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?