I’ve found myself talking about anxiety recently with a few people who didn’t know I suffer with it.
There’s no special reason for them not knowing. I stopped trying to hide my anxiety a good few years ago – I just don’t feel compelled to talk about it much. Frankly, I just don’t feel it’s the most important or interesting thing about me.
Nevertheless, I found myself having these conversations – 3 separate conversations in fact – and saying some words about my own anxiety. And all 3 of the people I was talking to reacted in the same way. They said “I never knew you had anxiety. You always seem so confident”.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that reaction. It didn’t hurt my feelings and the people who said it certainly weren’t speaking out of malice. But it did make me think about some of the misconceptions that people might have about anxiety.
Me and anxiety
To give a little bit of background, I have suffered with anxiety virtually my entire life. I’ve suffered crippling panic attacks which I’ve mostly learned to manage. But every now and then one will come out of nowhere and remind me I’m not immune.
I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was a child, and I’m having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) now to help me with a persistent phobia of overseas travel.
We also work on some of my day-to-day negative thought patterns and core beliefs – like how I’m not capable of dealing with certain situations like travelling, and minor illness and ailments, and conflict. Or that I’m just inherently weaker, worse and less intelligent than everyone around me.
That last bit is usually where people seem most surprised, and that’s probably because of how I behave.
Being anxious and extroverted
I don’t really believe in the whole idea of introverts and extroverts as fixed, binary personality types. I think that most of us will alternate at least occasionally between the two. But extroversion is most definitely a trait, and it’s one I exhibit a lot of.
I like thinking mostly out loud and talking to other people, most of the time. I talk a lot and, especially when I’m excited or anxious about something, I talk loudly. I can be assertive if I need to. I challenge things I’m unsure of, and I don’t shy away from asking difficult questions.
I think this is where the confusion comes in. People see me being talkative, outgoing and sometimes firm and they equate that with confidence.
It’s not an illogical assumption, either. Constantly sharing my thoughts and ideas might well seem like a strange thing to do if I’m full of self-doubt. But self-doubt is precisely the reason I do it.
I’m not afraid of showing weakness, but I’m terrified of making poor decisions. For me, thinking or working in isolation is a breeding ground for uncertainty and negative self-talk.
Seeking guidance, feedback and reassurance from others is my way of building confidence, and protecting myself against my own perceived incompetence.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that generally the more extroverted I’m being, the more anxious I’m feeling.
As for assertiveness, it hasn’t come naturally to me. It took me a long time to realise I could be decisive and firm without damaging the personal and professional relationships I depend on.
Even now, many of those who experience me being particularly insistent on a matter will later receive a private apology, worried I’ve overstepped the mark.
Managing anxiety at work
None of this is to say I don’t manage these tendencies. My career has forced me to challenge my urge to rely solely on others and to think for myself. And thank goodness for that.
I’ve learned to make decisions based on my experience and professional judgement, and in doing so have built a wealth of evidence that I can in fact do it.
I’ve learned to speak my mind and afterwards trust that I did so respectfully and sensitively. I can be firm without always descending into a spiral of anxiety that I might have upset someone.
But for me, that pull towards second-guessing myself and deferring to others is something I’ll always have to work against.
Let's keep talking about mental health
I started this post by saying I don’t feel the need to talk about my anxiety, and to some extent that remains true. But I’m talking about it today because I believe this is something people should understand.
If people mistake volume for confidence, then my volume might trick someone into thinking I’m completely fine. That I’m just another person who doesn’t understand what they’re going through. And I’m not OK with that.
Anxiety can assume the guise of withdrawal and silence. But it can just as easily be energetic and communicative. The thing it always is, is awful.
So let’s keep talking about it, in all of its manifestations, and supporting each other the very best that we can.