I get social anxiety sometimes, and this makes me afraid of people whom I’m not very close to. I get afraid to say hello to people I was able to talk to freely days ago, afraid to look people in the eye, terrified to chitchat. Sometimes it’s there, and other times it’s not. Sometimes place affects it more; I have more social anxiety at church and almost none at work, which doesn’t make sense because I’m liked at church (maybe even loved) and I’m disliked (maybe even hated) at work.
Isn’t that the point of anxiety though? It makes absolutely no sense! There are days when I’m talkative and confident and loving people is easy. I’ll talk to people in the grocery store or on the bus or I’ll say hi to twenty million people at church. Then there are days when my heart races at the thought of talking to people and showing them love is hard for me because I just want to run and hide.
Love Even When . . .
I recently read Everybody Always by Bob Goff. One of my big takeaways is that I don’t need to make someone my project, I just need to love on them and see what I can learn from them. I already want to love people. I understand that it is the highest calling. Loving others is Christianity 101. Jesus said all of the Law and all of the prophets are summed up in just two commandments: One is loving God and two is loving people.
But I can’t love people if I avoid them. I must take a step into that fear and realize that it’s okay to be afraid. It is uncomfortable and I’ll say stupid things or won’t be able to hear what other people are saying over the sound of my own heartbeat drumming in my ears, but it won’t kill me. And the more I do it, the better I will get at it. The call isn’t to love people whom I am comfortable around (just a handful, really, and most of them are under the age of 5). The call is to love everybody. And the timing isn’t when I’m feeling good, it’s always, even in the midst of anxiety. Everybody Always.
Find Your Loophole
Bob may have revealed a loophole to overcoming anxiety for me though. He said we should focus on what we can “learn ” from each other. I didn’t think of it this way before, but learning from each other truly is an act of love and humility. To learn from someone you must listen to them, and you must assume that they know something you don’t. For me, focusing on what I can learn from others takes a lot of pressure off of interacting with them. I don’t need to impress, or keep the conversation going, or be changing their lives with a sage word. I just need to listen with empathy, understand that they view life through a different lens, and this is profoundly interesting. People have so much they can teach me.
Maybe this struck me because I love learning. It is one of my top 5 character strengths. Maybe someone else’s loophole to social anxiety is something else that drives them. Maybe someone’s strength is Belief, and they can use that to start believing the good in the people around them which will silence fears in their mind.
Fear tries to shrink. We shrink in stature, shrink the the number of places where we feel safe, shrink our friend circle, shrink our faith. You may not be able to face fear head-on at first, often times I can’t. But Fear is also pretty linear, it has only one trick – to make itself bigger and everything else smaller. Outsmart fear – find your loophole.
People Over Paperwork
I was recently at a wedding, and I was sitting at a table full of people whom I didn’t know, but they all knew each other (if you relate to any part of my social anxiety, then you understand how uncomfortable that was for me). In fact, they all worked together as hospice nurses. Instead of staring at my phone and awkwardly eavesdropping, I chanted in my mind “everybody always,” which gave me the courage to actually speak to them.
Since I’m terribly horribly no good at small talk, I said “So what got you into the business?” as if they were selling shoes not helping people die peacefully. “Business” was certainly not the right word, implying they are profiting from people’s death. In my defense, I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old when I’m anxious, so I’ll take what I can get. I timidly smiled through their slide-glances (a smile covers a multitude of social inadequacies, I am learning). I cleared my throat and tried again, “I mean, what made you choose this line of work?” It was fascinating hearing their responses, some of their reasons were quite moving. Since they opened up so freely, and apparently loved talking about what they do, this gave me courage to ask another question: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Here are people who care for people at their worst: in pain, heartbroken, unable to control their bladder and bowels, in distress, literally dying. Yet the hardest part of their job, almost unanimously, was charting. They hated the paperwork because it took them away from patient care. I was blown away by this response. I immediately realized these people know something about love that I don’t.
You see, lately in my job the hardest part about what I do is the people, and I’d gladly take the paperwork. In fact, it gets frustrating when the people interrupt my paperwork. How can this be when my day-to-day dealings with people are objectively less emotional and messy than a hospice nurse’s? When did deadlines become more important than people to me?
Learning to See Differently
I could make excuses for why I feel that paperwork is more preferable than people at my job: people complain, they don’t listen, they break rules, they take up too much time. But couldn’t all that be said about a hospice patient too? I doubt that the nurses I spoke to are dealing solely with compliant and graceful people, instead they deal with the same mixed bag of people I do. Yet their hearts are for people and their paperwork is a burden. I’m letting that sit with me because it feels like I’ve been given a new lens, and I’m seeing things differently. I have adjustments that I need to make.
Today I will try to learn from people, not change them.
Today, I will put people before my own agenda.