One way my social anxiety manifests its ugly self is the fear of small talk. That whole – what to say, how long to stay in the conversation, is my face doing something ridiculous right now that makes it seem like I have no idea what the other person is talking about – thing regularly sends me into a tailspin of panic. And no matter how many times I plead with my brain to not say anything stupid, it regularly does. The problem is, unless I run away to live in a secluded cabin in the woods (ah, someday…), small talk is a life necessity. And my new job requires that I be somewhat good at it. So I persevere. Take baby steps to being a better communicator and remind my face and brain to behave themselves.
I’m attempting to overcome this aspect of anxiety by making small talk with strangers. That way, if I say something stupid it won’t matter. Much. Maybe they’ll share it with their partner over dinner and laugh at my word diarrhea. But chances are we’ll all go about our day and everything will be grand and maybe eventually it won’t scare me as much to talk about life’s insignificant details. Sometimes it works out well. I made a joke! The cashier laughed! I did not make an ass of myself! Sometimes, I’m recognized. And then I panic.
I taught for four years as a long term substitute at a local high school, and many of my lovely former students are out in the community working and doing productive things with their lives. And me? I disappeared. Okay, not exactly. But leaving the school was a difficult transition for me, one that I did not choose but eventually led to new opportunities in both my writing journey and career. It took a while to fully accept that transition, to give myself time to wallow in regret and what-ifs before I accepted life’s new path. So when I come across someone from that former life, I’m always a little thrown. Last night I was having a lovely conversation with a cashier about the trials of being petite (why oh why can’t they make maxi dresses for people under 5’5″?) and I was so proud of my brain for not messing it up. I used an ID for a discount and when she saw my name asked if I used to teach. Turns out she was in one of my co-taught freshman classes, but I didn’t recognize her until she said her full name.
Then, the panic. No, how have you been since then, what are you up to? (Working at this store, obviously.) No memory of something interesting she had done way back then. My brain just turned off. Wandered into the black hole of that time period and refused to come out. Insert embarrassing exit and that feeling of, why can’t I interact like a normal human? How are we supposed to work past our fears and anxiety when they constantly battle for our submission? I want to be the sort of person who can face my past head-on and not be afraid. This girl had no idea what happened to me after our year together. I’m the one who wears the stone around my neck. But I’m tired of it weighing me down.
Normally I’m not one to give advice about letting go. But I am getting better about facing demons. Gradually. Old me would avoid the store for all of eternity for fear of seeing my former student again. New me says, that chapter is over. Go forth and continue your quest to be friendly. Reality says, wow, what you said this morning to the other parent at camp drop off was really stupid. Try harder next time not to sound like a complete dork.
It’s a never ending struggle.