It’s funny, with all the time I’ve devoted to improving my social anxiety problem over the past three years, you would think that I’d be able to handle the odd “bump in the road.” You would think that with all the progress I’ve made, it would take a major cataclysmic event to derail me. At least, that’s what I thought.
I don’t know if it’s just bad luck, but trouble seems to find me wherever I go. I always try to mind my own business and I never look for negative encounters, but somehow they always find me.
Although I’ve really been working on my social skills, I don’t get out nearly as much as an average person. Most of my social exposure consists of taking the bus to work, putting in eight hours, and then returning to the safe confines of my home.
Public places still freak me out – especially places like large department stores and malls. I honestly thought that by this time I’d be getting more comfortable with places like this. However, I still feel extremely vulnerable being surrounded by that many people. If my social anxiety is going to flare up; this is where it’s going to happen.
I was shopping at Wal-Mart a couple of days ago. Everything was pretty much uneventful even though I couldn’t shake the feeling that people were staring at me (which, of course, they weren’t).
I gathered up the few items that I needed and headed towards the new express checkouts (you have to wait in line for one of six registers to open up. When a register number flashes on the screen, the first person in line proceeds to that cashier.)
I was standing in line ahead of two gorgeous women in their 20s. As we all moved forward, I quickly found myself at the head of the line. Now, I absolutely hate this. I get the same way when I’m lined up at the bank. Because I’m the first person, I feel that I’m drawing more attention to myself.
My eyes were glued to the display that would direct me to the appropriate cash when I was rear-ended by a shopping cart. The two women behind me werent paying attention. They apologized profusely, but I kept my head down and said nothing. It didnt even hurt, really.
Most people would have probably looked back and gave them a nod (at least) or said that there was no harm done – at least acknowledge the apology they gave. But not me – nope, I just kept my head down.
What they failed to realize was that it wasnt anything personal; I just couldnt force myself to look back at them. It felt like every person in the store was staring at me. I was in the old familiar freeze state I used to get years ago.
I would have loved to have been able to look back at them confidently, give them a big friendly smile, and assure them that there was no harm done. Unfortunately, that just didnt happen.
I could feel my face getting extremely hot. Had there been a mirror around, I’m sure there would have been a crimson faced, panicky looking dude staring back at me.
So there I was, gaze locked firmly to the floor, flushed face, and what was probably a fairly anxious look. Here’s the thing: in almost every case, people misinterpret my “anxiety face the wrong way. I wish I could just tell them that, “No, I’m not mean and nasty, that’s just the way I look because of this condition.”
In any case, seconds after the incident when I failed to acknowledge their apology, I overheard them whispering to each other. I could only make out a few words, but they werent nice. I also noticed a few other people out of the corner of my eye they seem to be staring daggers at me (of course, this could have been just my overactive imagination).
Finally, I was able to walk to the cash. The cashier seemed friendly enough for a second or so, and then she seemed a bit distant all of a sudden – perhaps it was my beet-red face and nervous disposition.
At the end of the transaction, I just grabbed the bag and bolted.
To anyone looking at this display, they would have seen a miserable prick who was too nasty to even acknowledge an apology for an, admittedly, innocent mistake.
And herein lies the problem: I cant help how people interpret my expressions. I cant help that my anxiety makes me look so mean and pissed off all the time. But more importantly, there is nothing I can do to let everyone know that theyve got it all wrong – that Im really not such a bad guy.
Having said all that, Im sure that Ive been guilty of misinterpreting people in public as well.
We can only work with what we see, after all.