with comfortable silences, knowing half-glances, some never-addressed romantic tension, deep meaningful conversations (what he liked to call DMCs), an appreciation for strange wryness (it was “strange” by the standard of our circle of friends who were, for the most part, sweet innocents who rarely employed a teasing tongue) and a friendly competitive streak.

When I spoke to him after the ceremony, I felt, God forbid, a tangible change in his demeanour and his person. His shoulders were noticeably broader and Nature had endowed him with a few more inches in height over the course of 3 years but Change, that reliably unpredictable minx, failed to keep her grubby hands to just the physical things; Chase, I began to slowly notice amid the chaotic and colossal room brimming with acquaintances-turned-strangers, was also unmistakably surer of himself – he held admirably strong eye contact, had a confident posture, his conversation was fluid, honest and present and he had his hands steadily placed in his front pockets the whole time. By contrast, my eye contact wandered, my posture repeatedly changed (from folding my arms to tying my hands behind my back to fidgeting my fingers) and my conversation was disjointed, deceptive and distracted.

One of the very first questions he put forth, which I half-expected (given his predisposition to get into the real stuff of things right off the bat), was “So how have you changed?” Naturally, my ready answer was “I hadn’t changed at all” but in truth, I actually had, however little, just not in ways immediately visible and not in ways he would’ve approved of. (Not in ways I myself approve of, even). Thinking back on it, I would’ve delighted in mentioning my newfound interest in Western history, Art and Literature (I was no longer the relatively uncultured brute he knew) . I would’ve enjoyed introducing him to the exciting world of Beauty and Transcendence and the joyousness of Oscar Wilde’s unbridled wit. I would’ve relished bragging about one particular European acquaintance of mine – who moonlights as an unsalaried poet – I once nicknamed “Mr. Multidimensional” because his range of interests was extraordinarily broad. I would’ve liked to humbly admit that I wasn’t very spiritually-scrupulous the last couple of years and that I’d vaguely taken to a crowd of young absurdist profligates (online, of all places), half of whom I suspect may be depressed. But I didn’t. Most of all, I would’ve liked to convey to him, explicitly or otherwise, that I had changed in ways that he did but I couldn’t because the fact was I didn’t.

I’m quite certain Chase saw through my facade of assumed ordinariness. I’m quite certain he intuited my real feelings of discomfort, fear, insecurity and embarrassment even though I never voiced them directly. I’m quite certain he saw that my relational approach hadn’t improved even after 2-3 years of college, that it had actually gotten worse. And I’m quite certain, as well as grateful, that despite noting this developmental hindrance in me, he was charitable about the issue – about the social anxiety – and had tried to subtly mitigate it by attempting to rekindle what we had before time apart had, uh, “disrepaired” it. But unfortunately it was just not happening. Especially since I was already subconsciously registering the changes he had undergone whilst we were talking and was thus comparing notes on self-growth as the conversation progressed. The calculations I was helplessly making with each revelation, verbally expressed or otherwise, only made me feel much worse and smaller and that in turn only exacerbated my anxiety and eventually choked the interaction. By the time we had to part ways – temporarily, I now hope (though, on some level, also permanently) – I was remarkably exhausted and exaggeratedly ashamed.

Social anxiety, in the main, seems to fundamentally affect almost every domain of one’s life (probably because nearly every domain is, in one way or another, a social one). We all know that career-wise the ability to glowingly market yourself is a competitive skill to have. And to be able to partake in team sports, one must learn to communicate, cooperate and coordinate with others. To dorm with another, one must speak up and compromise. To be considered a strong applicant for a scholarship, one must be well-rounded and stack up the extracurricular activities, many of which require sustained interaction with a group of people. And so on and so forth. Social anxiety stunts your growth in many areas because of its omnipresence. Even on an independently individual level such as the isolated cultivation of one’s hobbies and interests, it is encountered. Through coinciding with or engendering a string of various psychological illnesses (like depression, or other anxiety disorders), it keeps you mentally and emotionally preoccupied and so you have less motivation, time and resources to devote to exploring indulgences and quickening your taste for them. The organic multifacetedness of personality that generally correlates with taking to a variety of things is either rarely reached or it requires an abnormally great effort to catalyse.

This whole experience just affirmed in me the suspicion that I might be seriously developmentally stuck. I walked away wondering whether 5 years from now, I’d still be in more or less the same place. I feared my stagnancy would, over the years, insidiously estrange me from those who were – or are – well on the path towards a higher self. Schopenhauer, an antinatalist who has a reputation for being one of the most pessimistic philosophers out there, said something especially pertinent to this in his work “Studies in Pessimism”:

“If two men who were friends in their youth meet again when they are old, after being separated for a life-time, the chief feeling they will have at the sight of each other will be one of complete disappointment at life as a whole; because their thoughts will be carried back to that earlier time when life seemed so fair as it lay spread out before them in the rosy light of dawn, promised so much — and then performed so little.”

I prematurely had a taste of what this incisive thinker foresaw. I thought that college would radically change me, nay, improve me and that infinite self-evolvement would press upon me the way Time does – reliably and doggedly – so that when I personally happened to inadvertently resuscitate my friendships from their lethargy, it would take on a new life. A stronger vitality. But that didn’t happen. Not right now, anyway.  My friends – Chase, especially – may have proved Schopenhauer wrong but I, for the moment, somewhat sympathise with this grump’s resigned disenchantment.

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