I attend a support group for ‘social phobics’ on Wednesdays. I actually dislike that term and much prefer ‘social anxiety’. I do not feel phobic about people – I like people and want to be with them. Sometimes. Anyway, the way I feel about people is not phobic.
There are people there at all stages, and by and large people that are quite ill really, unfortunately. The group meets in a hospital, and a number are referred to this group by their psychs. And of course not everyone there actually suffers from SA, but from other problems that also interfere with their social lives. The people that talk a lot tend to be the latter. Without them it would be a pretty quiet group.
Some folks go to this group week after week and sit kind of frozen – they do not speak to anyone or to the group. They are not loosening up with time either – they just come, but do not participate. I was starting to get kind of irritated with them. There is one woman whom I often sit beside who is like this, and I started to feel like shaking her, like making her talk or at least forcing her to acknowledge me.
I’m realizing though that part of my irritation stems from my own past. I used to be like this also. Not now – now you can’t shut me up. But all through my teens, twenties and thirties, in any social situation, I would freeze. I had so much fear I couldn’t say a word. I remember thinking of something to say, then the moment for saying it would pass, then trying desperately to think of something else…Of course, the people around you do not know what you are going through. They don’t know you are paralyzed with anxiety. For all they knew, I was tuning in to voices from Mars and too entranced to chat.
When you are in a group (not a support group), say a small class, or trying to have lunch with a group, or going for coffee with co-workers before they stop inviting you – total silence is not good. You are not fitting in, you are acting strange, you may be unhinged in fact…. I went through this for years. I didn’t know there was a name for this, social anxiety, or that others have the same problem. I actually didn’t really know the term ‘anxiety’ and that it could apply to what was stopping me from communicating. When you’re in the grip of this, it is very very hard to get out of by yourself. It’s like being caught in a sticky spider web – the more you struggle, the more you are caught.
So though I talk quite a bit in this group, for one thing as a way of becoming comfortable conversing in groups, I have been where these silent participants have been. I do believe they will need to start speaking, even if just a little bit at a time, in order to start overcoming this anxiety. I believe if this was my group, I would check in with everyone, especially the silent ones, to hear them say at least one word. I remember when I was caught up more in anxiety than I am now, if someone lobbed me an easy question, I could answer, and I would be grateful for the question.
I will not shake this silent woman and make her speak. But I may look her in the eyes and say hello. Surely she will reply?