Kicking social anxiety’s butt by smiling

I’ve semi-unconsciously taken on a new habit: smiling to strangers. On the street, when I’m running, at school, in the supermarket, … I might be taking it a little over the top, smiling at pretty much everyone whether they’re smiling back or even looking at me or not, but who cares, it’s fun. I’m kind of surprised at how much better this makes me feel (I’ve been in therapy for around seven years and they may have told me this a few times, but, ya know, I thought they were wrong? being stubborn is a great thing). And, no less for socially awkward & introverted ‘why is that scary person looking at me oh no shit what do I do’ Belgium, it’s surprising how many people smile back.

So I’ve been getting a bunch of reactions:

  1. Nothing at all, total ignorance (boring) (but I get it, I used to be one of those, being too obsessed with myself when outside to notice anything else);
  2. A quick, distracted smile back (what most people do, not too enlightening but it’s a smile so I’ll take it);
  3. A smileless stare that lasts a little too long (nice and awkward);
  4. A bright smile in return, or sometimes just a spontaneous smile before I get the chance to do anything (usually happens when I’m running, for some reason);
  5. My personal favorite: glancing at me, looking away, looking back, putting on a kinda confused face, and then shyly smiling back and looking a little bit happier afterward.

I love these little moments of connection with random people I don’t know and I’ll probably never see again, and I love to see people brightening up. It has made my day so many times. I’ve known that effect on me for a looong time, but I have this thing called Social Anxiety Disorder so I’m basically only comfortable when I’m home alone. The pro of this is that I can relate splendidly to my I-hate-the-outside-it-spooks-me-aah-noises-I-want-to-be-invisible cat, whom I had to take to the vet today for vaccination and who always becomes a Professional Hider afterwards (which is exactly what I do). The con is, that doing whatever involves people terrifies me. Sometimes it takes me three days and six attempts to buy garbage bags, because I’ll have to say the sentence ‘one roll of garbage bags please’ to the cashier and for some reason I cannot accomplish this. I am perfectly aware that, logically, there’s nothing threatening or even remotely scary there. But that doesn’t stop my paralyzing fear.

I am a darn good actress, self-convincer and -deceiver, and I’m very talented at dissociation (which basically means that I can put myself on auto-pilot and simply let my body do the scary thing, while I’ll go make a snowman in my mind or whatever the hell), so combining these three things into some strange, otherworldly, dream-like theater soup, I function quite alright in the Big Scary World. But when I didn’t have to communicate, I’d just stuff my ears with music and stare either at my feet or into oblivion. But, in retrospect, I think that that only made my social anxiety worse. It seemed like a good idea because hiding cost less energy (or that’s what I thought), but in the end I was just constantly avoiding what I was afraid of (and everyone who has had any therapy knows the – in my experience true – theory that avoidance confirms your fears), plus it really doesn’t feel all that great to live outside the world almost all the time. Now I walk upright, I look people in the eye and greet them, I can talk for more than five seconds on end without my mind starting to scream, etc. – for the last 1,5 month or so, my social anxiety (and anxiety in general) has gotten so much better. A significant part of the credit for that goes to my new medication (sertraline low dosage) which, miraculously, works (me and medication = a circus), but I really do believe it’s also because I’ve changed my posture and behavior when I’m in the world. These things have so much influence my mood; it’s not a great surprise, but we seem so caught up in our own lives in our individualized society that we easily forget the little things. So here’s a reminder for me and for you reading this, whether you struggle with social anxiety or not: lift your eyes and smile every once in a while. After all, we’re all not so far apart as I (we?) sometimes think we are, and, as it turns out, other people aren’t actually that scary.

Also: hope you’ll have a nice weekend!

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