social anxiety libby vanderploeg

I’m at a party when anxiety slips her clammy hands around my neck…

…and hangs there naked, one thousand pounds of dread; a flesh piano on my chest, bloated with shame. We waltz together slowly, as though underwater. My heart, beating double time, is a trapped fly in my chest, ricocheting around my rib cage, trying to escape. I cannot breathe with her there. She has stolen my words, eaten my wit, robbed me of myself.

She arrives when I am on an industry panel, passionately speaking to the tops of people’s heads, their faces buried in their phones.

She is with me at my friend’s karaoke party where everyone is ten years younger than me and singing like they’ve had lessons.

She appears at Pilates, in a room full of gazelles in lavender lycra, and me in my son’s Megadeth T-shirt, the sweats I slept in and toenails so gruesome, they could be classified under Communicable Diseases by Public Health Services.

In real life, I am not shy. I am a chatterbox! A people person! I can be funny, mischievous and occasionally charming. I love meeting new people so much I even look a little bit forward to jury duty.

But I have an Achilles Heel, a button of social anxiety in my core, that when pushed, rings all alarms and whistles. Whenever I’m intimidated by someone, even a little bit, I panic. If I put you on a pedestal or perceive that you don’t like me, there’s a good chance I’ll go Full Dork.

Remember when Liz Lemon met Oprah on an airplane? She spilled all her secrets in a run-on sentence. She sniffed the scent of Oprah’s shampoo. If I had the good fortune of meeting Oprah, I guarantee I would do the same.

A few years ago, I was invited to crash the dessert portion of a dinner party hosted by a colleague of my husband’s, an intimidatingly brilliant and glamorous author. I had just gotten home from a job abroad, wobbly with exhaustion and jet lag but I promised my husband I would go.

Truth be told, I already felt like a second class citizen before we even got there, having not made the cut for dinner. But a faint, anxious siren began howling in my brain when I stepped inside her exquisite apartment. High ceilings, roaring fire, a library with ladders! Her home was the perfect location for the next Nancy Meyers movie, with a kitchen so beautiful, you just wanted to lay down and die in it.

Sitting around the vintage farm table, perfectly weathered, was a group of beautiful, cerebral people, seemingly cast from a pool of alien perfection. The conversation we’d joined was a bit over my head – they were discussing threats to the global economy I remember, something about secular stagnation and the slow growth of industrial blabbity-blah-blah-blah. Having lost me at “economy,” I was reminded of the teacher’s voice from the Charlie Brown specials. It felt like one of those nightmares where you’ve missed the entire semester but now have to take an exam.

My spine began to curl into a lower case “c,” while a protest march took residence in my brain, chanting, Not smart enough! Shitty Not Witty! Flabby Arms Go Home!!! I wanted to chug three glasses of wine, slink under the table and pull the (stunning) Persian rug over my head. I didn’t feel worthy of being there.

But then, out of the negative chatter, I heard another voice, calm and clear, say:

You don’t have to be the smartest in the room.

You don’t have to be the most successful or beautiful.

All you have to be is curious and kind.

No one can fault you for that.

Curious and kind. I don’t know if it was an angel’s voice I heard that night, a guiding spirit of a deceased grandparent or my own Superego, but one thing I know for sure: I 100% received this information, word for word.

Curious and kind? I could do that. I already was that! Best of all, curious and kind was in my control.

I felt the beast slip from my shoulders, allowing me to sit up straight, take in a deep gulp of air, calm my business down.

Jet lag may have stolen my wit, but I was able to breathe, smile, ask questions and truly listen, even becoming aware of other people’s tiny tells of insecurity: I remember one woman kept smoothing her bangs to the side even though they had not moved; a man continually cleared his throat before speaking. My new mantra successfully got me through the evening without the post-requisite staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. in self-flagellation. I even managed to have a little bit of fun.

Curious and kind didn’t mean I could automatically charm the naysayers. You can’t please everyone, duh. But if I was curious and kind, I was out of the realm of judgment. Not of theirs, because what other people think of me is not my business, I’m slowly learning, but of my own. Curious and kind has allowed me to toss the measuring stick I once used to judge myself against other people, situationally dictating my confidence level. Curious and kind is not only how we should approach others, it’s how we should treat ourselves.

As humble and simple as it sounds, it’s worked for me ever since.

That’s not to say that I’m anxiety-free. A couple of weeks ago, I went solo to my friend’s husband’s birthday party. Not knowing many people and having no one to talk to, I perched myself at an empty table, shifted my weight from foot to platformed foot and resisted pulling out my phone. I felt the familiar feel of anxiety around my neck, her grip tight as ever.

Really? I thought. You again? I thought we had a deal.

On cue, the negative voices in my head started to prattle: No one is talking to you! No one likes you! Your dress is too tight across the bum! Your hair is weird!

I started to panic that maybe this time I wouldn’t be able to pry anxiety’s fingers from my throat and set her down. I felt so fragile with her there. But then it dawned on me. I must be pretty strong if I am upright and able to carry her.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man in a purple suit, with an unusually lengthy, salt-n-pepper beard plop a plate of food on the table next to mine. I thought to myself, curious and kind. Noticing that the birthday guy’s family all seemed to sport similarly long beards and colorful attire, I leaned in and said, “You must be a relation.” He looked up and grinned, spreading his arms wide and said, “What gave it away?” And we were off, chatting like children.

My friend, the hostess, glanced over to see if I was okay. And I smiled a private, dorky smile to myself because I totally was.

Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She also contributes writing to websites, anthologies and books, and has written three other essays for Cup of Jo.

P.S. An anxiety trick and five words that changed everything.

(Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg for Cup of Jo.)