I think to some extent everyone can get a bit nervous when meeting a new group of people. Everyone carries their own baggage and insecurities around with them. I know a lot of Aspies, who like me, wear a social mask in order to get on socially, at work, at school and even within their own social circles. However, being a bit nervous and have “Social Anxieties” are on very different ends of the scales.
In definition Social Anxiety is: “the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person’s life.” That is a whole lot of fear and anxiety so it’s not a wonder that many within the Autistic community use a social mask as a mechanism or tool to help manage the anxieties and stress when we are in all kinds of social situations. The mental exhaustion is often acute, even with people I genuinely want to spend time with.
During these situations there are constant thoughts and worry going through my head. I struggle as I try to remember the conversation threads, trying to find common ground, trying to hide my stimming, trying to figure out when to speak, trying to watching body language, trying to remember to make good eye contact, trying to remember to ask about them, trying to engage, trying not to talk over, trying not to overshare, trying not to turn the conversation into a ME discussion, trying not to offend, trying not to seem boring, trying not to lose my filter, trying not to get distracted, trying not to show my discomfort in being so close to so many people, trying to not show on my face my dislike of the unpleasant smells around me, all the while smiling and to appear amiable just to be accepted as an equal and have some form of acknowledgment. It’s exhausting just typing the list out, never mind trying to do them all at once and have a conversation.
But why do we do it? We do it because society expects it. It has been drummed into us since we were kids. We have been conditioned from our childhoods to get on, do as we are told, don’t be different; your feelings don’t really matter because the adults say you have to do this or that. A simple example: How many of you were expected to hug or kiss some old auntie or uncle goodbye because otherwise it was rude? In school we were told we had to toe the line. Anyone who was “different” was picked on, bullied, ostracised and excluded socially by other children and adults. Many teachers don’t have time for different, so we learn we have to try to be like everyone else. That is how society works. Whether it is your religion, your sex, your race, your abilities, your background, your income, what you possess or don’t, where you live, what you look like and even what you think, if you are different you are out. Society works on a premise that you will fit in or you will spend your life banging on the door from outside, trying to get into a club that doesn’t really want you. That is why we wear masks. Not because we want to, but because many feel they have to. So how is that a choice? If we try to fit in though we often get labelled as “trying too hard” and if we don’t then we are “choosing” to be alone for attention. So on the mask goes, to try to get on in society unscathed, although many of us harbour the scars for all of our efforts, both physical and emotional.
I never liked wearing a mask but the fear of not wearing one can be worse than the dislike of using a tool that has kept me in control of fear and keeps it in its cage despite how loud it howls in my head and affects my body in social situations. I must admit though, that since my AS diagnosis, I have felt the need to use it less and some of the guilt that I felt because of my social struggles has reduced. Unlike a lot of people, for the most part, I have little concern over what strangers think of me, as it is there business not mine, however, I have no desire to be hated or disliked either. I realise that for some it makes no sense for me to have social anxiety if I don’t worry about what others think of me, but it is more than that. For me it is the fear of being mistreated, ignored, being made to feel unworthy of conversation, which is where my personal anxiety lays. It is the fear of continually being open to establishing new social friendships only for those relationships to fail over and over again. After repeated friendship building, supporting and nurturing those relationships they still continue to crumble you do truly believe it’s your entire fault and perhaps you aren’t worth their effort because they just drop your relationship as quickly as they picked it up. I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I went wrong. What did I do or not do? What did I say or not say? How did I manage to mess everything up so much to the point of being discarded like some old worn out pair of shoes? Then the self-doubt rears its ugly head, the second guessing, the self-confidence falls to the floor so I do what you think is right. I put myself last; I put everyone else’s needs before my own because I am “aren’t worth” treats or goodness and putting the people I love first makes me feel better about myself. However on top of it all, I then blame myself for being open, for giving someone the power over me that I now need to reclaim for myself. I treat others as I would like to be treated; however, it seems the NT’s I’ve chosen to build friendships with in the past seem to only think of themselves and their needs. However after many discussions with Adam and a couple of girlfriends that I do have, that I have been a good, caring, supportive, conscientious, loyal and trustworthy friend, they convince me that it isn’t me it. Therefore, the only conclusion I can see is that most people are selfish arseholes. Harsh as it may sound but perhaps my view is tainted by repeated experiences as that is all I have to go on. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and open and all the rest of it that anyone would ask of a close relationship, it is not a wonder that fears creep in and anxiety takes over if you are always kicked in the hedges without reason or explanation. It’s like banging your head into a wall over and over and at my age, well to be honest, I am sick of it. I am worth more than that and I have enough friends and don’t really need anymore. Perhaps it will leave me a little cut off from society, but is fine. I want to enjoy life, be happy, feel free and be myself without all the fear and anxieties that come with a social circle or the need to people please. I have the circle I want and the circle I can handle and I am ok with that.
My mask is still kept in a draw for use at meetings, my public speaking engagements, appointments, large social gathers that I haven’t been able to find a guilt free way of backing out of and of course groups that I have to attend with The Bear and The Enforcer as part of the Home Education socialising schedules. I am, however, slowly just allowing myself the social maskless freedom I think many of us truly want and deserve. Yes, I would love to be completely fearless and be comfortable in social situations, but I doubt I will ever have enough of the skills required to be completely unnoticed, but I will continue to work on them as I go along. Life is about learning more, discovering the new, challenging myself to be better tomorrow than I am today and once day, I will get there.