Did Social Anxiety Make Me a Leader?

I was 56 years old before I began to suspect that social anxiety played a big part in making me the leader I am today. (Spoiler alert: that was this year!) I can see social anxiety in others – and have deep compassion for it. But I never thoroughly recognized it in myself, or the gifts it gave me -- before this summer.

How Did I Miss my Own Social Anxiety?

As parents, we often beat ourselves up for catching a child’s diagnosis late, or "missing it" until something really difficult happens. That’s partly the nature of complex challenges, and partly an optimism that ultimately serves us well, as long as we don’t dig down into denial.

As for my own challenges …
  • Maybe I missed it because I’m always so busy trying to be liked by others that it never occurred to me that I might not like them.
  • Maybe I missed it because my parents gifted me a world of community, so I’ve had a built-in best friend since birth. With her I always had a companion, a partner in crime, a social animal who would lead us into battle (camps and schools and more!). I grew up a small community where I belonged, which made a huge difference for me.
  • But I think mostly I missed it because – like so many quirky kids with challenges like anxiety, learning disabilities, ADHD and the like – I compensated. I accommodated for myself. I was smart, and I created workarounds to manage. In fact, I strongly suspect that my social anxiety led me to develop leadership skills.

Accommodating for Social Anxiety with a Human Shield

In my personal life, my workaround was usually another person -- a golden ticket, an all access pass. I hooked my wagon to friends who were comfortable in social settings and garnered invitations for us. There was Beth (and the trio of Beth, Paige and Elaine), Jonathan, the fellow 'leaders' in my youth group, a series of boyfriends, and for the last three decades, my husband.

But the truth is that I have always questioned my belonging. Even when I was very much in the middle of making things happen, I simultaneously felt apart, never fully wanted or included.

In hindsight, I always had one friend who hedged those feelings for me. This played out again and again in my life.

Social Anxiety Developed Leadership Skills

Professionally, without the comfort of a friend to pave the way, my accommodations took a different form. Because I was uncomfortable in the middle of the room, I did what I could to find my way to its edges.

Often, that meant finding my way to the front of the room, which is still an edge, after all.

Leading became a way a contribute, to make a difference. It was a whole lot less boring than following. And leadership was a way to belong.

Understanding Myself Created ImpactParents.com

On one level, it was true that I was 'different.' Around 40, my previously undiagnosed learning and attention issues were brought to light. I began to see how those unidentified challenges had interfered with reaching my potential. And with help, and coaching, I began to navigate life with a new understanding of myself. It was nothing short of liberating.

Ultimately, this is why I do the work I do. And it’s what propelled me to co-create ImpactADHD® and ImpactParents. I am passionate that:

  • no parent should ever feel at a loss to help kids who are struggling.
  • no child should grow up feeling as out of sorts, and as unlikeable, as I did.

Even as I’ve navigated these diagnoses as an adult, I didn't realize the powerful role that social anxiety played in my story. Frankly, I always thought that I'm just one of those people whom people either like or don’t like (and mostly don’t like very much).

I realize now that I've rarely felt comfortable, I've rarely felt a full sense of belonging in my life, almost anywhere, including sometimes in my own family of origin. Maybe that's why I've committed such a significant part of my adult life to creating communities of belonging.

Source of My Social Anxiety

I’ve been thinking about the source of my social anxiety. It’s partially hard-wired, partially a result of unmanaged ADHD (which is quite common in girls), and probably somewhat reinforced by my experience as a progressive Jewish kid in a conservative, southern, religious prep school.

I suspect that being "othered" led me to wear my difference as a chip on my shoulder: You can't exclude me if I choose not to belong.

I see now the many ways in which I've removed myself so as not to be left out. How busy I was trying to either belong, or not belong.

Some of you might relate to this. You may see these patterns playing out for yourself, or for your kids. If so, I encourage you to marinate in it for a bit. Don't feel the need to DO anything about it just yet. Notice it. Learn from it. And try as hard as you can not to judge it!

Now, What?

With this new awareness, I am open to the possibility that whether or not I fit in is at least partly my choice. And I’m willing to accept that it's difficult to fit in when I’m sabotaging myself to avoid being excluded.

If you see this pattern in your kids, please don’t 'tell them' about it! Instead, get curious and acknowledge them for their feelings. And if you’d like some help to have constructive conversations with them, give us a shout – that’s what we’re here for.

As for me, as I continue to understand my social anxiety (and the leadership it's cultivated), I choose to give myself some grace:

  • to acknowledge that my social anxiety is real,
  • it's compounded by my resistance of it,
  • and it's mine to learn to manage.

I am 56 and I am learning about a facet of myself that has been with me all my life. It's not all bad. It turns out that social anxiety probably helped make me the leader I am today. And like every other challenge I’ve faced, it will have an even better impact as I increase my awareness and conscious management of it.

Worry not. Help is here!

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