I have suffered from social anxiety for years. Many years. For most of that time, I had no idea that what I was feeling had a name. I had heard the term "social anxiety" before, but never realized what is was or that it described much of what I feel.
This past weekend I went to a local Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention called CONvergence. When people asked me afterward if I had fun, I say "Yeah! I had a blast". That is a lie. I did not have fun, I was miserable through much of it, but not all of it, I will explain that in a bit.
There were times at CONvergence this weekend where I felt like I could not breathe. Like there was no escape. I felt helpless and afraid, like I could never be happy again. Even now, four days after it has ended, I am still reeling from the anxiety and feeling loneliness and despair. I could not explain it at the time.
The following is a short excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Social Anxiety:
It is typically characterized by an intense fear of what others are thinking about them (specifically fear of embarrassment, criticism, or rejection), which results in the individual feeling insecure, and that they are not good enough for other people. The results of this are fear and anxiety within social situations, and the assumption that peers will automatically reject them in the social situations.
When I read this for the first time, I actually felt a little relief. Relief that what I was feeling could be articulated so succinctly. What I was feeling had a name and was a real thing. I was not just "being shy" and I did not just "need to relax". But after that moment of relief, I felt sad. I also felt dread. I felt sad that this anxiety keeps me from making friends, and dread because I have already registered for CONvergence for next year. Will I go through it all again? Can I do anything about it?
Many who read my blog, and know me from professional software-development conferences may be surprised by the admission in this post. At our annual cf.Objective() confernece, I am quite social, or am I? The truth is, when I attended my first software-development conference (cf.Objective(), the conference I have attended the most), I felt much the same way as I did this past weekend. But it was different. I was able to have some interaction with others and make some friends, soon after, I started avidly blogging about my experiences in programming and finding that I made friends online, which made me more comfortable when I met these people in person. For the next cf.Objective() I was invited to speak, my anxiety over that was so high, I almost turned them down. But I didn't, because my blogging had allowed me to get to know many of those to whom I would be speaking, so I did it, and it went well, I did not experience the social anxiety that I thought I would. But why?
cf.Objective() is now a somewhat comfortable place for me, with many friends, and I no longer (greatly) suffer from social anxiety there, but I am still afraid to talk to people at cf.O() if I don't know them and do not have a specific reason to talk to them, and when I attend other professional conferences, it kicks in again. That anxiety is compounded with a bit of Impostor Syndrome, but that is a blog post for a different day.
The difference?No social anxiety that I have ever experienced at a professional conferences can compare to what I felt at CONvergence this last weekend. At times, the anxiety was almost crippling. And I don't know what to do about it.
So what's the difference between a professional software-development conference and a sci-fi/fantasy convention? Why do I feel so much more anxious at a sci-fi/fantasy con?
Purpose and ReasonMy first thought is a sense of purpose. When I am at a professional conference, I have a non-social reason for being there. If I feel like I am being judged, it is that I am being judged on my work, not on me (personality, looks, behavior, etc). I am much more confident in my work than I am in myself.
When I attend something like a Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention, or a board gaming meetup, etc, it is purely social. I am there for ME to have a good time, and to try to make friends. I can't hide behind my work, I can't pretend like I am just there to speak or learn and that social interaction is secondary. I am there for me to be there, at a social event, and to be social, and therein lies the problem. Because then I worry about being judged, then I worry about being rejected, or thought poorly of.
I mentioned earlier that I was not miserable the entire conference. There were some situation where I had fun.
My children attended CONvergence as well (they had a lot of fun) and while I was with my children, my anxiety was less. I think this is because they are fun kids, but also because they give me a purpose. They give me a reason for being there. I am there for my kids to have fun, and any social interactions I experience are secondary. And while I love my children, and have a great time watching them have a great time, that was not my reason for attending the convention.
I am social personI really am. I want to meet people. I want to have fun. I like to play board and card games, I like to talk about books and TV, I have a lot of pent-up geekiness that I would love to get out. That is why I went to CONvergence. I actually want to meet people. I want to make friends with similar interests, but I don't know how. I prepare for it. I bring my games, I brush up on the rules, I make sure all the pieces are in the box, and then, when I arrive, I choke. I wonder why anyone would want to be friends with me. I look around and see people with their groups of friends and can't imagine why they would want to include me. They have friends, they are having fun, where do I fit in?
Then there are the party rooms. My wife likes to go to the party rooms. And in the party rooms, I am in Hell. So many people, none of whom I have any reason to talk to. So many awesome costumes that I am terrified of complimenting. I don't know what to say to anyone, I am afraid to say anything, so I just follow my wife and ruin the fun for her.
Anyone else?I am not exactly sure why I am writing this post. I'm not sure it is going to help, and I dread that it might even hurt (now I can be the guy that is afraid of people). But if there are others out there that are feeling this way too, maybe we can help each other.
I can't be the only one at conferences and conventions that feels this way. At the time I feel like I am, but logic tells me there must be others. What do you do? How do you deal with these feelings?
Is there anything we can do to help each other?
I suspect that many people solve these problems through self-medication (drinking alcohol), but that is not an option for me, nor do I think it is a good solution.