Talk therapy had never been something that interested me. I certainly assigned the stigma of “only crazy people go to therapy” to the concept. But when the wheels came off the proverbial bus, I knew I had to do something to save myself and to save my marriage. Therapy saved me in many ways. It also introduced me to the version of myself I had been missing for a very long time.
Getting good grades came very easily to me all the way through high school. I was active in school activities and teachers appreciated my enthusiasm for school and my willingness to participate and engage in active discussion. I made it seem effortless. Unfortunately, I was successfully painting myself into a corner without realizing it. Assignments were completed, grades were given and everyone (including myself) thought that I would be a great college student. Unfortunately, the effortlessness of high school didn’t prepare me for the Socratic method preferred by most college instructors in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. College became a place of great anxiety for me. I was constantly trying to figure out how to please everyone and to figure out where I fit in. I struggled with a pervasive fear that the curtain would be pulled back and Dorothy (my college) would find out that the Great and Powerful Oz (me) was just a sham. In hindsight, I can clearly see the markings of a form of social anxiety disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has described social anxiety disorder as a fear of embarrassment and/or fear of looking poorly in front of others (Social Anxiety Institute, 2015). Here’s where I was a blend – getting up in front of people to speak in terms of a presentation, or getting up in front of the college marching band of 300 people didn’t faze me. But when I got into a smaller classroom where I felt unprepared or where I was concerned I would look stupid, I became a nervous wreck. I couldn’t speak up for myself. I couldn’t ask for help. I was paralyzed into inaction. As a result, things got out of hand and I was asked by the college to please not return (translation: I failed out of school).
Fast-forward 15 years and I was a woman without a direction. I was married but I was in a constant state of insecurity. I was overweight, but didn’t do anything about it, and then complained when I felt like I was being ostracized for it. Leary and Kowalski (1995) developed a self-presentation theory with regard to social anxiety. The researchers concluded that individuals want to control public perceptions, because that will determine how others treat the individuals (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Bingo! Not only was I afraid that people would judge or criticize me, but I felt out of control if I could not somehow manage the environment or the perceptions. It created a great amount of self-doubt. On the outside, many people didn’t know I was struggling with this. I was able to socialize and in fact, I over-compensated and wouldn’t say no to any type of outing or event. Burying my fears and anxieties turned out to be the worst treatment. My husband became tired of my constant second-guessing of his feelings for me and it became clear that if I didn’t get help, I would be alone.
My therapist is a kind man and a listener that doesn’t seem to forget anything. He never told me his diagnosis of me. He would just encourage me to come back week after week. He would listen thoughtfully. Oftentimes, he wouldn’t say much at all during our appointments. When he did? Oh boy! He would ask me a pointed question or just say, “It must feel awful worrying about everyone else all the time”. And each time he said it, I would drop back in my chair and breathe. Managing everyone else was not my job. I had to learn to listen to myself, figure out what I wanted and who I wanted to be. It was in that chair, staring at his diplomas from Bryn Mawr and The University of Pennsylvania that I realized that I wanted to finish my degree. It was in that chair that I realized that I could be happy with myself and not concern myself with the opinions of others to the point of inaction. It was in that chair that I found a love for myself and an inner peace – the kind of which I had never known. You don’t have to be crazy to begin therapy. In fact, I kind of think you’re crazy NOT to try it.
Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). The Wizard of Oz [Motion Picture].
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (Second ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Social Anxiety Institute. (2015). DSM-5 Definition of Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved from Social Anxiety Institute: https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/dsm-definition-social-anxiety-disorder