Social anxiety is a very real condition with a big impact on people’s lives. Studies report about 12.1% of people in the US will experience social anxiety at some point in their life. There are several causes of social anxiety that often stem from early childhood. For the most part, social anxiety develops from a fear of putting ourselves out there and being judged or rejected. The level of angst increases when you are in situations that put you outside your comfort zone. It is also noted about 1 in 3 individuals with ADHD will also have social anxiety, which is not surprising when you consider how the symptoms of ADHD and anxiety can overlap.
For me, I always thought it was being super shy. I realized something about me was a little different at an early age. I would interrupt my friends’ conversations. I would say something awkward in school. I would misread what others would say to me. Worst of all, I was very aware and humiliated by being left out on the playground umpteenth times. I couldn’t figure out why. I was a really nice kid. But that began my trajectory of social avoidance and being the quiet girl working extra hard at making good grades in the classroom.
By the time I entered high school, my social angst was quite unbridled. I recall just wanting to hang back, melt into the walls, and avoid dances and school events. I was mortified if it was my day to give a speech or when called on to speak up by the teacher. On the outside, I was hardworking, turned in my homework, appeared smart, and earned A’s and B’s. Inside, I was a hot mess of emotions and felt a lack of peer connection and belonging. Just getting through the school day was exhausting and painful. I was happy to retreat home to a safe space where I could read or write endlessly in my room. Luckily, I did have a friend or two I could play with or talk to on occasion and several siblings, so there was some opportunity for connection and communication. But I missed out on a lot because I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just being shy. It was social anxiety, and later in my life, I realized it was caused by undiagnosed and untreated ADHD that severely compromised my sense of self.
So, how does one get through that? Intuitively, I realized I had to work on this as a teenager. We didn’t have coaches then, nor was mental health high on our family’s radar, so I was left quite a bit to my own devices. My love of reading helped with stories about others my age; sometimes, I would practice ‘being the character’ I admired in role play. Having a diary gave me an avenue of expression as well. I would write stories with conversations. These were some small gains. But there was still work to do to get out of my comfort zone. One big break was when my high school counselor took an interest in me during my senior year. She was a natural-born strengths spotter and an advocate who would help me take that next big step in a surprising way. She offered I split my senior year attending a vocational school to earn my certificate as a medical assistant. That was pretty exciting then. I agreed and what I soon came to realize is I would be stepping out of my comfort zone to attend a school of older students and learning how to help other people, which in turn made me feel better about myself. Her opportunity turned out to be my confidence booster.
College days went a little better, but a similar theme all over again. The campus was big, and it was easy to get “lost” in a sea of students. It was easy just to go about my day, avoid social gatherings, and focus on grades. Yet I was lonely and I hadn’t quite figured out how to bridge to more social connections. Until I came up with this brilliant idea to join a sorority. It was not the most popular sorority on campus, but it served its purpose of helping me build some social skills a little bit at a time.
In my mid-20s, I met my husband of now 35 years, and guess what? He was a social butterfly. Our being together frequently meant attending one social engagement after another. I felt comfortable at the start of parties and events because he was next to me, and I could fill in on conversations as I needed. But it wouldn’t take long until he was naturally mingling his way around the room or party, and I found myself left behind, feeling the angst again in ‘baptism by fire’ moments that I would push myself to work through. The alternative was to hold back from joining him on these ventures to stay ‘safe.’ That wasn’t going to happen. He was a pro when it came to mingling and knowing what to say, and I surely caught on a bit just learning from him. One thing that helped was a pre-party debrief to learn a little more about who I would encounter and their interests. Another was having some cues ahead of time that would signal to him I needed some support.
The corporate world was a new frontier. In my earlier career days, I remember the constant fear of coming across the wrong way, not fitting in, and not knowing what to say on many occasions. It was different because my career was dependent on my actions. I would not speak out about my accomplishments, and I would dread being called out for them in our team meetings. It wasn’t just about fear of embarrassment or rejection. There was a risk of oversharing and having others run with my ideas and gain from them. I would ruminate after hours on what I had done or said and how it was interpreted by others. The cost to me of social angst became losing out on promotional opportunities or being taken advantage of in a noisy, competitive world. All this, even though I was very successful with achieving results, seemed to be more in control of my situation and happiness than myself. Then, one day, our company had a speaker that changed my life even more. He shared this quote by William H Johnson, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” The most important ten words I would hear at that time in my life! His talk catapulted me into another fervor of sink or swim in personal development. And swim, I did. I learned to give myself more credit, to notice more of what I was doing right. I realized that I was far more judgmental of myself than my peers and began challenging what is now referred to as self-talk. I journaled my wins every day. I would also write about my failures. But from the perspective of what did I learn (often about ADHD missteps) and what could I learn or do differently next time.
All of these baby steps along the way translated into bigger leaps and transformative moments in how I chose to show up and avoid hiding out or playing small. My efforts helped me learn to take risks and build out my comfort zone of social being. I could get out and engage quite easily in social settings. I improved my confidence and ability to read social cues and respond accordingly. I could make sales calls. I got over the resistance to pick up the phone and call an overlooked friend. I learned strategies to stop rumination in its tracks and to open opportunities for constructive dialogue. I have even engaged in public speaking over the years. Baby steps also meant understanding and embracing my own needs and honoring them without thinking I am broken or different. Sometimes, I am the introvert in the room; other times the extravert. I get to choose which and when. I can engage in social opportunities comfortably, and then I can choose to draw inward and prioritize my time for self-care and to restore my energy so I can eventually go out and engage again.
The good news is social anxiety can be treated. Treatment may require therapy to address the underlying causes or medication to keep panic attacks at bay. Treatment also requires taking action rather than avoidance. ADHD Coaching can help you with taking action. With an ADHD Coach, you can focus on what is making connecting socially hard for you. From there, an ADHD Coach can help you identify opportunities to take your own baby steps and build on self-awareness and self-confidence, which have taken quite a beating by the time you are an adult with ADHD. You can partner to create new strategies and skills and learn how to implement your unique strengths and character in authentic ways to feel more comfortable with communication and social interactions. While I still experience a few moments of social angst, I am far better equipped on how to navigate them.
In wrapping up, ADHD and social angst is very real and resolvable when you take action to move forward from the constraints in your life. I hope sharing my story and a few ways I found my way through it has been inspiring to you. And if you are inspired, I would love to hear your story or what you believe stands in your way. Email me at Robin@ADHDCoach.life.
Most importantly, don’t let social anxiety and ADHD stop you from having friends, showing up at work, making that phone call you have been avoiding, sharing your thoughts and perspective, or connecting with someone new. There is a way forward!
Robin Nordmeyer, PCAC, CLC
ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach, Owner/Founder