“Can you talk?” the little girl asks peering at me from above. I blink rapidly and feel my face flush “Of course, I can,” I squeak out grasping my books withered pages, fingers digging into the carpet.
“Oh I’ve never heard you talk!” the girl cries a big smile on her face as she points at me like I’m an exhibit. I can feel the embarrassment churning in my stomach and a hot, heavy lump in my throat as I escape to the bathroom again. Incidences like these were sadly a common occurrence early on in my life.
Since a young age I have had social anxiety, my teachers would always call me the ‘quiet child’ and my parents said I was ‘shy’. They didn’t realize my supposed timidity was a sign of a much deeper problem. As I grew my anxiety never faded, in fact, it reached its peak in middle school where I battled my nerves in nearly every social interaction I had.
I hated the daily battle and the daily fear but most of all I hated the way I had let social anxiety rule my life. I was passionate about so many things, like music, art, poetry, feminism and more, but I never expressed it because of my anxiety. I wanted to be a leader and I was determined to be one, although I had never heard of a leader with social anxiety. All the leaders I had learned about seemed fearless, confident, great public speakers, just so different from me. But I didn’t need to be like all those leaders because I’ve learned yes, of course, you can be a leader with social anxiety.
Acknowledge your anxiety
I’ve learned that the harder I tried to ignore my anxiety the worst it got. If I pretended I wasn’t anxious and tried to put up a facade, I only felt more nervous and my anxiety became glaringly obvious to everybody. When I felt my anxiety bubbling up I told myself, ‘Yes, you’re anxious right now, this is scary for you but it’s ok. You can do this.’ and this mantra has gotten me through countless public speeches and campaigns. It’s about controlling your anxiety not ignoring it.
Stop avoiding all social situations
I realized I let my anxiety grow, every time I gave into it. I myself was feeding it by letting the insecurities overpower all other thoughts. When I avoided any social situation that made me nervous I would immediately feel better but I was limiting myself. I made every social interaction a much bigger deal than it was. By doing this I made every discussion with an authority figure and every speech much scarier than it was.
Take it a day at a time
You can’t expect your anxiety to diminish in a day (oh how I wish it could though) just take it a day at a time. It takes a long time to break old habits, especially ones you’ve had for many years. Don’t be so hard on yourself, try your best but understand the road to controlling your anxiety is a marathon, not a sprint.
Remember you have a mission and a message worth sharing
Never let your anxiety and fear become the reason you don’t achieve what you want to. Remember that you have something important to say and you were meant to do great things. No one can be the same leader you are because you bring unique qualities to all your leadership positions.
Today I am the president of my school’s environmental club, I write for two online publications, I am the editor of my school’s newspaper and I even started my own publication. I didn’t find the courage to do these things overnight, it took time and acceptance. In fact, I have found that my social anxiety has made me more attuned to other people’s emotions and aware of social signs.
There are plenty leaders like Emma Stone, Abraham Lincoln, Adele, David Bowie and many more who have struggled with social anxiety. Struggling with mental issues doesn’t make you unfit to make an impact, it just makes the obstacles more difficult to overcome, but the victory even sweeter.