How I Overcame My Social Anxiety by Becoming a Journalist
by Victor Schmitt-Bush
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Some arachnologists are still afraid of spiders. Burial ground workers who can’t shake their fear of the dark may find great value in their work. People are my greatest fear, but not for the reasons you might think.
It’s not uncommon to fear being judged by your peers. Most people do. But what if this anxiety wasn’t merely an itch but a festering and rippling sore that took your breath away and paralyzed you?
When I was a teen, I did worry about people disliking me.
But my crippling anxieties couldn’t be diagnosed strictly as a response to the fear of being judged. It was more complicated than that. There was something else. Something stickier, smellier, like a black sludge oozing from my panicking pores at the helm of every oncoming social interaction.
A friendly wave from a girl I liked was an extinction event. An unsolicited comment from a stranger was a bolt of lightning. An insult, perceived or otherwise, was a tsunami pummelling to shreds my already lopsided house and flooding my basement.
It was hard enough to keep my head above the surface, let alone breathe without taking into my lungs the crashing waves of each typhoon as it whirled over my head. The winds would whisp in their derisive tongue as I coughed and gasped.
“Pay attention!” my teachers said.
“Why do you always do stupid things?” asked my peers.
“He’s cute,” said the girl to her friends. “But he’s weird. Don’t talk to him.”
I Was Easily Uprooted and Always Drowning
I don’t look back fondly on my high school years, but I do thank the pain, loneliness, and embarrassment I endured. They were my greatest teachers. Maybe I received such ridicule from my peers because I was still outspoken and actively engaged with them despite my being ill-suited to win their favor.
I was a square block trying to jam itself into a circular hole and I paid dearly for it. I instinctively refuted what I felt was a rigid and conformist education system. I would have much rather studied topics like musical composition, visual arts, literature, metaphysics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, and the like. Not only were my interests ignored, but they were also met with disgust. I asked questions that annoyed my peers and confused my teachers. I wanted to know more and more and more. I was always asking—why?
But my peers wanted me to shut up, my teachers had a quota to fill and there was always some blasé regents test looming around the corner. I felt stifled and was scared of their always impending ridicule. Perhaps there wasn’t enough space in their hearts for the things I wanted so desperately to expand upon. I felt like a bluejacket reaching desperately through the porthole of a lopsided sinking ship.
I was hyper-aware of the slightest eye-roll or of the faintest snarl. One disapproving look and there I was again—my head dunked below the surface like a bright orange and yellow bobber at the mercy of the weight of a newly hooked fish. It was as if I, a solitary bobber, was expected to resist its pull. How could I keep my head above water and catch the fish at the same time? I was no fisherman. But I tried to be both the bobber and the fisherman, and I failed miserably every time.
Imagine raising your hand and a swell of frustrated sighs hits you like a brick. All you want to do is ask your teacher a simple question but you have a history of babbling like an idiot and doing dumb things. Your hyper self-awareness kicks in and you’re paralyzed. Some classmates brace for impact and others try to stop you from making a fool of yourself.
“Just put your hand down, dumbass!”
You put up a sweat. But you keep your hand up. Your simple question fragments into a million tiny pieces by the time your teacher acknowledges you. You babble again. You can’t finish your question. You forgot what your question was.
With the line snapped and the pole swinging, there I was being whipped from side to side as the line tangled around me while everyone watched. Some laughed. Others would just shake their heads.
If a Blind Man Could Suddenly See
Some days, the water was still and the surface was easier than normal to wade above. What a gift to be able to finally breathe! I would prove myself worthy and brave! Perhaps you might imagine what a blind man would do if, on rare occasions, a prism of light fluttered through the veil of his lost sight. Could you blame him for relishing it?
When the fear subsided and the light trickled through, I did things I soon regretted.
- Have you ever dialed 911 on the school phones for no reason other than, I was having a good day?
- Why would anyone do this, you ask? Here was my logic: I’m getting positive attention today. This makes me want to be more like my peers. Sometimes my peers don’t think before they act. Pranking the police sounds like a dumb and risky idea. Maybe if I do that, my peers will think I’m more like them. Let’s give it a shot.
- Have you ever jammed a pen into your homeroom teacher’s pencil sharpener because you were fascinated by the way it peeled through the plastic?
- I didn’t mean to break it. The plastic peeled like butter. I was convinced it wouldn’t get stuck.
- Have you ever stared long at a flirty sticky note a girl gave you only to sit there paralyzed while she waited awkwardly for you to respond?
These innocent flounderings might seem small to you, the reader, but they were all I could think about. Little did I know my crippling fear of people was not marked just by their derision, but by how much I valued their input. I wanted to be engaged with them. I wanted them to see me. I wanted them to see that I saw them.
“You’re too intense!”
“You think too much!”
“Here comes the absent-minded professor!”
How cruel of this world to engender in me a passion for the thing that scared me the most. Or rather, how cruel of this world to instill in me a crippling fear of the thing I love the most—people.
If I couldn’t hide from them nor could I embrace them with these broken tools of mine, I would have to find the right compass to navigate through this forsaken labyrinth.
That Compass Was Journalism
But I didn’t pursue it. Not at first.
Throughout my first two semesters as a freshman at SUNY Fredonia, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a musical composition major or a psychology major. Journalism wasn’t even my third choice or my fourth. My grades suffered and my GPA was forever marred by my indecisiveness.
But, it was at Fredonia that I met my tribe. I was still a walking word salad and a good many people thought I was quite strange, but I formed several long-lasting bonds with my fellow socially anxious misfit dorm-mates. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I could openly share my ideas, beliefs, and interests with others. My social anxiety didn’t go away, but having like-minded friends who were patient and compassionate made my communicative growth possible going forward.
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When Failure Breeds Success
When I failed my tuba solo audition and was denied acceptance into Fredonia’s music composition program, I felt like I was drowning again. I didn’t have a purpose. I was an aimless wanderer trying to find a time and place to grasp a hold of, but my anxiety made me think the clock was ticking faster than it really was.
I thought I didn’t have many options left. It wasn’t as if I could afford not knowing where to go next.
But something fascinating happened when I dared to look over the horizon. What I saw startled me—like most new things—but there was an allure to its gleam. I would swim just a few feet toward it at first, then dip back if it did something I didn’t quite understand. My first few splashes toward this light might seem small in retrospect, but in those days, they were the grandest waves I’d ever made.
With no scholarships and a modest financial aid package that still bleeds into my debt and my parent’s debt, all I knew was that I was good at writing. English Literature would have to do…
“No, wait! Journalism!” I thought. “More career opportunities!”
To say this decision was made on a whim would be an understatement. I just kept swimming toward that light hoping it wouldn’t zap me by the time I reached it.
But it did zap me. Over and over and over again.
The first interview I endured was over the phone. It was part of a spring break assignment in my Fundamentals of Journalism class. Our task was to interview at least three sources for a PowerPoint presentation featuring our hometowns. We weren’t allowed to interview family, friends, or anyone we knew. Only strangers.
Interviewing a stranger?! No way!
But I had a week to finish this assignment, and my paltry 2.1 GPA couldn’t take another beating. The first source I called was the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, a prized historic landmark located in my hometown of North Tonawanda.
I stuttered so much, the person on the other end of the line thought they were being pranked and hung up on me. I was underwater again, but I persevered. I stuttered again. They hung up on me again. On the third call, I was finally able to convince them that beyond my trembling voice was a scared shitless kid who just wanted to get a good grade on his school project.
This might have been my first official flop in journalism, but it was far from being my last. It was a miracle that I hadn’t disintegrated from all the jolts I’d endured at the mercy of this dreaded light. I soon likened myself to a superconductor. Every bolt rattled my bones and torched my skin at the exit wound.
I’ve heard when a bolt is strong enough to render your body into a literal shock but not deadly enough to kill you, the adrenaline bursts through your veins. This is what it felt like when I tried to interview someone I didn’t know. Whether their disapproval of me was real or imagined, I would sooner or later make it a reality by babbling incoherently or shaking their hand awkwardly with my sweaty palm.
When the pain of my anxieties went numb, the fear went with it—if only temporarily. Some days, I didn’t even care if my peers or my news sources liked me or not. I had a goal and that goal was to get better at this whole communication thing.
I would still fail.
But sometimes I didn’t. Some days, I left an interview feeling accomplished. Every now and again I made a new friend. These occurrences weren’t the norm, but can you blame me for chasing this all-elusive ghost once I got a taste of the crumbs of relief it left behind?
I never caught it. But it led me to something grand before it disintegrated into the light.
When the Ghost Disintegrates Into the Light
Later on, in my college career, I noticed that many class discussions consisted of one-on-one conversations between my professors and me while the rest of the class would sit silently. They appeared more interested in the hands on the clock than the lesson of the day.
“Should I be less actively engaged?” I thought. “Does my enthusiasm prove as a source of value for the other students, or am I annoying them—like I did in the past?”
But with my newfound sense of direction and the arsenal of—admittedly awkward—journalistic experiences I had under my belt, I soon realized my words were coming from a place of relative authority. My rhetoric was sound and my tongue glib—er. Where in the world did this eloquence come from?
Diving headfirst into the unknown and realizing it wasn’t so scary granted me the strength to climb that buzzing lighthouse, find whatever the hell it was that was emitting that forsaken electric shock, fix the damn thing, then merrily plant my flag at the top.
It was at this new vantage point that I saw something shocking. My peers weren’t annoyed or disinterested. Many of them were wading in the ocean gasping for air while a typhoon was raging over their own heads.
I made a concerted effort to get to know them. Was I wrong about my suspicions? I had to be. I hoped to be. But when I received compliments from them about my outgoing personality, I’m sure you, the reader, could imagine the look on my face. Why were people asking me where my confidence came from? Outrageous!
Did all of that fear, overexcitability, and nagging perfectionism blend into a chrysalis I wasn’t even privy to being in? At what point during all those trials did I break free from my cocoon and take to the sky? Evidently, my wings were still raw. My confidence was fragile, but I had to acknowledge that people were looking to me for advice.
It was then I realized I was no longer the scared kid I used to be. The art of communication was within reach. My journalism career would accelerate in later years and my passion for people would materialize out of the pain I endured.
The light I was so afraid of—it was my own untamed empathy. I just had to rein it in.
There Is so Much Left to Say
Suffice it to say so little was said. But I’ll leave you, the reader, with three pieces of advice I wish someone had told me when my heart was heavy and my mind unsteady.
1. When you know intuitively that you lack the skill or information you would need to provide value to a discussion, you have the choice to remain silent and learn—or speak and flop. The wise man chooses the former. Have a mind to speak before you speak your mind.
2. Give what you do, think, and say a cozy place to return to. If your words are jumbled, sharp, or heavy, check to see if they are coming from a place where the flame is faint and the boards are unsteady. If you think a glib tongue arises from a place like this, I urge you to keep looking.
3. Stressing over the things you can’t control is no more or less useful than dwelling on the past. Worrying about what may or may not happen will have zero effect on what the future brings. There is a kind of peaceful melancholy that arises when you can sense intuitively where you end and the forces you can’t control begin.
You’ll know you fully understand these three things when your own ghost disintegrates into the light and a prism of color you never knew was there floods into your sight and the world around you looks brand new again.
In short, I challenge you to learn and grow. I challenge you to embarrass yourself. I challenge you to be yourself.