Listening to Your Gut When You’ve Got Really Loud Anxiety

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I struggle with social anxiety. A lot.

When I was a young teenager, I attended a fabulous princess birthday party. As part of the royal treatment, fellow homeschool boys had been recruited to play butlers. One of their jobs was fetching our drinks. At a snap of a finger (or really, a breezy, “Brent, could you refill my glass, please?”) they would happily ladle in some sherbet-colored punch.

This was a nightmarish situation for me.

For one, boys. I was intimidated by boys my age for a variety of incomprehensible reasons that left me in a sweat. For two, inconveniencing people. I could get my punch by myself. I felt uncomfortable being served. Those boys (sharp inhale) probably hated the very idea of cutting their male banter short to serve some punch to an ugly dork like me. (I wasn’t even wearing a prom dress like the other beautiful, sparsely-pimpled girls.) For three, cutting into their male banter. I was (and am) terrible at grabbing people’s attention. It required speaking up. Inserting myself. Making myself seen and heard. Demanding that I be seen and heard, requiring them to dedicate five seconds of their life to ladling punch for me in the middle of their butler-y conversations.

I couldn’t handle any of that.

So I went the whole long party without anything to drink. For some reason, I was exceptionally, dangerously thirsty upon arrival…and I remained so the entire evening. I kept looking for a chance to sneak over to the punch bowl and serve myself, but there was always a crowd of bantering butlers lounging around the counter.

I was beside myself with thirst and anxiety.

And that was pretty much how a decent chunk of my teenage years went. And my college years. And my adult years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am felled by such tricky social situations like,

walking around the block multiple times when someone on North Orchard Street is sitting on their porch and might think badly of me for doing so;

coming back for seconds of fruit and crackers at church coffee hour because someone might think I am a glutton; 

or — and this is a tough one —

driving so slowly on the highway at 15 miles over the speed limit that I hold up and inconvenience all the pickup truck dudes who want to go 30 miles over the speed limit.

Do you want to know what my top three anxieties were about giving birth?

(1) At what point do I take my underwear off, and what if I accidentally take it off at the wrong time and people think I’m a slutty weirdo?

(2) Should I bother shaving my winter-hairy legs for childbirth, because hairy legs will probably personally offend the female attendants?

(3) What if I don’t make it to the hospital in time to get an epidural?

Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it to the hospital in time to get an epidural. You want to know why? Because I felt like a silly, uninformed, overthinking wimp about calling the midwife again over whether my contractions were serious enough to come into the hospital. I was so worried I would come to the hospital too early, embarrassing myself and inconveniencing everyone.

My social anxiety led me to almost give birth in the car in rush hour traffic.

The first time I gave birth, I apologized profusely for being in pain. The second time, I was in too much pain to apologize for screaming like a second-rate actor in a medical drama, so my social anxiety had to take a horrified back seat.

It’s really fun being me.

For me, an anxiety flare feels like someone slapped a blindfold over my eyes and yanked it tight. I am blinded and disoriented. I lose all perspective, lose all sense of where the facts and beliefs and thoughts I once had perfectly lined up and ready to go fit together. Depending on the situation, I freeze or fawn. I make myself as inconspicuous, innocuous, and innocent as I can. This is a powerful internal gut response.

And because it’s so overpowering, automatic, and deep-set, I despaired of ever following that oft-touted advice to trust your gut — because my gut reactions usually ended up making everything a whole lot worse for me.

Social anxiety isn’t the greatest at helping you achieve what you want out of life, set boundaries, protect yourself and your kids, or make difficult decisions.

I stuck with making columns of pros and cons, keeping everything as rational and unemotional as possible. The problem was that at the end of the lists and charts and rational arguments, I still needed the courage to implement my decision. Now that I’m older, I know what I believe and want. It’s not a question of what to do. It’s a question of doing it. And even if a decision needed a little pondering, it needed to be done in a reaction time shorter than a whole week of agonizing: no, I’m not going to laugh at that sexist joke to smooth over the social awkwardness; hey, my kid is clearly uncomfortable with you picking him up right now; yes, I’m going to take two kinds of treats at the church coffee hour. 

But I still experience these social dilemmas as a question of what to do. “I don’t know what to do!” I wail at my confidants, after an agonized rambling that, summed up, is, Life is complicated and uncertain but still demands a decision.

At this point, presented with several good, rational options with different outcomes, I am usually advised to “go with what you think is best,” “listen to your gut,” “you do you” — something that assumes I’ve got some sort of guiding principle that’s not my hilariously irrational and self-destructive anxiety.

After some years of adulting, I have learned that I do indeed have an internal guiding principle that’s quite wise, calm, and decisive. It’s the part of me that holds me back from leaping headlong into my anxious impulses, the part that holds the other end of the rope during the back-and-forth tug-o-war about what to do in a tricky situation. I just need to clear the anxiety long enough to hear what that part of me has to say, to feel the force of its calm rationality long enough to do what I know I should do.

And for that, I’ve started asking myself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid of what other people would think?”

Usually, my confusion and disorientation is not because I don’t know what I want to do. It’s precisely because I do know what I want to do, and I know that it does (or might) cause another person to react in a negative way. This one question clears the air for a bit. It reframes the issue as not what to do but how to work up the courage to do it. It halts my dithering about in despair and sets me on a clear (if extremely uncomfortable) course.

And if I don’t know exactly what to do, if I’ve lost sight of key facts or beliefs, that question filters out the anxiety enough for me to regroup and regain perspective.

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid of what people would think?

For starters, I would ask for a glass of punch.

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