Social Anxiety and me at conventions and conferences

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.

Social Anxiety

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 Reason

My 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 person

I 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.

Aaron Longnion's Gravatar Hey Jason,

Thanks for writing this, as I'm also quite introverted by nature. I suffer some of the same feelings, doubts, and questions. I can rarely muster up the courage to start a conversation with someone new, so must usually wait around in social situations until someone comes up to me. If I know them already, I'm usually fine. I'm glad you're brave enough to admit this publicly, as you're not alone. And I really mean it when I say "brave" because it takes a lot more will to overcome our fears in such situations than folks who are more extroverted and naturally calm in social situations.

# Posted By Aaron Longnion | 7/11/13 10:58 AM
Ryan Anklam's Gravatar Jason,

Thanks for writing this, being so honest about it, and bringing it out in the open. What really stinks about social anxiety is that it can be easily misread by others and being stuck up or conceited. A number of times I've head bad things said about me when little do they know that I'd love more than anything to talk to them, however the crippling feeling of rejection or embarrassment keeps me planted directly in my spot. It's such a hard thing to explain to someone who doesn't suffer from it, I often get into arguments with my wife about why i'm not more "social". I try to explain but she just cannot understand what it feels like.

I'd love to hear with others have to say about techniques or tips to help ease the effects of social anxiety.
# Posted By Ryan Anklam | 7/11/13 11:33 AM
Ryan Vikander's Gravatar I am really disappointed I didn't get to go to CONvergence. Turns out a lot of my friends went that I wouldn't have expected to go. At least you would have had me to play board games with. Guess next year I will have to make an effort to attend.
# Posted By Ryan Vikander | 7/11/13 11:39 AM
Jim Priest's Gravatar Another introvert here. Have exactly the same experiences, and usually just avoid social situations entirely. :)

I think you pointed out a few 'solutions'... If appropriate I drag my kids to social visits. I'm comfortable hanging with them and they are good ice breakers to start discussions with someone I may not know. Same goes for my wife.

After speaking at a few conferences I'm learning to just 'go for it' and not freak out over the consequences. The worst that's going to happen is I'm going to look like a jackass in front of a few people I likely will never see again. :)

I forget where I heard it but someone once said when faced with an awkward or uncomfortable feeling imagine what you will think about one year afterward. Most likely you'll look back and laugh or have forgotten it entirely.

Thanks for posting this. I look forward to seeing what kind of responses you get.

# Posted By Jim Priest | 7/11/13 11:45 AM
Steven Neiland's Gravatar Thanks for posting this Jason. I have suffered from social anxiety all my life and have been in the exact same position you have. it helps knowing that I am not the only one who feels like this.
# Posted By Steven Neiland | 7/11/13 11:48 AM
Thomas R. Gaasch's Gravatar Wow, I am impressed with your courage in posting this. Talk about being alone in a room full of strangers. While I have never suffered the level of Social Anxiety you experience, I would suggest to you, you may want to consider volunteering next year. That is what I did, it gave me a sense of purpose and I was able to meet and interact with some real cool people.
# Posted By Thomas R. Gaasch | 7/11/13 12:08 PM
Jennifer's Gravatar I too suffer from Social Anxiety, only it's fairly minor. I find the claustrophobia and need to immediately escape crowding situations to be a huge problem when I attend CON. It's been getting so bad for me that I have decided not to attend CON next year. It would be my 12th. It's just not worth the crabbiness and minor panic attacks anymore. I sure will miss it.
# Posted By Jennifer | 7/11/13 12:11 PM
DJ's Gravatar I have to say, I agree with you. This is why I'm on the Con-Comm: the whole weekend gives me a purpose. Mind you, then my work is on display all the time, as my Department works to fill the needs of attendees; in that case, the Imposter Syndrome you mentioned comes to the fore. The only time I feel truly relaxed, oddly enough, is after a problem arises which I have to fix. When I'm in the middle of fixing a problem during the con, my stress levels lower, I focus on getting the job done, I know I'm not an Imposter, and I can relax.

I wish there were a solution to this; I'm not really sure if there is, though. At least I don't drink and I'm no longer on any psychiatric meds ... but, still, it's a pretty annoying way to have to live. I'm sociable and gregarious ... but in these situations, I feel like I'm totally behind the 8-ball if I don't have purpose.
# Posted By DJ | 7/11/13 12:12 PM
C's Gravatar I'm also introverted (different but a bit related to social anxiety.) I also like being social, but I have to make sure to have down time in my hotel room to avoid feeling worn out and grumpy by what a friend of mine aptly called "crowd fatigue". I second that being on concom/volunteering/having a purpose helps. It can also backfire, because feeling responsible for things can make it harder to make sure I get the down time I need to be effective/social without feeling weird or guilty about it, but I'm getting better about it. :)
# Posted By C | 7/11/13 12:24 PM
Jason Dean's Gravatar Thank you all for your comment, suggestions and words of support.

I actually did try to volunteer for the con this year. I sent an email offering to help sometime after the con last year, but never received a reply. Maybe I sent it to the wrong place. I will try again.

I volunteered a little at the CON, but it is hard to find the time during with the children (They are 10 and 6, and next year we may have the baby, he'll be 2 then), and it is hard to find the courage and motivation with the anxiety being so strong. By the time the kids left this year I was just feeling miserable.

I would love to find a way to help out more pre-con and meet people in a more relaxed setting. It sounds like they needed the help, but, like I said, I never got a reply.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/11/13 12:33 PM
Dana K's Gravatar I have G.A.D., and completely understand where you are coming from. A lot of times something has conditioned us to go into that fight or flight mode, a tick in your instincts.

I can't even fully explain how amazing this book is to own for anyone with these types of conditions:
# Posted By Dana K | 7/11/13 12:39 PM
Viv Hawthorne's Gravatar Hi Jason. I think it's wonderful that you've spoken out about this issue and it is, as another commenter pointed out, very brave of you to come forward and do. I believe many people suffer silently because they are too afraid to say they have this problem and are concerned what others will think.

I, too, have social anxiety issues and panic attacks and the feeling of claustrophobia when immersed in large crowds. I've had to force myself to deal with these issues and other by confronting them head on. I would like, if I could, to give you and maybe some of your other readers the benefit of my experience in how to deal with it. This is not for everyone to do or try but it was extremely helpful for me. I learned by trial and error on my own.

For many years I was absolutely terrified of heights. I solved that problem by flying to New Zealand and bungee jumping off a bridge. It was THE MOST terrifying thing I've ever done but it DID cure me of my fear of heights. I was also terrified of hypodermic needles. I conquered this fear by getting a tattoo. It took getting 3 tattoos to completely rid myself of the fear.

I used to panic when I would be in large crowds which would bring on devastating panic attacks. Confrontations also used to bring those on. So, I did the unthinkable - I purposely put myself in situations that made me extremely uncomfortable until I could learn to control that panic I felt. I assure you it was NOT easy to do but, eventually, it did work for me and made the anxiety less. It still lingers but it's not so bad any more.

Most people in today's society do everything behind some form of technology - be it a cell phone or a computer. As a society, we no longer gather together as we used to. I think this has greatly contributed to the overwhelming numbers of people who suffer from social anxiety. Maybe if we can learn to put the technology down and force ourselves to get out amongst other human beings on a daily basis, this would help us overcome it.

Just my thoughts on it. Thank you again for writing what you did. :)
# Posted By Viv Hawthorne | 7/11/13 1:22 PM
Rick Mason's Gravatar Jason, I'm really surprised. You may not remember but we've had lunch together several times at CFUnited and I wouldn't have ever known you had a problem. In fact I always sought time with you because of how much I learned ;<).

You're courageous for being so pubic. I remember something that the VC Brad Feld said on his blog. He found going public with his problem (in his case depression) was the first step in finding ways to tame it. Good luck on your journey.
# Posted By Rick Mason | 7/11/13 1:37 PM
Natasha's Gravatar Dear Jason,
As I read your post, I feel like I am reading something my own brain wrote. You are not alone. But I also don't know how to "get over it". I feel as though, instead of getting better at dealing with it, I have gotten better at fooling people into not noticing it. But it is still there. To answer some of your questions more specifically:
What do you do? - One thing: I make a costume, a very obvious and noticeable costume, and thereby get people to come to me, instead of me being nervous about going to them. I find it easier to respond than to initiate. Two: I give myself permission to disappear for an hour to so when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I tell my friends I just need a little quiet time, which is true.
How do you deal with these feeling? - I take my quiet time, and absorb myself in a book or a project and complete take my mind off of it. Sometimes I cry, while alone.
Is there anything we can do to help each other? - YES! Talking about it helps. Realizing that it is there helps. Those of us that experience are also usually best at recognizing it in others, and therefore, if we see someone having an anxiety attack, we can help protect them, get them away from what is making them anxious, change the situation, etc.

I hope you will come to CONvergence next year, and I hope each year you come, that you have a little bit more fun. :-D
# Posted By Natasha | 7/11/13 1:55 PM
Gretchen's Gravatar Thank you for posting this. My daughter went to Convergence and had major social anxiety. She didn't attend the last 2 days. I felt bad for her but frustrated at the same time. It's good for her to know that other people (espcially adults) have the same issues.
# Posted By Gretchen | 7/11/13 2:12 PM
Gretchen's Gravatar So many spelling mistakes when I post from my phone!! Anyway, maybe you could host a panel for people with social anxieties. At least host a group where you can meet others with SA and just be together....
# Posted By Gretchen | 7/11/13 2:15 PM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @Dana, Thank you for the book suggestion. I will probably look into that.

@Viv, Thank you for your suggestions. I continue to try to put myself in social situations, like going to Con, going to board gaming meetups, etc. I don't feel like it is getting better.

I am much better about making friends online first. And I think that is part of my goal here. Getting to know people on Facebook and on Twitter makes meeting them in person much easier.

@Rick, I remember very well having lunch with you, it was a fine time. You may recall that when it happened I was likely with other friends (Simon, Ben, Scott, or others), who were probably serving , unknowingly (even to me) as my portable support group.

Now, I feel like I know you well enough that it would not be a problem regardless.

@Natasha, the idea of creating a costume that would make others want to initiate conversation has certainly crossed my mind. But so has the idea that making a costume puts me out there for judgement. It's a conundrum for certain.

Someone else might suggest making a masked costume to feel more comfortable, but my two issues with that are, one, I want to be comfortable. And two, it defeats the purpose. I can't make friends if no one knows who I am. I know you did not suggest it, but it is something I have thought about and seemed appropriate to the conversation.

@Gretchen, I'm so sorry your daughter went through that. I don't know how old she is, but it breaks my heart to hear about children suffering like that. Children are such precious, wonderful people (I have three) and when I hear about something like that, I want to help.

My kids are so social, they don't seem to have any problem making conversation with others. I love to watch them do it, but can't seem to learn anything from it.

I would (anxiously) love to be involved in some kind of panel or group. If it could help others come out of their shells, I am sure it would help me too. And would likely be a fun way to meet others, and to help others meet others.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/11/13 2:37 PM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @Aaron, @Jim, @Steven, @Ryan Thanks for your comments. It's nice to know I am not alone in the programming community.

@Thomas, I think volunteering is a good idea. As I said, I'll try agin to get more involved.

@DJ, I can relate to feeling more relaxed in the midst of find a solution. It probably goes back to that sense of purpose I was talking about.

@C, Crowd Fatigue. Good name. I don't think the responsibility of volunteering will be an issue, but it is a good thought that many may want to consider. Like DJ, when faced with a problem, I actually feel pretty good.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/11/13 2:47 PM
Viv Hawthorne's Gravatar I think the panel is a GREAT idea! That way, everyone in the room will know for a fact they aren't alone. No one should ever suffer silently and alone.
# Posted By Viv Hawthorne | 7/11/13 2:48 PM
Jeff's Gravatar Jason, I can relate to your post, as I too have felt much like how you expressed you feel in these social settings.

I would agree with some of the previous comments about finding volunteer positions that can keep you occupied while you are surrounded by the socializing. This is one of the big things I have done to address the social anxiety I often feel in large groups.

You may want to start going to ConComm meetings, as that will allow you to get to know a few people before the convention (these can be connection points when things get bad), and with a more active role in the convention, you can "keep yourself busy" when the crowds get to be too much, while still being a part of the convention.

Between doing this, and surrounding myself with people that love to be the "center of attention/highly social", I have made a lot of gains in maintaining my composure in large group settings. I hope you find something that works for you.
# Posted By Jeff | 7/11/13 4:25 PM
Chuck's Gravatar Jason,

I do appreciate you posting this. I suspect (from experience) that it was pretty hard to click that "Post" button once you were done writing...

While I don't have much social anxiety any more, I am currently having a really rough time with Impostor Syndrome. I've been researching the subject for a big blog post, so it was heartening to see someone else working on it.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if statistics showed that software developers are more prone to depression, social anxiety and things like Impostor Syndrome. A lot of us are introverts, after all. Some of the traits that make us good at what we do can be hurting us at the same time.

I don't know if you've considered getting professional help, but I think you'd get the most relief the fastest. It's not going to be intense psychotherapy, it'll just be you and a counselor once weekly or bi-weekly discussing tools that will help you. They'll give you "homework" assignments to do, and they'll measure your progress. They know how to fix these things.

Some advice- shop around first and find someone who is highly recommended. I've had good and bad ones, and the difference is huge. And yes, they HAVE helped me a lot.

It bugs the hell out of me to see good people suffer. I hope you can start down a healing path. You have an army of supporters alongside, and you've taken the first, hardest step.
# Posted By Chuck | 7/11/13 4:48 PM
TG's Gravatar I have Asperger's, so conventions are inherently social anxiety quicksand traps for me. And it's gotten worse and worse over the years. It's been weird--the more well-known I become the more freaked out I become. Some of it is the judgement thing. Some of it is fear of not being able to read social situations correctly, then doing something wrong and pissing people off. Or not being able to tell when they're done with me/irritated with me/I've pissed them off, and then I keep doing it more. My inability to read social situations causes a LOT of distress socially. There's a lot of built-in anxiety into every social interaction with people I don't know, and even some I do. And I'm an anxious person to begin with. I have a sensory processing disorder that is sometimes visually oriented (so many people/costumes/things in my peripheral vision) but is mostly sound-oriented. The noise of a convention can freak me out and start panic attacks.

It doesn't help that a lot of the cons I went to were small to begin with, then got bigger and bigger as time went on, so for a while I didn't notice my mounting anxiety until I realized I was spending all weekend either pulling into myself and having a very very tiny weekend in my own head (noise gets sort of far away, I kind of get tunnel vision... it's usually called 'shutting down.') or totally losing it and either having a full-blown panic attack in some corner or ending up sobbing in the room (meltdowns).

I had an incredibly terrible time being around people at Wiscon (NOT due to the nature of the con--the people and con itself are wonderful--my senses and my brain were the issue at hand). I was frightened and terrified the entire time I was there, except for when I was drunk. That is no way to handle being at a convention, at what is supposed to be a happy time.

About the only thing I like about conventions now days is being on panels (apparently one-on-one interaction is impossible for me but standing up in front of a room of people is not?) and seeing friends I have not seen in ages (but again, there's that paranoia that I'm secretly annoying them or they're trying to ditch me, or I've overstayed my welcome, etc.). Signings, where you have to look people directly in the eye and smile and interact with them are becoming impossible. I don't know what I'm going to do about going to conventions. I don't know if I am going to stop, or if I am going to try to find some way to manage the experience. My therapist seems to be completely rubbish at helping me deal with it. I don't want to stop going to cons but don't know what to do.
# Posted By TG | 7/11/13 5:30 PM
Amanda Werhane's Gravatar Totally hear you on this. I can only dip into the hustle and bustle at any conference, including CONvergence, for a few hours at a time, before retreating to a corner or returning home.

This was the first year I decided to volunteer a few hours, and I found that it gave me that anxiety-dissipating purpose you describe. I also made sure to stroll leisurely through the comparatively quiet art show room and Geek Partnership Society silent auction room. I didn't watch any movies this year, but in past years, that, too, has been a nice respite from the clamor.
# Posted By Amanda Werhane | 7/11/13 5:36 PM
Jodie Gustafson's Gravatar Jason, thanks for speaking up about this topic - it is quite helpful to know others out there "get it" - and that we are not alone.

Each CVG I keep working towards a balance. I like spending time with my friends and meeting new people - but I also need quiet time - luckily I have had a room in the hotel where I can go - but that is not the case for everyone - having a quiet space would be a great suggestion to make for future CVGs.

Before attending my first CVG many years ago - I attended some of the smaller goings on - which is how I got involved with MISFITS (which is now the Geek Partnership Society) - I went to the Read the Book/See the Movie Club (which I still attend!) - after meeting some great people I helped in the party room - that gave me a home base where I felt comfortable and let the con come to me.

I then became president of MISFITS for three years and Director of MISFITS/Geek Partner Society for another three years. It was challenging and quite often took me out of my comfort zone - but made me a stronger person and I learned soooooo much about myself and dealing with others.

I'm not saying this is the path that would work for everyone. But we are lucky to live in a community that is filled with geekyness with multiple facets - so I encourage you (and everyone else) to start with the smaller communities (gaming, picnics, book clubs, etc) to find like minded folks and grow from there. : )
# Posted By Jodie Gustafson | 7/11/13 6:09 PM
Jeffrey's Gravatar Ditto! I feel the same way as you and many other who have posted here. Yet I keep going back to CONvergence. The ONLY way I can get through it is by being in costume. I have helped host a very successful party there for many years. So popular I can barely even move in my own party room. But I would rather be in there than out walking around with all the others. I think there are many that do the "self medication" thing, but I don't drink so that doesn't help me. Every year when it comes time to go to the show I get SUPER agitated and nervous. And why do I do all this? Someplace deep down I know that others I like me, and then I start to think if there are others who are having fun the I can too. Do I have a great time? Not really, but every year it gets a tiny bit better.
# Posted By Jeffrey | 7/11/13 6:24 PM
Jana's Gravatar Spot on. If it weren't for attending with my child this weekend and for being on a couple panels, I would have been utterly lost at CONvergence. My husband is also sometimes my shield out in massively social situations, but he was home with the other sick child so I was incredibly thankful a lot of focus was on my daughter while we were there so that I could keep myself busy with a task (shepherding her around). Panels are a lot like work for me as is volunteering somewhere where I have something I need to accomplish, even if that's speaking in front of others or leading an activity. I can lose myself in the "job" aspect of it and do very well. Pulling me out of the house though to go somewhere with people around that I don't know well just because it could be 'fun' is terrifying for me and takes an incredible amount of energy. I find myself exhausted this week and honestly it's not because of lack of sleep; it's because I had to be socially "on" for four days which is a huge emotional energy drain.
# Posted By Jana | 7/11/13 7:43 PM
Adrian's Gravatar I have very similar anxiety issues. Even at tech confs. Thank you for sharing.
# Posted By Adrian | 7/11/13 7:46 PM
Ricardus's Gravatar Maybe someone should do a panel about this subject. I realize the problem with that, but maybe a panel with purpose would give you a reason to be there or even possibly to be on the panel. I would happily be on the panel to provide support.

As I mentioned under your post on the CVG FB page, I used to struggle with anxiety in groups, and often felt a need to flee (and many times I did), but over the years this changed. I no longer feel that anxiety. I did spend many years talking to very grounded friends, and I think that also helped me. I also think THEY helped me to rewire my brain a bit with positive talk, and teaching me positive SELF talk.

Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone and talk to people. I didn't do that much at last year's CVG, but this year I talked to everyone whose costume I liked, or who I saw in panels I attended. You will have an instant connection, and something to talk about, and it will get easier (I think) with time.
# Posted By Ricardus | 7/11/13 8:34 PM
cole's Gravatar So many comments here that I almost wonder what I can add. I don't suffer from social anxiety like you do, just some generalized anxiety that makes me wound up pretty tight by Saturday. However, I do understand looking at people and just not knowing how to segue into.. friendship basically. It's awkward. I compliment someone. We chat a bit about a single subject and awkwardly slink off. We don't exchange numbers or facebook URLs. Not even names..

So I completely understand making friends online first. I just didn't know how because I hadn't discovered the Facebook group prior to going. Oops. Anyway, I;'m going to send a friend request. Accept it if you'd like. Maybe I'll see you next year!
# Posted By cole | 7/11/13 8:58 PM
Evik James's Gravatar Wow! This was one of the most open blog posts of the last decade. Thanks! I think you've tapped into something that many of us feel, but never fully understand. Some of us hide our insecurity better than others, but we are all scared to death of our peers. At once, that's unsettling and reassuring. Props!
# Posted By Evik James | 7/11/13 9:24 PM
Shani's Gravatar Thanks so much for posting this and being out in the open about it - I deal with some of these same issues too (fear of judgment for various reasons, imposter syndrome, etc.), but as DJ and a couple others have mentioned, volunteering, whether casually or at a concom level, does help to alleviate that. The year that I went and didn't volunteer in advance (challenge from my best friend), I just couldn't do it - I HAD to volunteer! If volunteering helps you, that's a really good thing, and it's great that you've found places to do that. I completely understand, the room parties are NOT for everyone, and that is very, very OK. One thing I've really noticed from the majority of CONvergence attendees is the acceptance level - you are who you are, and that's accepted - it's a great feeling to have.

Something I've run across that may help you is called EFT or "tapping" - it's a technique that actually helps short-circuit some of the anxiety responses many people have. It's helped me deal with anxiety, depression, and other junk, so I'm tossing it out there in case you hadn't heard of it. Give it a try if it sounds like it would work for you.

Something else that may help at con is making sure you and your family have a hotel room. That way you KNOW you have a quiet, neutral place to go if/when you get overwhelmed.

Thanks so much for posting this - I think you've hit a nerve with a lot of people, and I agree with some of the other contributors that this would be a GREAT panel topic for next year!
# Posted By Shani | 7/11/13 10:22 PM
lurker's Gravatar Just curious if anyone here is familiar with the Highly Sensitive Person personality trait. Seems like there is a fair amount of overlap with much of the preceeding discussion.

From Wikipedia:

". . . highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.[3] This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness,[4][5] and introversion.[6] "
# Posted By lurker | 7/12/13 8:43 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @Jeff, Thanks for the suggestions. You said "surrounding myself with people that love to be the center of attention...". That sounds like what I am doing with my children :)

It's nice to hear from someone in this community ,that makes me so anxious, whom I have actually met. I hope the result of all of this is a way for me, and others who feel similarly, to be able to meet people where we would not have been able to before.

@Chuck, Imposter syndrome sucks. And for me it is only reinforced when I surround myself with amazingly smart software developers at conferences. On the bright side of that, it inspires me to keep learning.

I have opted to remain silent on my choices for medical care. But, as I said on the Facebook post, I believe it is important for everyone who needs it, myself included, to seek out medical care (mental or otherwise), and I am a HUGE proponent of stamping out the stigma that surrounds people with mental health issues. But I do thank you for your counsel and do take it seriously despite my preference not to discuss it here.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/12/13 9:46 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @TG, Thank you for sharing your story. Asperger's, or really any part of the spectrum, is not something I have an personal experience with (not that I am aware of).

It is funny that so many of us are fine public speakers, but break down when faced with smaller social situations. I've actually spoken as several programming conventions, both where I had friends and where I did not, and sure, I get nervous before hand, but not like what I experienced last weekend when in a purely social setting.

@Amanda, thanks for helping to reaffirm that volunteering is a helpful solution.

@Jodie, Thank you. It's nice to hear about those that have achieved so much while dealing with something like this.

@Jeffrey, I've actually approached someone (whom I was able to talk to because my kids were around, and I was waiting on them), about helping out in a party room next year. Getting both a sense of purpose, and letting the con come to the room seem like good ideas.

The downside I see to the party room is that I wonder if the interactions are too fleeting to have a hope of developing any friendships. Something to think about.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/12/13 10:08 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @Jana, Thanks. It's nice to here from another perent with young children. I feel like we are a rarity at CONvergence (it may not be true, but it feels like it). Kids are awesome ice-breakers, but some things at Con are not for them, even when I want to do them (I am sure you probably faced that yourself).

I am glad you made it, and did your panels. It was nice to meet you (clearly thanks to the kids, they sure are awesome).

@Adrian, I never would have guessed. You hide it well. Regardless, I am glad to know you and call you "friend".

@Ricardus, Thanks for the comment. You said "Maybe someone should do a panel about this subject. I realize the problem with that..."

I think it is a common misconception that shyness, social anxiety, etc will make someone an unlikely public speaker. But that is not the case. I am fine when speaking in public, because I have a purpose, as you suggested in your second point.

Thanks for sharing what worked for you. I value all suggestions. If they don't work for me, maybe they can help someone else. But I will give serious thought to everything that people suggest.

It is great that you had your friends for support and to help you through it. I hope to someday have a similar support system.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/12/13 10:24 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @cole, I think this Facebook group could be a fantastic resource for many of us that deal with anxiety at Con (regardless of the anxiety source). Thanks for the friend request. Accepted :)

@Evik, Thanks for the comment. For me it was not just that I didn't understand it. I didn't realize it was happening. Looking back I realize that this is something I have been dealing with for most of my life and I was blind to it.

@Shani, Thanks for the suggestions. Our family actually does get a hotel room. And it is a great resource to have. My daughter likes to change costume 3-4 times a day. :)

@lurker I had not heard of HSP before. Interesting reading. Seems appropriate to the conversation and I will have to read more.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/12/13 10:34 AM
Ricardus's Gravatar The reason I suggested a panel was because I struggle with social things in a different way. I am on the Aspergers spectrum, and only made that self-discovery about 7 or 8 years ago (late in life). I suggested an Aspergers panel (Sheldon, Aspergers, and You) and they included it in 2013 CVG schedule. I was on the panel, and it worked out fantastically. It was fun, I think people got something out of it, and I got to meet a lot of fellow Aspies, and that felt great. In short, the panel was everything I had hoped it would be.

I know they did a mental health panel this year, but a specific panel of your making would be something that would likely interest the programming people.
# Posted By Ricardus | 7/12/13 10:37 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @Ricardus, And I do think it is a great suggestion. Sorry I did not say so, I had mentioned it somewhere else in one of these many threads.

I think someone said they already submitted it as an idea for next year. Not sure what the procedure is for getting involved in that.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/12/13 10:46 AM
Chuck's Gravatar Jason (and interested posters):

I listen to a podcast called /dev/hell. One of its hosts, Ed Finkler, recently opened up on the podcast about his struggle with depression. He was later accepted to speak about it at a developer conference-

(Just found this, haven't had the opportunity to watch/listen; hope it's good)

# Posted By Chuck | 7/12/13 1:46 PM
Justin Scott's Gravatar Jason, thank you for posting about this. It is something that I have struggled with for many, many years. I love being around people and I can generally be found at a coffee shop or other places where I can be around people, but without the expectation of interaction. Invite me to a party though and I go into panic mode and feel the sadness that comes with being alone in the crowd. My main anxiety revolves around a fear that people find me uninteresting, that I simply do not have anything to talk about with other people. If I don't have an existing connection or reason to talk to someone, it feels like suicide to try and strike up a conversation. One of my life goals was to become a pilot, so in 2008 I earned a private pilot license. One of the most exciting aspects of that was that I'd have something interesting to talk about with others. I could finally break the barrier! To me, there's nothing more exciting or interesting than the miracle of flight. Imagine my utter devastation as my own family pretty much shrugged it off and I got blank looks from anyone I brought up the subject with. My dream became a reality, and nobody cared. Even at developer conferences where we all have at least a shared interest I have a very hard time engaging with anyone. I was fortunate enough at NCDevCon last year to sit down for lunch with someone (WJ, if you're reading this you know who you are) and have an actual conversation. It felt amazing! It took moving the moon and stars to do that, and even though we haven't kept in touch much since last year I am hoping to see them again at NCDevCon this year as well and pick up where we left off. If anyone else here is going to be in Raleigh in September and happens to see me, don't be afraid to say hello, because chances are I'm scared to death and just need some prodding. Thanks again Jason for bringing this up. As you can see from this thread, you're most certainly not alone.
# Posted By Justin Scott | 7/13/13 1:55 AM
Jason Dean's Gravatar @chuck, thanks for the suggestions, I will check it out.

@justin, thanks for sharing your story.

Personally, I think it is awesome that you got your pilot license, but I will also admit that that is the kind of thing that I might also shrug off in a conversation if told. Not because it is unimpressive, but because it is very impressive and would make me feel a little inadequate and jealous at your accomplishment.

Don't get me wrong, I am not, in any way, saying that your accomplishment isn't impressive, nor am I justifying your families reaction. I am just trying to explain why someone might feel inclined to shrug off such an accomplishment.

That said, I am going to make more of an effort to not be so petty, jealous and insecure when someone tells me of an accomplishment like that. I don't think I ever realized it could be so hurtful. It's a defense mechanism for me when some one does something that makes me feel inadequate.

Thanks again for sharing that, Justin. I don't recall, have we had the opportunity to meet at NCDevCon? I've been there every year but 2011 (I think). If not, we should try this year.
# Posted By Jason Dean | 7/15/13 9:47 AM
Justin Scott's Gravatar @Jason Regarding the pilot certificate, that is an interesting perspective that I hadn't considered. For me it is a hobby and a passion and I love talking about flying and airplanes. Being a geek, the physics of flight and the operational details are something to geek out over, but most people just aren't interested from what I've seen (the closest thing I can compare it to would be comic books; there are lots of people who are crazy for comics but I've never read them myself, so I'm lost in those discussions on the other end of the spectrum). I will be at NCDevCon this year, so we should meet up at some point. Cheers!
# Posted By Justin Scott | 7/15/13 10:48 AM
BillC's Gravatar Jason, others...

It doesn't surprise me the amount of folks who have similar responses to being in social situations, many of us are in this field because of our inability to feel comfortable within groups or with "strangers". I for one experience many of the same traits but not the strong sense of panic or intense anxiety that would lead me to believe I have SAD, but I may have just exposed myself to those situations so much that I've become somewhat insensitive to my own sense of fear. Still it manifests itself by an inability to hold meaningful conversations, or initiate conversations, even with people I work with. Rationally I know better than to believe I'm being judged all the time, or to believe my many perceived faults will be such a big deal, but my subconscious will not shut-up about it.

I've tried many of the things suggested here to little or no avail. I often feel that there isn't enough time to uncover--let alone address--all the underlying causes, and everything I've tried has helped in small ways but I always end-up in my cocoon.

Still progress is progress, so here are some of the things I think have helped the most:

1. Attend some AA meetings. Nobody will question you if you go in and sit down and listen. Hearing other people talk about the often catastrophic impact of alcohol in their lives helps me put my own perceived issues in a better perspective, but better yet, when I think about them and realize that I'm not judging them, it serves as a reminder that others aren't judging me.

2. I'm a manager and I do allot of MBWA. I go to each of the main users of our business management suite daily to make sure that I know their issues. As I'm moving between offices, I think about the people who work in each office and try to remember something personal about each. To the one who just separated from their spouse for example, I will look closely to see if their is more stress than usual in their face, and may sit a few extra minutes and quietly ask them how they are personally. Again, I am reminding myself that on a personal level, everyone is dealing with some issue and I am cultivating a more personal relationship--and trying to learn to feel comfortable with it. You obviously don't have to be a manager to do this sort of thing, but you do need to look closely and empathize. Do be careful though to not get too involved in their issues, just listen and remind yourself that the world is far too caught up in their own issues to make much of yours.

In the end, these sorts of things don't solve the issue for me--my cocoon is too comfortable, they do help me look outside myself more, I think they help to some degree.
# Posted By BillC | 10/21/13 6:23 PM
Ol Wilson's Gravatar Great post. I attended Novacon yesterday and whilst nothing bad happened, in my head it was a complete disaster. I didn't enjoy it at all, felt like an imposter and as though I had nothing credible to say. I was so scared of coming across as even more of a dick today I couldn't go back. It's made me realize I definitely do have a problem because I really wanted to go and was really looking forward to it. It's great you took the time to post this, I identify with every word. It's nice to know I'm not the only one.
# Posted By Ol Wilson | 11/9/13 2:20 PM
Mary Jo Sminkey's Gravatar Hey Jason, I'm coming along a little later in this conversation, Vicky sent me the link to this article on Twitter in response to some of my comments on there and how difficult getting through cfobjective was for me. The one night I was able to join you all in some game play was one of the few times I wasn't on my own in the evening and definitely a highlight for me (even if I played pretty horribly which is not uncommon for me in a stressful social situation!) I would have liked to joined you again but by the following night I was dealing with one of my other struggles at a conference, my fibromyalgia and pain issues that make sitting in chairs all day extraordinarily painful for me.

If you find conferences difficult you can perhaps imagine typically being the only girl in an entire room of men on top of that, and I've always been extremely self-conscious about my appearance as well, I have no illusions about being attractive and am not someone that tends to get attention from guys, I used to struggle with trying to wear contacts even though they were so painful for me, as I always felt I looked so much better without glasses, and was one of the few things I could do to look my best. I've since had no choice but to give up on them as my astigmatism got worse and even contacts can't correct my vision now. at least the ones I can tolerate long enough to make them worth wearing at all (and Lasik not an option for me!) Ironically while I certainly get a little nervous about speaking, for me that's actually less stressful for me than just trying to go over and join a group of people in a casual social situation, particularly at something like a conference where is seems like everyone knows everyone else and I'm the stranger in the room.

I do agree that it's getting out of your comfort zone and putting yourself out there that is the only way to make progress. 5 years ago I would never have been able to do something like cfobjective, or joined a group of essentially strangers for some game play, at meals I would have always looked for someplace to sit by myself (although even now, I typically would only join a table where there are just a few people seated and ideally would look for one where there are other women there!)

I wonder if there's more we could do at conferences like cfobjective to make them friendlier to people that might be coming for the first time and/or that are on their own. It definitely helped me being able to use Twitter to hook up with others for dinner one night, and find you to do gaming as well. But even then it was tough being the only one that didn't seem to know every one else. It would be nice in a way to be doing an activity with all people that are strangers to each other and on the same footing so to speak.
# Posted By Mary Jo Sminkey | 5/18/14 11:30 AM
Mary Jo Sminkey's Gravatar And like you I do not drink (cannot due to medication I take for my fibro) so that's no fall back available for me either, and makes me feel like even more of an outsider at times during these social nights where everyone else is at the bar. I also find it very difficult to be someplace where there are lots of groups of people all talking at once, I find it almost impossible to concentrate and filter those out so avoid those kinds of situations due to how mentally draining they are for me.
# Posted By Mary Jo Sminkey | 5/18/14 11:37 AM
Mary Jo Sminkey's Gravatar I'll mention as well that while I did tweet some about who might want to meet for dinner, at the same time it embarrasses me to do so, as it just highlights the fact that I don't already have any invitation or group of friends to do things with and so even doing that is somewhat difficult for me, a lot of times I'd rather just sit in my room on my own than (seemingly) admit that no one else cares to share my company for the evening. Intellectually I may know I'm reading WAY too much into the situation, but it's hard not to feel that way sometimes when you seem to be the only one looking for company.
# Posted By Mary Jo Sminkey | 5/18/14 11:40 AM
Mary Jo Sminkey's Gravatar The idea of a panel discussion on this is a good one, I'd love to see something like that at cfobjective. Another idea might be to have more "targeted" evening things to do for those of us that are first-timers and/or are there without co-workers. That would be easy to plan at MOA, with things like the aquarium, movie theatre, amusement park rides, etc. Maybe if I am able to come again I will offer to set this up, if there is interest in it. ;-)
# Posted By Mary Jo Sminkey | 5/19/14 11:01 AM
Evik James's Gravatar Jason, you gave an outstanding presentation at cf.Objective() 2014 last week. You were knowledgeable and humorous. You owned the stage. I didn't attend a presentation that was standing room only, except for yours. It's heard to believe that social anxiety would be a concern of yours. I set up a a ColdFusion group on Facebook in hopes of putting more ColdFusion developers into a local social space. I am hereby inviting you to take a peek.
# Posted By Evik James | 5/19/14 11:02 AM
Alan Potts's Gravatar Nice post. I to suffer from anxiety.
# Posted By Alan Potts | 5/14/18 2:31 AM
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