I didn’t realize that it was social anxiety causing me to feel this way until I transferred from my small private school at the end of freshman year to a very large public school. To provide some context on how big of a change this was, my class at my old school had about 50 students and my class at my new school had about 400 students. My sophomore class was twice as big as my entire private school I went to before. This is quite the change for anyone, but with my social anxiety, I was in utter shock. I knew no one at this school. I had never been to a public school before. I hadn’t even ridden a bus to school before.
Starting at my new school, I quickly realized that my bus dropped me off at school 40 minutes before the first period began. I had no idea what to do until then. I didn’t want to sit in the corner and feel like people were judging me so I came up with a plan. At this school, four main hallways connected together in a square. There were always people walking through the halls with the large population of the school. I started to walk the halls in a circle over and over for 40 minutes until that first bell rang. I did this every day for days, weeks, months until one day, as I was getting on the bus to go back home, a girl called me out in front of everyone and asked: “Why do you walk in circles every morning?” I felt my heart drop down into my stomach. I was humiliated and embarrassed. The next morning I knew I couldn’t walk the halls anymore. I went straight to the bathroom stall and I sat there and cried. I had thoughts rushing my head asking myself “Why can’t I be normal?” “Why can’t I make friends?” “What is wrong with me?” “I am a loser.”
I couldn’t hold all this in any longer. I needed help. I opened up to my parents and my counselor about how I was feeling. The simple act of expressing how I was feeling to someone else instead of holding it all into myself provided me SO MUCH relief. Enough so that I was able to make it through the next three years of high school and graduate.
Now I was off to college, but I was still struggling with social anxiety greatly. I distinctly remember walking into my bedroom in my apartment and felt as if someone was talking to me. I believe it was God and He told me this: “Kyle, you have to do something. You can’t sit in your self-pity and expect that something is going to change. You have to take action.” At the moment, it clicked for me. I knew I had to do something and I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to expose myself to my social anxiety by going outside of my comfort zone.
I quickly came up with a plan. Most of the classes I was taking in college took a participation grade that took up somewhere between 10 to 15% of your grade. To get full credit for this part of the grade, you actually had to participate in class by contributing to class discussion. I told myself that I would participate in class by asking or answering a question one time in every class.
The first day I tried this my heart was beating out of my chest and my foot was tapping rapidly until I finally summoned the courage to raise my hand. I did it! I felt so good about myself for doing it. I continued doing this consistently for weeks and after doing it for about 4 or 5 weeks, I started to notice that I was one of the most participating students in the class. I would contribute in class 4, 5, 6 times out of my own free will. I no longer had anxiety about participating in class. It was an amazing feeling! I knew I had to keep doing this.
My next challenge had to do with the job I was working while I was in college. I was a pizza delivery driver and during the summer we wore shorts. Typically, I wore shorts with my shirt tucked in and had low cut ankle socks. I did not want to bring any attention to me. I wanted to stay under the radar, but I also had these army camo socks that I loved wearing around my apartment. While I loved wearing them around my apartment, I never wore them outside. So, that’s exactly what I started doing. I started buying and wearing long funky and crazy designed socks to work that forced me to expose myself to my social anxiety. After doing this for several weeks, I no longer had any kind of anxiety wearing socks or any clothes that I thought would draw attention towards me.
After doing similar exposure challenges like this over and over, I was able to eventually overcome my social anxiety. Social anxiety no longer has control over me and I now have control over my own life.
I continue to create challenges outside my comfort zone to overcome any anxieties I have about particular things as well as help myself grow stronger as a person. I encourage those with social anxiety to try exposure using a simple two-step method. First, remember to start small. Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. Second, reward yourself afterward. Don’t reward the outcome. Reward the behavior even if it doesn’t go as you wanted it to. You deserve to reward yourself for going against your social anxiety brain. Exposure worked for me and it has been proven to help many others too.