There is a very specific feeling of dread that often overtakes me in uncomfortable social settings. My blood begins to churn and immense pressure builds up in my chest. I can’t quite think straight and the usual screening process between emotion and action is infiltrated by panic and an impulse to escape. As much as I might try to behave normally, my mind is scrambling to find some way out of my imagined spotlight.
These episodes are a regular occurrence for me. As you can imagine, it gets exhausting always being front and center on a stage that you’ve completely fabricated for yourself. I’m unable to do much of anything without also considering how the people around me are likely to perceive it. Every twitch in my facial expression, every touch of my hair, every small shift in my intonation has been thoroughly envisioned, assessed and cleared by my inner self-critic. Anything that risks alienating me from the group is a no-go and any grab for attention, no matter how small, must first be assessed through every doomsday scenario imaginable.
My outlook is fueled by two very conflicting feelings. The first is the outside gaze, the judgments that the people around me are surely making at all times. Their assessments of my appearance, my personality and the way I carry myself. No action goes unnoticed and every little insecurity I’m zoomed in on must be a blaring siren alerting everyone that I should be avoided at all costs.
Accompanying my adolescent egocentrism is the second reason for my insecurity-driven social complex, which is the fear of being alone. I assume this worry stems somehow from evolutionary adaptations for group survival and the reproductive advantages of attracting a mate by being similar to everyone else. In the 21st century, this amounts to feelings of estrangement — like I’m a pariah in any social circle I attempt to wedge my way into. My place in the group is justified by happenstance and my presence would never be missed or even noticed if I happened to slip out quietly, as is my tendency when faced with the slightest bit of discomfort.
I feel at once like the center of attention and a forgettable wisp of a personality. In my mind, everyone’s always participating in the nitpicking and the badmouthing, but never doing anything to challenge those assumptions about me. It’s always my job to prove my social worth to get others to talk to me, a task far too exhausting to beat out a solo night of watching Korean rom-coms, accompanied by a bubbling pot of instant ramen.
I could point to multiple origins in my life that could be potentially responsible for my paradoxical unease. When I was a child, I was always extremely aware of how adults were judging my actions — whether they were impressed by my shows of maturity or bursting out into amused, but nevertheless hurtful, fits of laughter at the blunders that children make out of simply not knowing enough about socially acceptable human behavior. Anytime I misused a punchline I heard from a TV show or unknowingly violated some unspoken social norm, I made sure to quickly scan how the adults were reacting. Any indication that I was doing something even slightly out of line was motivation for me to just keep it to myself the next time. I never understood that their reactions were merely out of amusement and not a judgment on me.
Another possible source lies in my position in my family. As the eldest son in a small Asian family, I never had to vie much for attention when I was younger. I received praise and affection for the smallest accomplishments and grew up convinced that I deserved to be part of the group just for being me. Attending gifted programs from the 2nd to 12th grade meant that I kept the same circle of friends for most of my childhood, never having to fend for myself in an environment where I didn’t already know several people I could fall back on.
College completely disrupted the safety nets I grew up cherishing so much. Gone are the doting family members who hang onto my every word and the friends who don’t need some compelling reason to give me their time of day. I have no anchor to rely on, no reason to believe that I will be welcomed into the crowd with open arms.
All I want is some sense of security. The ability to interact with others without the expectation to prove that I’m a friend-worthy person. I don’t want to feel like I have to nitpick every last thing I do because I don’t trust that the people around me aren’t internally badmouthing me.
Too often do I live in service of my imagined sense of others’ perceptions. I become convinced that negating any potentially embarrassing parts of my personality is the easiest way to get others to like me, when the truth is usually the complete opposite. My constant search for signs of alienation or disinterest in the people I interact with exhausts the little decision-making chimp in my brain to the point where avoiding the interaction altogether is the most attractive choice.
The magnifying glass that I feel constantly pointed at me, no matter how self-imposed it may be, restrains all the most distinctive elements of my personality. Behind the wall of insecurities and timid small talk is, in my opinion, a perceptive, curious, open-minded and incredibly humble individual. The only one preventing him from emerging more frequently is almost always me.
Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.