Amaan Akhtar opens up about how a tragic loss destroyed his self-esteem and left him with crippling social anxiety at a young age. He shows us how he dealt with his anxiety over the years and found ways to openly communicate and form intimate relationships with others. By sharing his tips on where to start when it comes to getting those negative thoughts out of your head, this article tracks his journey to a healthier way of thinking when dealing with social anxiety.
During my high school life I became a social recluse. But as many of my former classmates would not understand, this was not by choice. During my teenhood I was plagued by my own insecurities and fears. These thoughts and emotions kept taunting me and entrapping me in a state of paralysis, that prevented me from engaging even in mere ‘small talk’ with others. And I still believe that this state of anxiety was deeply rooted in a tragic incident that happened while I was in primary school.
By the age of 11 years old, I had already lost a close friend – he was murdered. And this deeply affected us, his friends, during the final years of primary school. It shaped us all in different ways – and I cannot speak for everyone when I say this – but it altered the way I perceived relationships in the years to come.
You see, I was a social recluse in high school. While no one would blame me for this after dealing with such a heavy loss at this young age, it was still my fault. My anxiety and fears crippled me from social interaction. I had this idea implanted in my mind, that should I “ever get close to anyone again… should I ever form a strong bond… they will be taken away from me eventually”.
And this thought terrified me completely.
It was with this seed of doubt and fear which rendered me a ‘mute’ throughout high school. This quickly worsened over time, as I truly felt isolated from everyone else - because those who had experienced that same tragedy, managed to move on. They made peace with it. Or at least attempted to get on with life. But for some reason, I still could not.
Even when I had the opportunity to be involved in conversations, it felt like I needed a social ‘crutch’ to cope. I thought that I needed someone or something to assist me during any bout of socialising. And it was only during the final two years of high school, that I slowly emerged out of this shell of hopelessness and fear.
At that point in my life, I knew that had to stop doing this, otherwise this inability to speak or interact would take over my life. I began initiating conversations, even if it were a small thing such as a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to people I rarely talked to.
Over time, by using my initiative to simply communicate with others openly I gradually formed some great friendships over the last year of high school. This ability to know that I always had control over my actions greatly boosted my self-confidence. And throughout my studies at university, I made a conscious effort to continue this way whenever I socialised.
But this was only possible due to me being open enough to allow my curious nature and compassion for others exude out. For instance, when I met someone new, I was always deeply fascinated by their story: aspects of their personal life such as who they were as a person, and what events and experiences shaped their identity today. In hindsight, I realised that by becoming vulnerable and acquainted with intimacy once again (while still dealing with crippling anxiety), as well as actively participating in every conversation I had with the people I met, I was able to truly get to know my friends on this deep, intimate level.
These qualities showed that I truly cared about these people. I was invested in their story and for once, I could sense that my friends were invested in mine as well. In retrospect when I discovered this, it became a comforting thought for me.
But the unfortunate thing about anxiety is that it can stem from several different aspects of our lives. It can bleed through from general insecurities we have and the consequential low self-esteem we suffer from, making it difficult to resist its intoxicating effects. While social anxiety may have originated within me at such a young age when I first dealt with the concept of death, it found alternative routes to manifest on: my negative body image, personality quirks and my ever-longing need to please people.
Anxiety still held a debilitating grip on me at times, as it burdened me with more excuses not to interact with others. It prevented me from going to an event alone. It could sometimes even prevent me from saying hi to a familiar face in the street.
But I prevailed.
I quickly became aware of when my social anxiety would kick in, and learned to reaffirm in my head that I, as a person, mattered. Even if I got embarrassed while socialising, or felt inadequate compared to the individuals around me – I slowly realised that I have my own unique strengths and weaknesses, and realised that my opinion and input in a conversation ‘did matter’.
And that was a big step for me.
While I lost some relatives during these undergraduate years, and had to go through other personal tragic circumstances as well, I still retained this mindset. I prevented myself from going back into social withdrawal. I knew that I was important. It certainly didn’t matter if anyone else thought that. But it meant a lot to me. And while I never fully came to grips with losing people in my life, or even completely conquering my own insecurities, I at least attempted to initiate conversations and make a conscious effort. And in hindsight, it was the best decision I made – because I ended up forming close, intimate bonds with so many individuals all over the world, that I could still consider as my ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, because I understood and loved them for who they were.
This was only possible since I had faith in me as an individual. I had developed self-esteem and confidence in my own identity and could therefore approach interactions in a way that did not make me feel inferior, useless, or even boring.
A huge issue that we face in life is the idea that ‘we’re not good enough’. That we’ll never be ‘good enough’. And that is completely wrong. And this happens because we give into fears such as labels that people place on us - we’re afraid to let them label us in a condescending or demeaning way. As if their judgement has any validation ‘stamp’ on who we are (or should be).
The truth is, that it really doesn’t matter what people think. Their opinions about us do not matter. And never will.
When we’re afraid that we may not fit in, most of the time our own judgements are wrong. Our minds deceive us in so many ways that we do not realise. We may over-think a certain situation too much, interpret someone’s actions in the wrong way, or even just paralyse ourselves with inaction as we deliberate on all the choices we have. And it is during those times when we need to ‘switch off’ our minds.
Over the years, I have realised that specific tips and advice helped me overcome my social anxiety. And I would like to share them with you now:
1) Start with small steps. If you have been invited/planning to attend an event, do the most minuscule task you can think of – for instance, get dressed. While our brains go into overdrive and over-think the situation i.e. ‘Will I know anyone there?’ ‘When should I arrive?’ Etc. just continue getting ready. And if your nerves are still rattled, then take a moment to yourself and do something you enjoy, or even better – talk to a close friend/family member about your anxious thoughts. More often than not, they have been through the same situation. And they will help you get out of that mentality.
2) Seek Out different forms of help. If your anxiety is crippling you on certain days, reach out and seek advice and help in various ways. Either schedule an appointment with a professional, turn to self-development book that suits your needs, or simply talk to a loved one and distract yourself from those whirlwind of thoughts and feelings in your mind.
3) Turn off your mind. What activity gives you freedom and satisfaction, to the point where you have no worries or concerns? Or do you have a particular hobby/interest that you wanted to pursue? Take some time for yourself and do that activity on your own, to help you feel comfortable and take control. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, just dance like a maniac in the comfort of your own room – sometimes you need to literally ‘shake it off’ to get out of your own head!
4) Use a change in scenery. We are creatures of habit – we tend to stay in one place for too long. Decide to take a spontaneous walk in a new area, or even travel somewhere (local or abroad) that you’ve always wanted to visit. The different environment and atmosphere may help you alleviate the worries and concerns that are plaguing your mind at the moment.
While the outcome of any social situation can matter, it doesn’t matter as much as our minds tell us. At the end of the day we’re all human. We all have our quirks and flaws, and we should become more accepting of these personal qualities. So, the next time the anxiety seeps in and conjures up a deadly thought to excuse you from that particular social event or conversation – remind yourself that you do matter, and act from a positive place. More often than not, we end up having the best social experiences when we don’t give in to our controlling thoughts.
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