A Long Way Down

There is a scene near the beginning of Tangled where Rapunzel first leaves the tower, the place where she spent her entire life (as known to her).  The creators at Disney did an amazing job making us feel as she might have felt. I’m easily moved to tears I know, but I also feel an emotional connection with the story, Rapunzel’s plight reminding me, in some ways, of my own. I was hidden away, schooled at home, my mother withdrawing us from (or “protecting us from”) the outside world. I am out of that tower now, to put it in Rapunzel’s terms, but it’s not easy expressing yourself when you’ve always kept your thoughts inside, and it’s not easy to fit in, when even the most simple thing like the grass between your toes, strikes you as new.

Do you know what it’s like to feel a little out of place, a little new to everything? That first day on a job is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know yet which buttons to push, how to help a customer.  Like waves in a cold sea, the nervousness comes in the form of questions you don’t know how to answer, problems you don’t know how to solve. The social anxiety that I felt as a teen was strong and almost overwhelming, a tidal wave. I was afraid that my ignorance might be revealed, and I would be faulted for not knowing something my publically-schooled counterparts would know. I was afraid to ask questions, afraid to reveal my own ignorance.

I’ve discovered a couple groups that reveal I’m not alone in this feeling of being unprepared for the world from homeschooling. I’m not alone. But unbelievably, one of the first things that I see on the page is opposition to the group–the claim that some former homeschoolers (in a support group, no less!) should stop whining, get over their fears of inferiority, and accept that public schools and home-schools are both lousy. But isolation and educational neglect aren’t things that one can simply “get over.”  One must always walk through, not just push aside, their situation in life. Most anxieties, any psychologist will tell you, aren’t something that you can just “get over” overnight; progress is gradual. If you try to defeat all your anxiety at once, you end up with more than what you started with.

Being socially anxious is no simple matter.  What is it like?  In Psychology 101, I learned about something called the “spotlight effect.” Have you ever felt like a spotlight is shining on you? Like you’re being watched, and every little move you make matters, like everything you do could be judged harshly? Even though I realize it’s irrational to feel that way, people aren’t that interested in me, and most don’t judge me harshly, it takes a while to gain confidence around people. When out in the overwhelming spotlight, I’ve tried to make myself invisible, tried to speak up as little as possible, to keep away from mistakes. I got out in public but I could only handle it in degrees.

It’s only logical to keep quiet when you know that speaking won’t reveal your true self, anyway–just a flimsy version of yourself. When we’re nervous, we say things that we don’t really mean; which is to say that out of the pressure to say something, we might say anything.  It’s hard to know what you think, when you think one thing when you’re alone, and say something else when you’re in company of others. I used to relive the moments, questioning, “What should I have said instead?”  I know that self-criticism is a bad habit, but if someone loses their head for a moment, don’t they have a right to go back and find it?  (I think this reflective quality is part of what makes me want to become a writer. I can hold past conversations in my mind and I can make new conversations using fictional characters.)

There’s another element to coming into the spotlight, much like being starstruck. It’s a sense of wonder–and that’s something that Rapunzel had in full. You’re impressed by visions that were absent in your life in the shadows. When I began to get out to social events, I was impressed by just how much personality others had; teenagers seemed to know who they were–and I wondered at that. The curiosity was occasionally mistaken for a crush but it wasn’t really; I just wanted to know them, to be a fly on their wall for a little while and wonder what made them tick. I suppose something similar happens when we watch nature shows about the Amazon or “Blue Planet”: we wonder at what strange, beautiful creatures we see, and we wonder why they are so different in their unique environments.

I suppose I’m not so special in my childlike appreciation or in my nervousness. Many might feel the same upon visiting or moving to a new country. In a foreign culture, you can’t help but worry that you might do something wrong, that you might very quickly be spotted, and pointed out as a foreigner and laughed at because you’ve done something silly. My experience is common. My progress is good so far. I look forward to another year, in a place where I might not always feel fully at home, much like most everyone else.  Fortunately the more friends I make, the more I feel like I’m with people who speak the same language and make me feel at ease. Yoga also seems to help me release the tension and to breeaaathe. We all have ways of adjusting to tough situations. Most of all, I think, we hang in there and keep trying. Pretty soon you’ll be the veteran and someone else will be “new at this.”

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One comment on “A Long Way Down

  1. such an honest raw take on social anxieties. I like the accompanying rapunzel story

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