Let’s talk about public image, social anxiety and vulnerability. I don’t think we talk about vulnerability enough. I don’t think we like to even think about it, that is, I don’t think we like to dwell on our frailties and imperfections. These days, according to the cultural milieu, we are all supposed to be able to keep it together, all the time. And if you can’t manage that, well, you probably haven’t tried hard enough, have you? Maybe you should do some more yoga? Or eat more kale?
We live in a world that prizes individual achievement and success, therefore in order to keep up, we whitewash our public image. A pure and perfect public image is the currency of our social economy right now, isn’t it? Even in team sport, for example, we idolise not the team effort (the coaches, the physiotherapists, the managers, the managers, the local junior sporting coaches ) but the star player who has been indiscriminately gifted with slightly better fast twitch muscle fibres than the next player, or who has, by chance alone, had the injury free season that their team mates did not. We glorify and worship the lone player at the top of their game. Tony Armstrong touched on this reality in his chat recent chat with Zan Rowe on Take Five. He says, “The thing that you’re sold on is…like, yeah, it was tough, but I trained hard, I overcame it all and now I’m like a superstar…You’re sold on this dream of, if you work hard and try your best, it will all work out. And, it doesn’t always work out”.
It’s basically the same in every field; in business, politics, the arts. The individual is glorified and therefore we all subtly buy into the game, the game of idolising individual success, by making our own attempts to curate our public image. We are incentivised to stay “on brand” at all times in the hope of gaining the recognition we crave – that stamp of approval – “You’ve made it! You’ve achieved enough”. Loz Booth is a mum who posts candid reels on IG about being a mum, looking very much like an average Aussie Mum, in her average Aussie home. A recent post was, however, a little different. It was a close up of her on holidays in the tropics, hair and makeup done, basically looking fabulous. Apparently, someone who was with her shouted, “Hey! Should you post that? It’s not really on brand for you!”. Loz decided she would anyway because, heck, we all might be pretty ordinary most of the time, but sometimes we do get dressed up and look, momentarily, glamourous. Good on her.
Golly! The insidious, relentless pressure to stay “on brand”. Alice Fraser hits the nail on the head with her personal revelation of struggling to write a show for a comedy festival while her mum was dying, because she was just too sad. In her show Savage, Alice opens with the notion that there isn’t “enough room in civilised society for sadness anymore”, blending comedy and philosophical reflection to address topics like grief, loss, the transcendent, death and faith.
I agree, I don’t think there is enough room for sadness in our cultural discourse. I don’t think there is enough room for vulnerabilities either. I know that I myself whitewash things out of my public image (and my own consciousness too) in an attempt to appear (and feel) more successful and “together” than I am. I don’t do it on purpose. It’s second nature and I’ve done it from a very young age. One thing I learned to hide, or tried to hide, was introversion. It is an extroverted world out there and – as we all know from countless Hollywood archetypes of the unattractive, smart bookish types – introversion isn’t exactly appealing. So, without any assessment or conscious effort, I have always tried to appear far more extroverted and outgoing than I actually am.
Hiding introversion is one thing, but I have also always hidden, or tried to hide, my social anxiety. Let’s cut to the chase here: ultimately, it’s not healthy to hide stuff, especially when it comes to something like a serious anxiety. Social anxiety (aka Social Phobia) is a tricky beast. It’s been a mild to moderate thing for me since I was young but I’ve generally been able to keep it fairly well controlled (sort of), so I’ve never really done anything about it. I’ve ignored it basically and soldiered on! However, during the pandemic it got a bit wild there for a moment and I finally booked myself in to see someone for a bit of help, to shine a bit of light on those dark corners of my mind.
Social anxiety is pretty common, with a 13% lifetime prevalence rate, that is for every 100 people in the population, thirteen will experience social anxiety or social phobia in their lifetime. Social phobia is far more than being shy, but what exactly is it, really? In a nutshell, social anxiety is a debilitating fear experienced in social or performance interactions. Someone with social phobia basically has either a strong fear that they will behave in a way that is embarrassing or humiliating or is afraid that they might be judged as being inadequate. This means that someone with social phobia generally goes to extreme lengths to avoid certain situations or tolerates them with great psychological distress (For more information and resources have a look here and here).
What does that look like on a day to day basis? Well, for me, it looks like feeling ridiculously nervous about calling the school office to let them know that my kid was away sick, for fear of somehow saying the wrong thing and embarrassing myself (and sometimes just sending a note because I don’t have the emotional capacity to make the phone call that day). It means feeling a bit terrified with every trip to the hairdresser for fear of being judged as not looking quite right or not being up to scratch in some way (and avoiding said trip to the hairdresser for as long as possible). It means struggling to exercise in groups, experiencing extreme discomfort whilst browsing in clothing shops, and being almost incapable of answering questions in group discussions, even with people I know well.
Or, at it’s very worst, it means feeling judged by everyone who passes you in the aisles at Woolies: for what you are wearing, what grocery items you are choosing, how many items you have in your trolley, for accidentally glancing at someone for “too long”, finally experiencing peak anxiety (we’re talking pounding heart, sweaty palms, shallow breathing) at the checkout while signing a new temporary Everyday Rewards card, afraid that your signature doesn’t look “good enough”.
That was rock bottom for me. Or rather, it was the tipping point. Up until that point, I’d been able to fairly effectively ignore and downplay my anxiety, so it took something as big as the stresses and strains of the pandemic to wear me down and raise my anxiety to incredible new heights, for me to finally accept that even I, as a trained mental health professional, need help sometimes.
Don’t get me wrong, I was aware from a very young age that most social situations made me feel frightened, but it wasn’t until university when I sat in Psychology 101 and first heard the DSM-IV criteria for social anxiety that I thought “By golly, I tick nearly all those boxes”. Frantically scanning further down through the lecture notes I spy the final requirements for fulfilling criteria for this “disorder” and they sparkled with hope: “significant impairment” . I breathed an immediate sigh of relief. “I’m not significantly impaired! I’m functioning just fine! This social anxiety stuff doesn’t apply to me after all! Phew!”, I told myself. And that was that. In naive and complete and utter misunderstanding of the diagnosis of mental health problems (essentially taking the categorical approach way too literally), I didn’t for a moment think of social anxiety with respect to myself for many years after that.
I did, of course, have many, many reasons over the years to pause and reconsider what hold social anxiety had on my life in reality, but mostly, I did what I do best and ignored my own discomfort and focused on other much more important things, like curating an image for myself and others of someone who is coping and successful and doing well at life, someone too busy to have time for annoying social anxieties. Until, as you now know, grocery shopping became a task too stressful and scary to complete.
The COVID pandemic revealed one other thing to me with regards to social anxiety. Over the years, I began to talk to my husband about my anxious quirks, trying to figure out if they were a serious problem or not. My husband would always nod, with emphatic empathy, convinced he could perfectly relate to my dilemmas as he is a naturally shy and reserved type of person. This particular COVID experience however, revealed just how different we are. We were in the car driving through Strathfield on the way back from a rare coffee date and I noticed many, many people in the cars around us were wearing masks. In their cars. Even though they were the only person in that car! This I could not fathom. I personally found masks so infuriating and irritating to wear (so itchy!) that I never wore mine a moment longer than I had to. Never would I ever have continued to wear mine whilst on my own in a car! This led to an enthusiastic discussion about mask wearing habits.
“I think some people secretly love wearing them”, I mused.
“Introverts probably like hiding behind them”, my husband suggested.
“Yeah, nah”, I replied. “As an introvert with socially anxious tendencies, I can attest that that is absolutely not the case. Not for me anyway”.
He glanced at me quizzically (he was driving).
” There are like 1,000 reasons why wearing a mask causes me anxiety”, I say. I begin to list them off: “Fear of judgement by greener-minded folk for wearing a disposable mask or fear of judgement from non-sewing types for flaunting my amateur sewing skills or fear of judgement from actual sewing types who may more closely inspect said hand-made mask and laugh and laugh (internally of course, not actually in my face) or fear of judgement by those with fashion sense for the fabric I’ve chosen to make my mask (“Like, what was she even thinking? That colour is simply awful on her. Doesn’t she care about her appearance at all?)….”
At this point my husband interjects, “Annndd, it’s conversations like this that confirm I am indeed not socially anxious at all“.
So, to cut this long story short, I’ve sought some help and even though the psychologist I saw was not as helpful as I hoped and I’m not “cured” (there is no cure, of course), I am greatly improved. I’ve got my strategies, I’m taking care of myself generally by basically just being kinder to myself (and eating well, exercising when I can, having good sleep habits etc), and I feel much better now within myself, as my grandmother would say. And most importantly, I can now do the grocery shopping just fine (Or at least with only the smallest waft of anxiety 😉 ).
We might train hard and give it our best but not be quite good enough. We might be too sad to do our job properly and make people laugh. We might occasionally look “too good” to be on brand. We might be a mental health professional who has anxieties of her own. But that’s ok – we’re only human.
“What is human kind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor” Psalm 8:4