A question was posed to me, “Name one thing you wish you could go back and change during your education.” One thing, out of all those years of medical school. The hours spent studying alone, hunched over a three-volume set of neurosurgical textbooks. The stress of each day during my first surgical rotation and the anxiety that came with prerounding. As an introvert (INTJ), I was torn between my need to assert my dominance over the rest of my cohort and the paralyzing social anxiety I have dealt with my entire life. It was this common occurrence that I settled on as the one thing I would change. My social anxiety. The social awkwardness and antisocial behavior that has been both helpful and harmful, but ultimately reared its ugly head during my years at university.
Throughout medical school, I was an exemplary student. I rarely missed class (save for the complete mental breakdown that occurred during my second year), turned in perfect work and spent the majority of my free time studying. Since I had so recently graduated high school, I didn’t realize that I should be using some of my free time at university to socialize and instead spent it travelling down the proverbial rabbit hole that is medical education.
The further I tunneled, the less time I spent in the “outside world.” My friends saw me less and made frequent comments regarding my absence. As my time was limited, I started distancing myself from those around me and only saw my friends once a month. When I did spend time being social, it felt so awkward and I was filled with anxiety. I started to withdraw, spending the vast majority of my time doing solitary activities. My mornings were spent running solo, followed by studying, then class. When my classes were over, I immediately started studying again. This went on for the entirety of medical school, save for the odd trip to see family or time spent in ballet.
I began to notice changes in my behavior around year three. During a group project in medical microbiology, I suddenly became aware of how uncomfortable I was around the rest of my group. Looking around, I saw how happy the majority of my peers were while conversing with each other and yet I was miserable. I excused myself from the group (I had already finished my part of the project) and went for a long walk. The walk allowed me to collect my thoughts and return to the group where I hurriedly helped them finish their work and left.
That evening, while I was alone in my room studying, I realized that I might just do my best work alone. Having other people around was distracting and I never quite felt myself around other people. In a weird way, I felt like my body was doing what it thought was best for me, protecting me in a way.
To this day I feel awkward around other people. Though I have ultimately gotten better about how I deal with those I interact with, I still prefer to be alone. For the longest time I tried to change, to become something I’m not. I put myself out there, forcibly building relationships that were doomed from the beginning. Now that I’m older I realize that all the energy I spent trying to change myself would have been better spend focusing on making myself happy. I no longer force myself to be social if I’m not feeling up to it and I make sure that I’m comfortable in situations before I commit to anything.
It’s hard for me to admit things like this publicly. Letting anyone, even random strangers know a weakness makes me feel terribly vulnerable. Try as I might, I don’t think I will ever be truly comfortable letting others into my life and that is something I need to work on. Going forward my hope for myself is that I can learn to let down my guard and allow a few people to get to really know me. One of these days I suppose. Until then I just have to continue to throw myself into my work and keep myself busy in other ways.
Question(s): How do you deal with social anxiety?