By Nihal Bambulkar Apr. 24, 2019
Ever since I was five years old, I’ve struggled with even the simple act of saying “Hi” to strangers. Unfortunately, today’s world revolves around how social you can be. Which means my anxiety has cost me many job interviews, lapsed friendships, and annoyed relatives.
How do you react when someone says “Hi” to you? Do you go for a high-five or a wave? Is it appropriate to wiggle your eyebrows, or should you flash the peace symbol? Should you play it cool and say ‘Sup’ or beat your fist against your chest like a Gully Boy. Or, if you’re like me, should you have a mild-to-severe panic attack while thinking of all the ways you could have said “Hi” but didn’t, because you were too afraid of having a social interaction?
I’ve gone from being “that shy boy” in school to the “recluse in the college” to “the quiet intern” at work. But it’s not my introversion, it’s simply fear. And I’ve had this fear ever since my mother held my hand and walked me to the society garden to make friends. I was five years old at the time. “Go on, make new friends! Go say hi!” she urged. But instead of joining the other kids on the slide, I ran and hid behind her dress, shivering as if I’d encountered the grizzly from Revenant.
At school, it wasn’t draconian teachers or ruthless bullies I feared most, it was classroom introductions. Thrust into the spotlight, with my only job being to utter the words, “Hello, my name is Nihal,” my body would shift into a fight-or-flight state. Beads of sweat would form around my temples and my hands would start trembling. And I would try to force the words out, but just end up gulping haplessly for air as if I was out on a morning walk in the Delhi smog. It didn’t help that my father had to move cities because of work and I had to repeat the ordeal every time I switched schools to a classroom full of new faces.
Not much has changed since. This dread of social interactions continues well into my adult life. So, as a coping mechanism I resort to doing what every person with social anxiety does best – avoid social contact as much as I can.
At work, where I currently spend most of my waking hours, I watch intently as my colleagues walk in so that I can avoid eye contact and not indulge in the morning small talk. The rest of the day I spend with my headphones on. During lunch, when everyone gathers to eat food together, I stay seated at my desk and wait until everyone is done. Reviews with my boss and discussions with the HR have become the dreadful adult replicas of my classroom experiences. And during office meetings, I take a seat where I’m least likely to be noticed and remain quiet through the ordeal, often coming across as the guy who lacks ideas.
Sometimes, just like writer Simon Wilson-Cortijo, I wish I could just escape to a simpler time where work did not involve brainstorming.
At a workplace which is buzzing with creative minds, I feel imprisoned by my condition like never before. By the time I gather the courage to speak up, my feeble “I think…” is drowned by other enthusiastic voices.
Sometimes, just like writer Simon Wilson-Cortijo, I wish I could just escape to a simpler time where work did not involve brainstorming. In a Guardian essay Wilson-Cortijo writers, “In the past I imagine it would have been quite easy for a socially anxious individual to make a life for themselves doing some form of manual labour that wouldn’t require the cultivation of ‘people skills’. But in today’s world, where selling one’s attributes is of the utmost importance, such skills are an absolute necessity.”
I realised that I can’t live in my bubble permanently after my social anxiety ruined many job interviews, annoyed relatives, and ended friendships. After 22 years of permanently being perturbed, I took an online test to determine where I was on the Leibowitz Social Anxiety Scale before booking a session. Turns out, it was the highest score I got on any test – I bagged a strikingly high 90 out of 100. The scale suggests that a score which exceeds 95 is a clear indication of a person experiencing very severe social anxiety.
So before I could inch any closer to the danger mark, I took my parents’ advice and sought help. After three long months of therapy, I know that can’t particularly change the way I am hardwired. I will never be that guy who walks into the office and wishes a cheerful “Good morning” to everyone present. But I will tell you that saying “Hi” to people has become so much easier.
Hi, my name is Nihal. And I have social anxiety.