anxiety · life · social anxiety

Barely There Social Interactions

I feel kind of pathetic writing this, but on some days I feel as if I just about barely exchange 5 sentences with anyone and I’m lucky if I even manage to interact with someone at least once. Yesterday was this exact type of day.

I stopped by the dollar store on my way to the subway station. The place was bustling with people although the lines got very long since there were only two cashiers. Just seeing how busy everything was made me want to walk out empty-handed without buying a thing. Even after I meandered down every aisle and took my time picking out snacks, I felt I did my fair share of pretending as a way to cope with anxiety. For example, every time I was walking and heard someone behind me with a shopping cart going down the same way I was, it inadvertently gave me the feeling of being “chased” or hurried along so I opted to stop in front of a shelf and make it look as if I was contemplating buying something or looking for a specific item just so the person with the cart could go past me without interruption. Similarly, I spent more time than necessary in the candy section when two women were blocking the way with their carts as they stood there chattering idly for about a minute before lazily grabbing their candy and finally moving on.

Then came time for me to get on line to pay for my items. I actively avoided the line for a different cashier because I had observed her earlier on multiple occasions greeting each person by asking them how they were. For me, this kind of customer service is not bad exactly. I get that the question itself is an invitation for a brief pleasantry that the person can respond to with whatever they want, however, I’m the type that would rather just say, “I’m fine, thanks” or “I’m good”, and end the conversation there while battling my own thoughts about whether I sounded too curt or too unfriendly by not saying very much. Of course, I want to be polite by responding but I feel super stiff because I don’t know what to say besides a generalized answer. Specifically, I avoided that particular cashier because I wanted to avoid the inevitable awkwardness I would feel about my own minuscule response. Even with this cashier, who appeared to be genuine with her greetings, I couldn’t bring myself to interact with her. Being on line puts me in the mindset of a robot. Sometimes I think of cashiers as robots too since from what I’ve experienced as a customer in the retail industry, most cashiers will give the minimal “hi” or “hello” before they get right to work with scanning your item(s), saying your total owed amount, ringing up whatever amount you give them, and handing me my change before I’m expected to leave so they can service the next person. So there’s very little actual interaction there. Sometimes I prefer it this way because it gives me an excuse to indulge myself in believing I’m not actually being seen. To me, not being seen equals comfort and safety and it also gives me another reason to avoid feeling anxious.

What also made me freak out a little is seeing the cashier playfully comment on one male customer’s purchases, which were all treats for his dog. I imagined myself in that very situation; standing there and trying not to fidget or play with my hair out of discomfort while forcing a smile to my face. I get truly uncomfortable whenever someone engages with me verbally in the presence of onlookers who are observing what is going on. I can hardly behave or speak a word without being super conscious about these other people looking at me. My thoughts always go to, What must they be thinking of me? Naturally, I always assume it’s something negative.

When it was my turn on line, I feel as if I had dodged a bullet after the cashier said hi to me but went through my purchases quickly since I had only a few items. For a beat, I dreaded the moment I placed my items on the conveyor belt since there is always a part of me that worries if the people behind me are judging me for what I buy. I never know how to posture myself in the few seconds that come during when I simply have to stand there and wait for the cashier to tell me my total owed amount. I hate that being in the front gives the person behind me full access to seeing me. My fear is persistent yet I know that what I am imagining might not be real. I didn’t even look at the person behind me but for all I could know he/she wasn’t even looking directly at me or if he/she did look at me, it probably wasn’t for very long. The crazy thing is I realize the chances of only myself, out of everyone who shops at the same store, having this kind of anxiety is very slim, meaning others might have had similar thoughts. That’s my assumption although I have never spoken to anyone in there about whether they feel socially anxious as they wait on line.

Next, I got on the subway to yoga class. A guy in the next seat over to mine asked me for a tissue. I was surprised by his request since I was in the midst of a game on my phone and also had my earphones on to audio from a podcast. Out of some weird instinct to respond verbally even though I felt surprised, I said, “A tissue?” Then I fumbled around in my bag for a few seconds since I had stuffed the tissue packet near the bottom. I gave him two sheets and only nodded in response when he thanked me. I remember I didn’t look at him directly when he spoke to me. Again, I had the same problem as the previous situation. I felt myself being watched by bystanders and this time it was a couple sitting across from me. Had they not been there, I might’ve felt more comfortable when the guy thanked me and I would have said, “No problem” and actually looked him in the eye. It really sucks that my perception of being seen makes me withdraw so much. I also noticed for the first time that often when I’m prompted with a question that requires me to give something to someone, I would much rather just begin searching for the item than take the time to respond verbally first.

Yoga class. I arrived early and went up the steps to the studio. There was a girl sitting on the top step and she was typing on her phone. I assumed she was also there for the class. When I noticed the door was closed, she told me that the previous class hadn’t ended yet. I did not say anything in response to this and did not make eye contact as I went to stand by the door. At first, I felt fine with not saying anything. Then a beat later, as it usually happens in my brain, it entered my frame of mind that I could’ve thanked her for the info or said “Oh, ok” or at least something to show I heard her. By the time I realize I could have said something, I typically don’t end up saying it at all. The door eventually opened. Two students from the previous class were still there talking to the instructor. I mistook one of the guys (who was sitting down as he put on his shoes) as the instructor and said hi to him. I quickly realized my mistake when he left and I noticed the remaining student conversing with the actual teacher, a woman. I was going to greet her, but she and the student were still talking when I had finished putting away my things and preparing to find a spot to set down my yoga mat so I went past them wordlessly. A part of me felt relieved that I didn’t have to say anything. Ugh. There was no one else there with their mat yet so I was content to sit there in solitude. The instructor flashed me a smile as she went by, commenting that the music was too loud before she lowered the volume a little. I guess she didn’t want the noise to surprise me since she actually told me she would be testing out her microphone. I said ok. That was the jist of my interaction with her until after the class was over when I put two dollars in the class donation box and said bye.

Afterward, I went to eat my lunch at Whole Foods. I had packed a banana and large apple, in addition to the snacks I bought at the dollar store earlier. I did not intend to buy anything except coffee but since it was only a dollar I got a bagel too. My mind had a second of panic when I didn’t see iced coffee listed on the coffee bar menu but I didn’t have time to let it sink in since I was next on line. Instead, I just asked if there was iced coffee. There was, thankfully. I made my way to find a seat at the food court after that. I had to pass the general checkout area to get there and almost didn’t go through because I didn’t want to give the impression to the people on line that I was going up to an available cashier by skipping the line. The fear was real and I half-expected someone to shout at me to stop but I kept walking and eventually got past the cashier counters. It is a little weird to reveal my train of thoughts in this situation because I’m sure if anyone reading this had seen me in real life during the incident, I most likely didn’t even look nervous or afraid as I sauntered past the line of people. This proves that just because someone isn’t having a meltdown by crying/shaking/breathing rapidly or showing signs of physical distress, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.

Lunch was a quiet affair. While I ate, I was also waiting to see if anyone sitting near the wall outlets was going to leave since my phone was getting low on battery and I wanted to charge it. I ended up taking my things with me for a restroom stop but then came back to take a different seat near an outlet. As I plugged my phone in, the lady at the next table over said something to me in what sounded like Spanish. She gestured to her own phone charger and seemed to be offering it to me. Unsure if she understood English, I responded with my own gesture of declination. I started working on one of my cross stitch projects but then a guy with a cart came by and asked if he could sit. My habit of doing rather than saying kicked in and I simply moved my rolled up yoga mat so he could take a seat. I would have been fine with this but I started wishing he would leave when he began talking to himself and making a variety of noises like he was acting out sound effects to a movie. He seemed to be bored or hyper because when a male employee came by, he stood up to go over and talk to him. Shortly after he left and took his cart with him.

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10 thoughts on “Barely There Social Interactions

  1. It sounded like a nerve-wrecking experienced at the dollar store. I don’t usually have a problem queuing up, but when I do I’d wonder in my mind over and over what to say to the cashier. Sometimes I’d notice the cashier be very chirpy and talkative with the people in front of me. Then when it comes to my turn, the cashier would go ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I’d say the usual ‘Not too bad’ or ‘Great’, and that would be the end of the conversation, with the cashier looking distracted. It is moments like these the introvert in me should be happy for lack of conversation but I also can’t help but wonder a lot why we didn’t have a conversation like the people before me in line and this will heighten my anxiety even further – outside the shop :/

    It was nice of you to roll up your yoga mat and let others have a sit. Very polite. I think in those instances people see you as just another normal person 🙂 But that man talking to himself sounded very creepy indeed. He could have done anything and even create a scene. If it came down to that, I’m not sure if I’d have the courage to move, or maybe anxiety will keep me rooted to the spot.

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    1. It was nerve-wrecking but at the same time I am so accustomed to “playing the game” that I often am able to play it off like I am not that talkative because I don’t like engaging with strangers. I would rather blend in like that than allow people to know I am actually anxious and afraid.

      I’ve had the same experience seeing people in front of me (in line) chatting so openly with the cashier. I get more nervous knowing I can’t do that and ponder if I’ll come across as strange if I give a short response. On the flipside, I can see how it might be awkward for the cashier too. It’s kind of part of their job to say, “hi, how are you?” but maybe some of them feel awkward and unsure of what else to say if the customer just gives a polite answer. I think it depends on the personality of the cashier. I’ve encountered some who seem comfortable still prompting me with other questions like how my day has been or they ask me about the things I am buying.

      I’m relieved to hear that I might have come across as normal with the seat sharing lol. I still beat myself up in my head a little over not actually verbally telling him first that, “yeah, sure, you can sit here” before I moved my yoga mat. Instead my instinct was to respond nonverbally by moving my mat to acknowledge his request but I also didn’t say anything back when he thanked me. His mutterings were creepy indeed! I also was too uncomfortable to get up and leave. I had the urge to move to another seat but I didn’t want him to come to the conclusion of why. I was so bothered by his behavior that I couldn’t focus on my stitching.

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      1. Like you, I prefer to use non-verbal cues with people around me. I’ve seen quite a few people do it too – like they’d just move their bag when someone approaches for a seat. Some may see non-verbal as rude, but if you don’t know what to say, then might as well say nothing.

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      2. True, I often forget that other people use non-verbal cues to respond if they aren’t comfortable replying verbally. I feel off guard when someone suddenly speaks to me like that and while I would like to give a verbal response, I react out of habit by being non-verbal. I act so quickly that even my mind doesn’t have time to process what I’m doing or to stop myself from it.

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  2. Oh my gosh, you have no idea how many people I’ve dodged in grocery stores! The thing is, I’m usually quite chatty and can talk with nearly anyone, thanks to bipolar hypomania. The thing is, while I’m chatting I still feel that introvert in me wanting to run away. Sometimes I can hear that dim voice in the back of my head telling me to shut up and get out of there. After conversations I usually condemn myself for, once again, interacting.

    Last week at iOP group therapy I finally admitted that I hate talking, that I envy those who keep quiet, and feel I talk way too much, taking up other peoples time. I showed them the paper in front of me where I write “shut up” and “be quiet” over and over and over. It’s like torture! Those that are quiet actually said they appreciate the things I talk about because I share what they want to say but can’t. I’m grateful for that but it still kills me that I open my mouth. I can’t help it and I hate it!!

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    1. I’m the same way with berating myself and wanting to gtfo (lol) but it’s for the times I perceive I should have said something that I did not. We have similar reactions but different issues. It’s almost like two sides of a coin.

      I hear you on the “can’t help it but hate it” struggle. It’s a battle to embrace myself and own the fact I likely will always be pummeling myself internally when I feel too scared to say what I wish to say. On some level, maybe not accepting this part of me is inhibiting me further. I also wish to be chatty and no longer verbally shy, but this is next to impossible. There probably is a way to do it but I’m not one for repetition and practice. I used to try saying hi and how are you to cashiers but after a while I felt like I was playing a character by pushing the words out. I was like 8% relieved and proud of myself everytime I said those things but 82% of the time it would be agonizing and painful to sit with my own thoughts and obsessively nitpick about how stupid I sounded or if I was being a bother by talking to the person even if there was no actual evidence in the situation to prove my suspicions were real.

      Have you been able to accept the chatty side of yourself?

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      1. In truth I haven’t accepted that part of myself. It does make it easier when I go play cards with the gals in my building, sometimes. I always have to be on guard not to say the wrong thing but overall it’s fun. However, that is a safe environment because we pretty much only talk about cards or what’s on TV. Nice.

        My therapists over the years have tried to get me to accept that it is a part of myself and not say it is just the bipolar but I’ve never been able to do that. I’m perfectly happy staying home all day. I’ve been sitting at my computer all morning, blogging, reading, still in my PJs. I do want to go to the library but it’s always an effort to get dressed and go. Once I’m in the sunshine I like it (by myself). I’m going to check out a book so what I do is, before going in the building, I go through the scene in my mind. Get book, go to counter, say something like “it’s a beautiful day outside” then leave. Everyone here is obsessed with the weather so saying that is like saying “hi”. Also, it immediately turns their attention to their own desire to go out and enjoy it and off of me.

        Friday I went to a huge wilderness refuge type place. It was Friday so very few people. The guy mowing the lawn stopped and wanted to talk. I’m practiced at that but felt like a rabbit wanting to run. It’s hard but again, it’s practice that gets me through.

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      2. I feel the burn too when I am comfortable staying home all day and it feels like a HUGE effort to dress myself properly and get my things to go out even if it’s someplace I really want to go. The partial reason I push myself more to get out is because I think I need it since I do get bored at times at home when my regular activities don’t interest me on some days. Other days I am fine with staying in and entertaining myself with Netflix. podcasts, stitching, blogging, reading, etc. The other reason for getting out of the house is I fear judgement from my parents if they see I haven’t gone out for some days. They start asking and it’s annoying. This is one of the downsides of still living with my parents, ugh.

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      3. Yeah, my plans change too when I feel too depressed to bother going out. Netflix is a wonder, for sure. Although I have to stop myself from binge watching at times when my focus is not all there and I can feel myself watching just to keep busy but not actually paying attention to the show that is playing. Coloring is a relaxing activity, I like it as well. I can never finish a pattern in one sitting though since the designs in adult coloring books are super complex and can take a lot of effort to complete.

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