I’ve accepted that I’m pretty much alone when it comes to dealing with social anxiety without my family knowing the full extent of it. Part of my reluctance to tell my own parents about it is because I don’t believe they’d get it. Having social anxiety isn’t something someone just gets over or grows out of. Many times in childhood I would refuse, out of anxiety over the social and verbal interaction, to do something my parents told me to do, but would then be unable to verbalize in words about why I disobeyed their requests. I think my parents got the impression I was scared to talk to people, and there were times they reprimanded me in a way I now forever associate as negative because of the lasting impact their words had on me. That’s not to say I believe they said the things they said intending to hurt me, but they did it believing they were helping me, I guess. There were lots of complicated things going on in my head when I dealt with anxiety as a child.
One time they took my younger female cousin and I to McDonald’s and as we ate, my dad casually told me to go to the counter and ask for a plastic bag from the cashier. As soon as he said that, my legs felt like they became encased in stone. My heart raced and everything around me was too loud and out of focus. I couldn’t focus. The French fry I was in the midst of chewing felt suddenly meaningless and I had the urge to spit it out in a futile and desperate attempt to stop whatever I was feeling. I couldn’t say anything in response to my dad. When it became apparent to my dad that I wasn’t going, he sent my cousin to get the bag instead. While she was at the counter, he said to me, “If you can’t even ask for a bag from a stranger, how will you raise and feed your own children one day?” I’ve never understood it, but from when I was very young, my parents always seemed to throw in a line about my own supposed future as an adult; married with children. I guess I can chalk it up to Asian values and stuff they were trying to instill in me, thought that constant mantra never grew on me and I don’t believe I will ever desire the commitment of marriage or children. I felt destroyed by my dad’s reprimand, with this incident being only one of several times I thought my humiliation would take a physical form by opening up a hole to swallow me into the earth’s center.
Another early memory of an experience with anxiety sticks out to me. I will go into detail about this one to explain why exactly I was unable to verbalize my feelings. My mom told me to go call my brother down for lunch. I had heart palpitations and my legs felt wobbly as I climbed upstairs and I started feeling short of breath from the strain of my pounding heart and my throat was going dry. The closer I got to my brother’s room, the more the terror in every inch of my body screamed out at me. I felt scared and perplexed over why I was having such a turbulent reaction to simply calling him down for lunch. My voice barely came out when I reached the doorway of his room to give him the message, and even then with every word I spoke, I felt frightened and found myself unable to really hold eye contact with him. He was at the age where he was obsessed with his computer, so even though he was distracted and had his eyes glued to his screen, I felt like the gates of hell have flooded open for me as I spoke. I didn’t feel much better when he didn’t look away from the screen and just said, “Okay” about coming down to the kitchen to eat. Nothing bad actually happened from this interaction and yet somehow I still felt anxious after it was over and done with.
At the age I was then, I would say many of the things that manifested in my mind were both emotions and actual thoughts, but I often paid more attention to the emotion I was feeling while the thought forming in my head as a result of the feeling was shunted to the side. In this case, I knew I was absolutely terrified and uncomfortable talking to my brother, which were the feelings/emotions I felt. I was also vaguely aware in my own head that I was scared to actually initiate a brief conversation with him and this is what was causing such intense bodily discomfort, but these thoughts were quite jumbled up in my head. It was like I could comprehend what was happening to me, but had someone asked me then to explain what occurred and what was giving me such discomfort, I would definitely not know how to verbalize the feelings out loud at all. At this point in my life, the word “anxiety” hadn’t entered my vocabulary yet.
I’ve thought a lot about why I had such difficulty expressing complex ideas verbally when I was a child. I do believe I was influenced by the environment I was raised in as well my own perception of people or things in the environment, and the style of communication my parents used (and did not use) with me. What stands out to me is I always got the sense that a lot of things were unspoken at home. I was a naturally curious child and I often asked my parents lots of questions, but whether they intended it or not, I began to perceive how unenthusiastic they were answering my inquiries. My curiosity wasn’t snuffed out of me, though I stopped being so inquisitive and assertive with questions because I got the impression from them that I wasn’t supposed to be so chatty. From this, I started struggling with anxiety over voicing simple ideas or thoughts, even if it was something so stupidly simple.
Another time, my room ceiling was leaking once while it rained, and in my child’s mind, the anxiety over having to tell my brother about it intensified even more because I believed my room was going to get flooded. I was so anxious, to the point the only thing I felt I could to not have a nervous breakdown and start hyperventilating, was to not let it show on my face. I had to blink back tears, almost overcome by my own fears, as I watched drops fall from the ceiling and into the basin I set to catch them. I remember sitting on my room floor, physically unable to even walk to my brother’s room, especially since his friend was over. I thought about how humiliating it’d be if I attempted to notify my brother with his friend there watching me or hearing me. I didn’t want to be laughed at. Instead, I called my mom while she was at work. I couldn’t hold it anymore after that and sobbed as I told her my room was leaking. Later my brother found me crying and he either spoke to my mom or asked me what happened (I can’t remember which actually occurred).
Part of why I wrote this post is because I know a lot of what I experienced in childhood has left its mark in me and I can’t change that. The memories have also impacted some parts of how I rationalize my anxiety now or how I deal with similar situations.
An example of this: I have a particularly bad memory of my dad shouting at me, “How old do you think you are to still act so afraid?” I remember the hurt that bloomed in me over his words and anger at his lack of understanding as well as his implied attitude (or perhaps it was just my perception) that he wanted me to “get over” whatever I was going through. Yesterday I felt the same anger when I received two emails from my brother. One was a referral link to a job he wanted to pass on to me and see if I was interested in applying. Moments later he wrote that he thought I could at least try the job, that I need to get out of my comfort zone and to not be “too afraid”. Those two words made me both embarrassed and upset. It brought me back to the memory of my dad yelling at me. Perhaps my brother meant well, especially since he knows I have social anxiety, yet I can’t help but think that knowing about SA and actually understanding it are two different things.
I feel indignant too. Don’t tell me to not be too afraid, okay. Social anxiety isn’t a damn switch I can turn off and on at a whim. I get that overcoming social anxiety is not easy, and of course, I know this for myself since I attempt every day to make a little progress on something, anything just to not feel so damn worthless.
If anyone is up for sharing, what is one prevalent memory you have of experiencing anxiety during your childhood and how did you deal with it?