Monday, October 15, 2012

When did I become?

There was a time when I had a massive fear of meeting new people. I entered social situations with anxiety, worrying that I couldn't keep up conversation, that I looked weird, that my voice was strange, nasally, low-pitched and that I was as unappealing an acquaintance as a crustacean or a pet rock.

When I went into the fray with the intention of making friends, I would hide away and not talk to anyone, comfortable enough in observing rather than participating. It's part of my nature anyway to be introspective, so my internal monologue was enough to keep me preoccupied, even if that meant never talking to anyone ever.

This was a problem for me particularly in elementary and middle school, when I'd only make friends if they would come up to me first. I'd often feel alienated by the other students in my classes, not realizing that half of the problem was my own lack of confidence, the inhibitions I harbored about talking to people I'd never met before.

When I got to college, I tried to transition out of this mode. The first few weeks of being at university convinced me that I wasn't completely incompatible with the rest of humanity. I'd sit with new people at mealtimes, go up to random individuals and try to make conversation if the situation allowed.

But there was still this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I wasn't cut out for this sort of thing. I'm not the socializing type, I guess. It's just not in my genetic make-up.

A lot of times I'd have emotional talks with my dad on the subject. I'd tell him that I just didn't feel like I could make friends. He'd comfort me by saying that he once had the same issue, and that in time you lose the anxiety and just give into societal norms and feel less hindered in public company.

In other words, you start making chit chat because you're used to making chit chat.

The older I get, the more I believe him.

Because despite being inherently awful at small talk, and born to sit in a room staring at a wall rather than wandering around and talking to new people, I have found myself getting more and more comfortable with the inane conversations that I used to avoid for fear of looking stupid.

I think it's been born of this new confidence, not in my own ability to speak or hold conversation, but in an awareness of everyone's faults in these departments.

For so long I believed I was the only one who felt awkward in what I deemed as uncomfortable situations. Making new friends, meeting someone for the first time, trying to make conversation when you don't really know a person all too well. I could see that other people were exhuding confidence under these circumstances, so I always found myself on the defense trying to avoid looking like an idiot.

Eventually, after years of close study of other people's mannerisms, I realized I was not alone with this problem. Everyone I encountered had little ticks or indications of discomfort. No one was completely at ease in these situations, even if they hid their anxiety in the best possible way.

And I guess I learned to emulate those people who could hide it - but not because I believed that I was suddenly a great conversationalist or worthy of everyone's friendship, certainly not. What happened was the playing field was finally leveled. With the people who had intimidated me before, I became better aware of their neuroses. And knowing that everyone possesses some level of social anxiety made me feel like I no longer had to harbor all of it on my end of the conversation.

The first time I went to Scotland (the next time will be in about two weeks), I had arranged to meet a penpal I'd been corresponding with for a few months who lived in the area. We'd arranged to go out for coffee in the evening (I didn't drink coffee, but that was beside the point) so after dinner my dad and I waited in the lobby of my hotel so that I could meet up with this penpal and hang out for an hour or so.

All day I'd gotten myself worked up over the prospect. Would I make good conversation? How would I introduce myself? Would my penpal like me? What if I look stupid?

It ruined my first day ever in Scotland because instead of getting to know Edinburgh with comfort and ease, my heart was racing away all day and I couldn't think straight out of anxiety.

My penpal ended up standing me up. We waited in the hotel lobby for an hour, then gave up when there was no sign of the person.

And I realized my nervousness was for naught.

In the future, I would realize that not only was that particular penpal not worth the anxiety, but the premise of being nervous to meet anyone is silly. Whether or not you worry about it, the situation will probably go about the same way. And opinions will be made of you in much the same way as well.

Also, of course, as much as anyone has the privilege to think thoughts about you - to judge you - you have the same right to judge them back. And when there is no higher ground, it's easier to feel comfortable around someone new.

I came to London with this in mind. And while I haven't made any lifelong friends - and I tend to think that this is outside of my control - I have made enough acquaintances to feel that I've accomplished what I've always wanted to. In other words, I've stopped worrying for a second and let myself be myself with people I don't know all that well.

So years ago I didn't necessarily believe my dad, who always tried to reassure me that the nervousness I felt in these situations would taper off. But he was right. So that's a good thing.

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