Archives for posts with tag: social anxiety

As you know, I arrived in North Carolina last Wednesday for some much appreciated vacation as well as to attend the first ever reunion of all classes from my clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the first time I’ve traveled to NC on my own since my dissertation defense in 1997, which was a very short trip since I was still a psychology intern and needed to get back to work.

A five night trip with near total freedom in deciding my itinerary. A trip to a place I love. You know how James Taylor sings, “In my mind I’m going to Carolina”? He’s singing about Chapel Hill. His father was on faculty with the medical school. Chapel Hill is beautiful and song worthy. It is a relatively small city, dominated by a university, which is the oldest public institution of higher learning in the United States.

The first thing I noticed as I was driving from the airport to my friends’ house in Raleigh, was the countryside. The beautiful trees along the highway in their early stages of autumn color change. I noticed a glorious blue sky.

And then I saw them, the telltale V shape birds that pitch and rock when they glide. The turkey vultures were flying over the tree canopy. They are really interesting birds. They don’t live an elegant life. They are not smooth fliers and they scavenge for food instead of heroically gliding and catching fish that glint silver in the sun over the water.. I am not an ecologist but my guess is that despite their bad reputation, they are good for the ecosystem. In any event, with the exception of that apple tree attack in the Wizard of Oz, we don’t fear trees because they grow on decaying matter, some of it from animals, do we?

So one of my goals for this trip was to be mindful of places, people, and experiences. When I do this, I can find myself driving on one of the countless highways in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area and waxing romantically about an ugly bird that eats dead animals. This is the power of mindfulness. I say this half-jokingly but it is true. Mindfulness can transform something ugly into something else.

Throughout my mindful trip, I noticed that mindfulness is on the mind of a good number of my North Carolina friends. Doris Ann Price, a lively, artsy, bright and fun woman was the first person I met with on my first full day in NC. Doris Ann and I met in 3-D for the first time last Thursday. She was diagnosed with breast cancer some time ago and made the awful transition to metastatic cancer several years ago. Doris Ann is famous in social media for wearing a button that says, “Cancer Sucks”, a pair of artsy/intellectual glass, her smart black and red wardrobe, and her bright red “Lady Danger” lipstick. (I learned that this is her nickname, something that a friend told M.A.C. Cosmetics about, which resulted in Doris Ann receiving a lifetime supply of their “Lady Danger” lipstick.)

I enjoyed interacting with Doris Ann on Facebook but I didn’t really know her. Contrary to somewhat popular opinion, extroversion is not a super power (nor is introversion an illness, for that matter.). I typically feel at least slightly awkward when meeting new people even when I am very much looking forward to it. Doris Ann and I hit it off right away and had a lovely time together filled with fun and meaningful conversation.

Doris Ann’s cancer has spread to her brain. This is something I knew about her. What I didn’t know it that her voice right now, is a few notches above a whisper because a tumor is pressing against her vocal cords. Her throat is also narrowed, making eating a lot process with very small bites.

Doris Ann was very genuine with me about the challenges that cancer has brought to her life. Despite this, she is a very lively woman who has found a way to keep joy in her life. She told me that she “moves forward” in life until she sees a stop sign. And then at that point, she stops, reflects, problem solves, and regroups. Doris Ann’s health is monitored quite closely by her oncologists and other healthcare providers. She is an upbeat person but certainly not a Pollyanna. Doris Ann is mindful of the seriousness of her health as well as the positives in her life. I admire her emotional strength very much. Plus she was fun and brought me very delicious gluten-free pastries as a gift!

A couple of days later, I found myself at my reunion. I immediately saw someone I knew, Don Baucom, a faculty member who had been the director of clinical training when I was a student. He was greeting people as they arrived. Don is a gracious and kind man with keen intellect and a wonderful sense of humor. He greeted me with a big hug and I felt a little less awkward about going to a party with people I had not seen for a very long time.

I loved graduate school but there was part of it that was like the longest adolescence a person can have that is actually healthy and not just living in your parents’ basement playing videogames, until age 30. The program was supportive but very rigorous and difficult. These were very smart and successful students. We had never had to work so hard to do well in school. So there was insecurity and competition on top of the competition that is part of any academic environment at a major university.

There were only two other people at the reunion from my class and very few from other classes whom I knew all that well. And only two of my professors were there. At one point, I thought, “maybe I’ll leave early.” Then I got my mind out of the past and into the present and proceeded to have a very good time reconnecting with and meeting people.

A couple of particularly lovely things happened. I heard a voice behind me say excitedly, “Elizabeth!” It was April Harris-Britt, who had worked in my dissertation lab, while she was an undergraduate student (I did not work on a professor’s project. I did an independent project, developing and evaluating a parent education program.) April was a wonderful student and I encouraged her to continue in psychology at the graduate level. She did and she entered the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program after I left. She now has a private practice in Durham, NC.

“I was so excited to see your name on the guest list,” she said as she held my hand. “When I think about why I became a psychologist, I always think of you.” I gave her a hug, a kiss on the cheek, got a little teary and told her how awesome she was and is. Then we caught up on our lives. I saw a photo of her beautiful 4 year old grand-daughter.

This was a very moving encounter. I have found that since I started practicing mindfulness, I don’t feel as awkward showing affection that I genuinely feel. Now, I’m not going around kissing everyone’s cheek. Another part of my mindfulness is trusting that my own guesses as to whether someone would be comfortable with this, are pretty good. After all, knowing people pretty well is part of my job.

There was live bluegrass music at the reunion. They were very good. There was space for dancing but no one was out there dancing. I was sitting next to Sandra Zinn, a lively, brilliant, free spirited woman who graduated a couple of years after me. She said, “No one is dancing!” You know that I love to dance and I’m learning to get past my fears of being bad at partner dancing and just not care that I am bad at it. So I put out my hand and said, “Let’s go!” As I anticipated, Sandra accepted. We made up for lack of skill with enthusiasm, smiles, and giggling. About two minutes into the song, I started feeling self-conscious and told her, “I’m running out of moves.” She said, “It doesn’t matter as long as you keep moving.”

I have done a lot of things this month that would have been hard for me to do in the past. I have had 3 D encounters with three friends whom I met on the internet, one of whom is one of my very closest friends. (The third is the lovely, talented, and interesting Frieda Rosenburg, a retired UNC librarian. We had a marvelous time at the NC Botanical Garden and shopping at A Southern Season.) I have partner danced with two different people on two different occasions.

I am still not good at partner dancing. But it’s much more important to know how to live well than how to dance well. I still get nervous meeting new people or feel awkward in a crowd. But I am learning the difference between real stop signs and fabricated ones like the ones caused by social anxiety, perfectionism, and borrowing trouble from a future I can’t know until it gets here.

The fabricated stop signs are exhausting and when I make them, I miss out on a lot in my life. I don’t know how long my life will be or how many stop signs are coming up. In the meantime, I will live a life as mindful, meaningful, and as genuine as I can.

Doris Ann at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, NC.

Doris Ann at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, NC.

With Frieda Rosenberg at the NC Botanical Garden. Photo by Frieda Rosenberg, 2014.

With Frieda Rosenberg at the NC Botanical Garden. Photo by Frieda Rosenberg, 2014.

My dissertation adviser, Joe Lowman with alumna Sandra Zinn. This photo captures each of them perfectly! And do you blame me for asking Sandra to dance?

My dissertation adviser, Joe Lowman with alumna Sandra Zinn. This photo captures each of them perfectly! And do you blame me for asking Sandra to dance?

April and me. Did I mention that I am so very proud of April?

April and me. Did I mention that I am so very proud of April?

Last week I had one clinic day (Monday), followed by six days of painting and redecorating my private practice office. My daughter was also gone on a band trip during this time. So this week has been about transitioning back to my normal roles and routines. It was really hard, much harder than I expected. My brain was fragmented for several days.

Even more distressing was the fact that I felt really anxious and unsure of myself outside of work. This was particularly difficult socially, especially with my cyber friends. Cyber relationships do not have the same familiar codes and handshakes on which I gauge other social interactions. My cyber buddy, Greg Smith, wrote about the limitations that electronic communication put on his “Spidey Senses” in navigating his interactions with patients via Skype. He is an emergency department psychiatrist who practices telehealth in his job to provide consultation to patients who live far away from services. (As an aside, although my psychology practice is in Seattle, a “little big city”, the majority of my training was done in rural areas. Access to care is a major big deal.)

Earlier in the week, I found myself anxious that I’d written the wrong thing to one cyber friend or worrying that another cyber friend thought that I was a creepy stalker because a compliment I’d paid to her did not seem to go over in the way I had intended. I worried that I was being too flirtatious with cyber friends, male and female. I thought about what I might do to repair relationships that may have been damaged by my electronic awkwardness.

I have not felt that way for a VERY long time. What the heck is going on? I’ve had cyber buddies for awhile now and although I am sometimes frustrated by the limitations of this form of communication, there are benefits as well. When I write, I can communicate without interruption, for one. That is a major gift to me in this time of my life when some level of introspection is needed for health and healing. But I do miss the body language, tone of voice, or even hearing any of my cyber buddy voices. And I know in my own communications, the parts of me communicated beyond the words that I write or by my smile in the photos I post, are lost.

Last week, I dredged into some painful past experiences to write the post, Predator, about my own experiences with sexual harassment as a teen and how they relate to the sexualization of breast cancer.  If you’ve read the post, you know that the experiences I wrote about are very typical for women my age and most of the experiences still occur with girls and women today. The post resonated with a lot of women and I was very glad to have written it. I also suspected that it would help me integrate the vulnerability I have felt as a breast cancer patient to another time in my life when I felt scared and vulnerable.

I knew this would be a hard post to write and even waiting until my mother went on vacation to post it. I know that by the time she comes back home and reads it, I would have processed through the hard emotions and she would not have to worry about me so much. She had already suggested to me a couple of posts prior that I needed to take a break and write something light and/or funny. It’s hard to see one’s child in pain, even when she is 47 years-old.

Writing the post was harder than I expected and was like taking a time machine back to the worst parts of my adolescence with the extra layers of breast cancer and being a mother of a vulnerable teen girl.

Actually, let me put it this way. It was like being 16 again.

There are folks that rhapsodize about their youth and feel that they have lost something. Don’t get me wrong because I had a generally happy childhood and adolescence, but I am happy where I am. I have never had a stronger combination of individual, familial, and professional satisfaction than I have experienced in middle age. Emotionally, I feel so much more solid, as well. And this is not because my life has been easy in middle age. It is a benefit of maturity. My parents are very happy people who love their family, friends, and each other. They help me look forward to my future, should I be so lucky to live a long life.

Back to being 16 again. Do you all remember what your teens years were like with your peers? I don’t know about you, but although I had good friendships, they involved a frenzy of unnecessary activity. Worrying, “Did I say the right thing?” “Should I have said that?” (That was a popular one for me. I am loud and chatty.) “Should I have looked at him that way?” “Did I hurt her feelings?” Then I would go and try to repair things. Later in my life, a good friend would characterize my repair attempts as, “Elizabeth, you flail.” Now she has more of a passive, slug like coping style but in respect to the situation she was describing, I was totally and completely flailing when I should have been leaving things alone.

These days, I typically feel solid as a communicator. There are parts of me that can be perceived as being “too much” (see “loud and chatty”, above). This was particularly true in the past. I have learned to be myself with confidence and I think part of what bothered people about the big parts of my personality was the anxiety and lack of confidence that were sometimes underneath. Now I get a lot of compliments about my loud laugh and I can tell from patients and their parents that for the most part, they enjoy the fact that I am a happy person, eager to help, and a lover of my fellow human beings, especially the small ones. But I also know when I need to scale things back and tone them down. It’s a dance of a sort and in my profession, I am usually extremely good at it.

To be 16 again, was no fun. I saw Rebecca, my psychologist yesterday. The session may have only lasted an hour but by the time I left, I’d aged 31 years.

So cyber and face-to-face buddies, I am ready to play like a grown-up again.

Photo by Aaron Eidinger, 1983-ish. I am 17 or 18 in the photo.

Photo by Aaron Eidinger, 1983-ish. I am 17 or 18 in the photo.

 

 

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