My chest is tightening and I can tell that my breathing is shallow. I feel the knot in my chest wind its way up into my throat. My hands start to tingle and my eyes start to burn as I fight back the tears. How can I stop this from happening? I didn’t used to be this way.
I oozed confidence. I could walk into a conference room full of men and women and give hour long presentations with Q and A sessions without flinching. As a kid I sang choir solos in front of hundreds of people. In college I was a news anchor and journalist, interviewing high-profile state politicians.
Now I struggle walking into a room full of acquaintances, let alone strangers. Now I have to psych myself up before social gatherings or conferences repeating mantras of “positive self-talk” so that I don’t turn around and walk out the door. I didn’t used to be this way.
It didn’t happen over night. I didn’t experience some sudden social trauma that birthed this anxiety. It was a slow, passive, erosion of my self-confidence. It started after we moved to a new town about nine years ago. The name of the town isn’t significant, but the insular social structure of the community is. I had lived in four different states up until this point and I never had any issues making friends, socializing and being active in those communities.
So I proceeded as I always did…I signed up to work on school events, I joined the church and I helped out with my kids after school activities. I knew I needed to be proactive and social to meet other women and make friends. I was confident that in a few months I would have a network of friends (or at least a few close girl-friends). I was ill-prepared for the social litmus test I was about to undergo.
Social introductions followed one of two dialogues:
“Hi Susan, so nice to meet you. I’m (insert high school bully’s name). Where do you live?”
“Hi, thanks! We just moved into (insert idyllic suburban community name) in July.”
“Oh, yes, I know some people who live there. Do you know (insert all the names from the girls in the movie Clueless)? What does your husband do? (No, they never asked me if I worked or if had worked or if I was planning on working).”
“He’s the CEO of (insert name of company where everyone knows everybody else’s personal business).”
“Oh! Then he must know (names all of the people she knows who ever worked for said company).”
Now the next question was the deal breaker…
“Susan, what high school did your husband go to?”
“High school? (Really??? I’m 45 years old and you are asking what high school MY HUSBAND attended?) He went to Brother Rice; I went to St. Scholastica. We both grew up in Chicago.”
“OHHHHH! So you’re not FROM here!”
This is where the conversation began to drizzle away. I was just designated an outsider. Here’s the thing about outsiders, they are like the lame straggler of the herd. The insiders will carry you along while you are still useful to them (i.e., working fundraising events, school galas, PTA functions) but once they see you going down, you’re on your own.
I know that analogy is harsh, and I really struggled with whether I should use it, but darn it, that’s what it felt like. After three years of PTA fundraising, school leadership roles and community committee positions I did not have a single woman whom I could call a friend, let alone call if I needed help.
I began to feel invisible. People that I worked closely with on school committees would sit next to me at school functions and not even remember my name. Often, I was called by someone else’s name. Yes, it was that bad. It was devastatingly bad.
And i internalized all of it. I began to let it define me…own me. I began to avoid attending social gatherings for fear of being isolated and left out of conversations. And when I didn’t think it could get any worse, it began to affect my kids. They weren’t being invited to birthday parties, pre-prom events and teenage gatherings. Two of my daughters begged me to attend the mothers’ social gatherings so that the other moms would know who I was. I relented, I attended, even though they did know me, and did my best to insert myself into conversations instead of hiding in the kitchen or petting the dog…and then I would get in my car and cry all the way home.
And just as slowly as my confidence eroded, a new version of my confidence blossomed. I realized that I didn’t want to miss out on life because I was allowing someone else to define my social boundaries. I remembered a picture I bought for my oldest daughter that said “Life begins outside of your comfort zone.” I needed to befriend my anxiety, buckle her into the passenger seat and take “Rita” along for the ride. I’m not saying the anxious feelings have subsided. I’m saying that I have learned to muscle through them, like labor pains, knowing that I am worthy of joy and friendship and love, birthing a new, confident version of myself.