Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Social phobias and Facebook

I'm facing a little bit of an identity crisis. Two vastly different personalities have taken up residence in my body and now contradict each other daily. I can't tell if it's a 50/50 split where one side will eventually kill off the other half to dominate forever, or more like a symbiotic relationship where both sides mutually benefit from the other's experience and proximity.

As recently as two years ago I opted to forgo my 20-year high school reunion. It came and went and I didn't really think much more about it. Sure, there were people I would have loved to make small talk with, catch up and all the rest. But, I just wasn't feeling a big pull to participate.

That's how I explained it to my wife, parents, close friends, and even classmates. In fact, I probably went to greater lengths to downplay my reasoning for fear that my real motives might have been too obvious. And it wasn't even a lie; I was merely choosing to volunteer certain facts.

Truth be told, I was terrified.

Crowds and I don't mix well. Even the thought of crowds get my heart and mind racing with imagined scenarios, settings, and social obstacles. Put me in an actual room with strangers or friends and I'm toast. Sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and a slow boiling anxiety conspire to make certain I bolt for the door as soon as possible. School fund raisers and marketing functions of any kind kick my butt the most. Church? Not often.

I can't even hide it well. I keep to myself, avoid conversation, and probably come off as a pompous ass. My goal is to blend into the room like a piece of understated furniture. Handsome, stoic, within earshot of a few nice compliments, engaging when approached, withdrawn between idle chat, constantly observing the ebb and flow of the social sea crashing around me. Just survive... just get through it.

There's a name for my pain: Social Anxiety Disorder.
A person with social anxiety disorder is afraid that he or she will make mistakes and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The fear may be made worse by a lack of social skills or experience in social situations. The anxiety can build into a panic attack. As a result of the fear, the person endures certain social situations in extreme distress or may avoid them altogether. -- webmd.com link.
That's the guy I see in the mirror everyday. It wasn't always the case, but that's how it is now. Some even consider it unhealthy -- modern science has a cure called Prozac (or one of many of its variants). I visited life and the occasional social scene with the help of my little buddy the pill as wingman. Let's just say it didn't work out. Buddy wanted more than I was willing to give, namely my soul.

Cope. Manage. See therapist. Live.

Enter Facebook
I'd known about Facebook for a bit before I gave in to its unrelenting charms. On the face of it -- no pun intended -- Facebook offered a very attractive and practical approach to human connectivity.

Sign up, search, click, accept, explore. Almost overnight, names and faces appeared out of distant, almost forgotten memories and places from periods in my life. One to one disconnects were soon hard-wired again, and with tools to breathe life into once meaningful relationships that had fallen victim to the passage of time's cold, tight grasp.

Like a kid discovering the wonders of a new park or zoo, I soon marveled at the breadth and many varied intersections created by simply living on this rock. My schools, jobs, passions, etc., populated with people I care about. (And quite honestly, filled with people who kinda care about me too.)

Facebook offered a target rich environment to engage with people -- so from out of nowhere I dove in with both feet.

How is this possible for a social hermit? Social anxiety dude doesn't recall discussing an exact approach, proper tactics, or adequate boundaries to assist in navigating the social networking scene. Social anxiety dude observes everything and deals with the aftermath of embarrassment and many "I told you so" moments, while social networking dude acts on instinct, commenting too much, updating too often, and trying desperately to fit in.

I can see that the relationship between the two is far from perfect (and far from reality). As fun as all this is, would I actually go hang out with these people? Maybe. Maybe not. Ok... probably not.

If I'm alone in a room on a computer, am I really out there? No.

My two sides have enough sense to reconcile the differences between real-life human interaction and doing it all from the comfort of a computer screen. But it's also quite apparent that the outgoing half didn't just show up one day. He could've been asleep or on an extended vacation in the deep recesses of my mind, but he certainly didn't appear out of thin air. Facebook awakened something inside me that was long dead. A part of my old self.

And welcome back. Welcome back to the guy I couldn't see any more in the mirror every morning when I shaved. That guy who engages in the process. That confident individual, who prefers to meet life on his feet, and is passionate about living it. That guy who doesn't retreat. Welcome back to that guy who likes being around others... because it feeds his soul.

Summed up: it's growth. The two sides can co-exist. And maybe, just maybe, the two can move their host into healthier waters again.