Anyone can have social anxiety. Here’s how I worked through mine.
If I could go back and look at myself from ten years ago, I would not recognize that sad, lonely kid. And if he saw future me, he wouldn’t believe it.
I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (previously considered Asperger’s Syndrome) when I was around 12 months old. By the time I was in ninth grade, I was prone to being angry, loud, and sad in social situations.
This affected how I was able to make friends growing up and made it hard to talk to girls, especially girls that I had feelings for. According to the Autism Society Organization, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as “a complex developmental disability [that] appears during the early stages of childhood and affects the individual’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”
I saw the world a whole lot differently from neurotypical people when I was growing up. It was very difficult to express my feelings clearly enough.
I faced many challenges in social situations, including avoiding being near certain condiments in the middle school cafeteria (due to how the texture and appearance freaked me out) and feeling really sad every time a girl said hello to me when I got off the bus. I was too shy afraid and afraid of girls talking to me to appreciate or enjoy the attention.
After puberty, it became even more difficult. ;I wanted to make new friends, find love, and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But when I tried, I started to think about how I looked in front of others. I became more afraid of what people would think of me if I approached them to talk.
I was afraid they would find me uncomfortable to be around and choose not to acknowledge me at all. This social anxiety all came from a general lack of control of my emotions.
But through a lot of perseverance, tears, and therapy sessions, I learned to finally open my mouth and put myself out there more often.
It wasn’t easy. Everyone struggles and everyone internalizes their struggles differently, especially those with autism. But I wanted to share what worked for me, so those who are currently struggling can find solace in knowing they are not alone.
Here are seven things I did that helped me learn how to make friends, start conversations with girls, and even meet new women.
1. I committed to all the hard work of learning to communicate better.
One early personal example of this is how I had to take early speech classes in elementary school in order to improve the way I could speak to others.
I have memories of playing specially-designed computer games sponsored by St. Jude’s Hospital and learning to write cursive before the rest of my grade. These things helped me better understand how to read and write at the same level as other kids in my grade.
Playing these games didn’t make me feel like an outcast among the other kids in my school. They helped me and I was able to embrace those opportunities to learn these skills.
2. I cultivated a sense of humor using the skills I knew I had.
By the time I was in high school, I started to become better at making friends and talking more often.
What helped me, personally, was developing my sense of humor. Though I had trouble beginning a conversation, I eased my way into one by listening closely to topics I can work with. Then, I would come in with a joke that helped me establish my personality.
Sometimes these jokes were at the expense of my own weight, as I used to be 300 pounds overweight. Other times, it was just me riffing on whatever piece of pop culture I could think of that might be relevant. What I was doing was not original, but, like Peter Parker in Spider-Man, I used humor and comedy to hide my anxiety and stress.
3. I took risks and shared emotionally vulnerable feelings.
One of the biggest leaps of faith I took in high school was telling someone that I had a crush on them.
She was someone I talked to a lot in my ceramics class, and we became friends during our time in class together. I deeply wanted to tell her how beautiful she was and how her personality and strength shone through when she was dealing with some traumatizing moments in her life.
By the time I finally told her, she was already dating someone else. Yes, it was a rejection, but it was okay. Back before high school, I freaked out about being rejected over anything, but I did not consider this a rejection. I considered it as any person growing up should do —I was happy because my friend started on her path to finding love for herself.
I was also happy because I was able to finally get past the fear of telling someone how I felt about them, and we were still able to remain friends.
4. I learned the ways ADHD contributed to my social challenges and managed them.
Another moment that was similar in scope was when I became brave enough to catch up with a friend from college.
Besides autism, I was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, ADHD makes it difficult for a person to pay attention and control impulsive behaviors.
I had trouble remembering and focusing on catching up with others. By the time I did, they either moved to a different state, had children, or did not remember who I was.
However, there was still one person that was still in the area where we grew up and I decided to reach out to her.
I sent her a message on Facebook (back when I didn’t care that Zuckerberg was looking at my dog pics) and asked if she would be interested in getting lunch sometime. She said yes, we exchanged numbers, and& we ate lunch together. It was the beginning of a new friendship for me.
What motivated me to finally do this (besides remembering to take my medication — which can be a daily challenge for lots of people with ADHD), was creating tasks for myself.
Whether writing them down on a notes app, or on a board in my room, I wrote tasks and daily affirmations that would help remind me of what I should be doing. They also reminded me of why my negative thoughts about how others felt about me were wrong.
5. I continued pushing myself to get out there, socially.
Last year, I faced my ultimate challenge and went on my first date with a person I spoke to online.
I was not expecting to be calm or collected on my first date over the sounds of people yearning for Panera Bread. But I knew that I was finally doing something I wanted to do since I was 18, when I was still having trouble asking girls out.
I went on three dates with this person. The second, I took her out to dinner and kissed her before she went home. On the third date, we saw Captain Marvel together.
In the end, the romance element didn’t work out, but we later became friends.
6. I learned to see rejection as an opportunity to have more experiences.
One of the issues I feel men face, especially growing up, is that we have trouble accepting rejection at an early age.
Despite what most men and boys are taught, rejection is not a negative. Nor is it a sign of defeat.
One of the lessons I learned early on from my mother is that not everything will go your way. I’m thankful for that lesson, as it helps me keep things in perspective.
7. I discovered ways I am just like everyone else, and not alone in my struggles.
Like with maintaining friendships or finding love, my struggles are just like everyone else’s. And that is what is so important for my fellow autistic people to remember.
One of the most beautiful aspects of reminding ourselves of our humanity and place in the world is to remember that we are not alone in struggling to make friends or create emotional intimacy with those we cherish being around. Other people, even neurotypical people, experience this, too.
Through all my trauma, my upbringing, and my life in general, that feeling that I’m not alone is what has helped me approach society better than I was fourteen. What I want those who have ASD, ADHD, social anxiety, and depression to remember is that you need to find what works for you when it comes to making friends and talking to people you’re interested in.
Not everyone wants to be social, and there is nothing wrong with that. But when you are ready to meet that person you have romantic feelings about, remember what makes you human. Remember that the best way to fight off stigma and stereotypes is to just be you.
My disability is not how I define myself before others. It just a small aspect out of many of who I am.