The Prince and the PEA

This isn’t easy to admit, but, on my nightstand underneath two books lies a folded-up piece of paper–a photocopy of pages 160-161 of a book called Living Fully with Shyness & Social Anxiety.

If you’ve never met me that admission may give you the wrong impression. I’m not a shy man. I say hello to strangers on sidewalks. I lead game nights and book groups regularly. I freely express opinions.

No, I am not shy. But I am most certainly socially anxious.

Not familiar? Here’s an example: Twenty years ago I played a practical joke on an acquaintance with whom I was trying to befriend. I wrapped a birthday present in a plastic bag, placed it in a box, and poured whatever I could think of on top—peanut butter, mayonnaise, coffee grounds, frozen peas, moisturizer. I left it out for three August days and then gave it to him. After mucking through layers of rancid gloop and dry heaving twice, he stormed off. I was never invited over to his house again.

Pretty typical high school trial-and-error stuff, right? What makes this an example of social anxiety is what the author of the book, Erika B. Hilliard, calls Post-Event Autopsies (PEA).

[A post-event autopsy] occurs when we go over and over a particular, past social event with a fine-tooth comb. We filter through bits and pieces of the event, picking out the bad parts and obsessing about them, sometimes for days and even weeks.

Yes. That. All of that. Only in my case the span of time is decades. Twenty years later and I still obsess about that birthday party. The guilt, shame, and embarrassment is as fresh as if it happened last week. It sometimes still keeps me up at night no matter how many mattresses I lay over top of it. That is how pervasive social anxiety is. (For a funnier example of my anxiety, click here.)

You can imagine that this kind of self-punishment doesn’t make socializing easy for me. It’s sometimes hard to leave my house. The dread of socializing has nothing to do with the nice people I will visit or the good time I know I’ll have. It’s about the panic that I’ll mess up and have yet another event in which to fret over for eons. Sometimes the stress I feel at the onset of a social interaction is so high I’ll preemptively blurt out something rude just to relieve it. A technique that often results in bad first impressions.

For a long time I thought everyone shared my fear. When I started telling people about it though, I started fearing I was the only one. Others would try to help me by saying things like Just don’t worry about it. (Non-worriers are an alien species to me. Don’t they know that ceasing to worry isn’t like closing floodgates on a dam? ) Worriers have to process through it. It’s similar to the routines people with OCD undertake to quell their anxiety. Worrying is my version of checking the stove exactly a dozen times.

Before I found Erika Hilliard’s words I’d make myself feel terrible over and over again. Now I just read through the paper on my nightstand when I start feeling the anxiety and it acknowledges my feelings. It reassures me that it’s natural and useful to regret things, but it should never damage my self-esteem. After all I would never harp on a friend for 20 years for an adolescent mistake. Why am I harping on myself?

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24 thoughts on “The Prince and the PEA

  1. Just came across this post and all I can say is: yes! I have tried so many tricks and tips but continue to pick apart all the things I’m sure I did wrong in social interactions. It’s part of what drove me to take stress leave – and what scares me about returning to work. People who don’t worry are also foreign to me and being told not to worry really only confuses me. How can you just stop!? Like Meg, I’ve tried to teach myself to pause before I react. But I never remember. I think you’re right about writers, too. There seem to be a lot of us who identify with this post!

  2. How I envy the “non-worriers.”
    Like you, I’m not shy at all and actually migrate seamlessly in crowds and conferences. Most people think I’m extroverted, but I’m the complete opposite. My job requires me to be outgoing, friendly and engaged…all.the.time. These interactions drain me to the point that I don’t even want to interact with the people I love. I usually hide in the garden or on the road during a long run.
    The concept of PEA is completely new to me and am fascinated by the concept. At least once a week, I break down an interaction where I should have done something, said something different and then get very anxious that I can’t fix it. Mostly I fear that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings accidentally (it’s not even rational…I’m very nice 🙂 )
    There are many layers to you, Nate and I’m enjoying learning more.

  3. I could have written this post, except for the part about the mayonnaise because mayo is the grossest thing ever and I wouldn’t have touched it. But the obsessing over past mistakes and having those slip ups keep me up at night. Yes, absolutely yes. I might need to read this book.

    1. I recommend it, Michelle. It was good to figure out what my anxiety triggers are. All the stuff about shyness to the point of not talking didn’t apply to me. But that PEA paragraph and the next chapter about believing there are social rules everyone but you knows about matched me perfectly.

  4. I have EXTREME social anxiety. I am so jealous of people who can seamlessly integrate themselves into a group of new people. I am always nervous I will word vomit all over the place.

    1. Yes! I’m trying a new technique of listening. Not feeling obligated to converse. And only speaking about subjects I know about. Before I would feel like I had to contribute to the sports talk even though I know nothing about sports. Now I just listen to it and try to relate. Nodding. Nodding helps. It all makes people think I’m a deep river instead of a nervous wreck!

  5. It’s social anxiety week at yeah write! I wrote on it too. It’s gotten better over the years, but I still feel like everyone is thinking and talking about stupid shit I did in college. And then I think, “I bet they aren’t thinking about that because they have lives.” And then I start the cycle over again.

  6. Oh yes, been there, done that! I know exactly how you feel. It’s good to know that there’s a name for it. My husband just calls me a worry wart. Thank you for letting me know what it’s called. Good entry.

  7. Thank you. I did not know there was a name for this…I especially appreciate your paragraphs on the dread of socializing and worry. I don’t consider myself one who worries about the future, but I am one who worries over the past (like a dog worrying a bone!).

    1. It’s reassuring to me that so many yeah writers identified with what I wrote. I think there’s something about writing that attracts social anxious people. I know for me it’s more comforting to express myself when I know what I say is edited and I can go back and change it if need be. Thanks for your comment, Jennifer!

  8. Oh, you definitely are not alone. I love the description of PEA. Now I have an acronym for something I experience on a nearly daily basis. Every day after work, I tally all of my indiscretions, stupid things said and done. It’s a horrible thing to do to yourself. I have found one thing that sorta works, as a counterbalance perhaps: I say to myself, “Pay attention.” This makes me listen better, which also makes me think before speaking.

    1. My friend told me he tried to filter his words by asking himself 3 questions before uttering them: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? That’s my version of “Pay Attention”, I think. Thanks for your kind words, Meg.

  9. I really appreciate that you shared this part of yourself. I also have a tendency to over think and get down on myself if I do something I judge to be inappropriate, although not nearly as much now as I did years ago. I hope you find the key to forgiving yourself so you can let it go.

    1. Just like you said, as I get older I learn to be kinder to myself. FInding this book was a big step for me. Thanks for your feedback, Karuna. You had a big hand in my posting this!

  10. Ha. that EXACTLY. I have to keep reminding myself “If I were on the other side of this thing that happened, would it be noteworthy enough for me to even remember?” The answer is usually no.

    1. Ah. See, for me, the answer is usually yes. Because maybe that person has the same anxiety I feel and is picking apart interactions as much as I am. It’s a terrible cycle. Glad to know you understand.

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