Treating Social Anxiety With Parenthood (Instead of Zoloft)

I was flipping through a magazine a few years ago and came across one of those ads for an antidepressant with the sad little cartoon rock/circle/whatever. The art depicted the sad rock under a spotlight, with horizontal lines drawn on its cheeks to indicate embarrassment, while behind it was a vast crowd of other rocks, all with friendly smiles on their little circular faces. The text read something like, "You often get very nervous around other people, it feels like everyone is watching and judging you. You're afraid of making a mistake or looking like a fool."

I remember looking at that ad for a very, very long time. That's me, I thought. I am that sad rock, or circle, or intentionally vague depiction of a human that could be either male or female. Maybe I need Zoloft.


A short amount of time later, I came across another Zoloft ad; same sad rock, this time with crinkles above its eyes, and copy that started out, "Do you find yourself worrying or feeling anxious?" Oh my god, I thought. Yes, I do! Sometimes!

It then occurred to me that the smart folks at Pfizer could print a million scattershot, widest-possible-net ads (Frightened of spiders? Yes! Cannot deal with having unpainted toenails? Yes! Double over with helpless laughter every time you walk past the refrigerated pudding aisle? YES!) and I would identify with them all.

I don't know when an everyday sort of idiosyncrasy turns into an actual disorder (maybe when you wall yourself inside your house and live in your fort made of human feces because now you're safe, yes, now you're safe, oh HO, they can't get you now), but I've always had a fair amount of social anxiety, especially around people I don't know very well. Perhaps it's not to the point of being a sad rock, but it's definitely awkward. My throat gets dry and scratchy, my gaze helplessly darts around because direct eye contact makes me uncomfortable, my face becomes a flaming tomato. And this is just when I'm talking to people who are being nice to me.

The thing I've realized over the years, however, is that being in public with children is sort of like immersion therapy for extreme shyness. You cannot slink quietly through life when you have children in tow, after all. Their mere presence is nearly guaranteed to command attention, whether you like it or not.

The baby stage is the most intense, because people are naturally drawn to babies. Babies are noticeable, after all, not only because they're usually cute, but because they are loud—they hiccup, gurgle, say things like, "BA BA BA BA BAAAAAA," blow wet gooey raspberries, have sonorous bowel movements complete with red-faced grunting, and they cry. Once babies get a bit older, they become less cute and more generally ill-behaved, a situation made worse by the fact that they're relentlessly mobile.

Now that I have a 6- and 3-year-old by my side, we have become as conspicuous as a herd of buffalo making our way through a grocery store aisle. My kids are loud, even when they're trying not to be. They laugh hysterically at random things, they don't look where they're going, they constantly forget that they're not supposed to run. Half the time I can tell people are amused by them, the other half would clearly prefer that I take my horrible feral monkeys back to their filthy cages immediately. Going places with older kids is a fantastic way to offer up your disciplinary skills for open criticism. It's like carrying a large blinking neon arrow pointing in your general direction. HELLO, it says, HOW'S MY DRIVING.

After over six years of having children combat my natural shyness, I can't really say I've become a social butterfly, or that I'm not still embarrassed when I have to tell my kids to be quiet for the frillionth time under the watchful eyes of strangers.

But while it's true I am afraid of making mistakes, or looking like a fool, maybe I've also learned that life isn't really meant to be lived silently and without creating a single ripple. My kids certainly don't believe that to be true, and I look at the spirited way they barrel through each moment and I wonder about adults and our desire to quiet everything, including our own feelings. If my boys are sometimes the spotlight on my sad rock-shaped face, they are also everything I need to be okay with that.

Are you a shy person? Has parenthood changed that in any way?

Image via Zoloft

Read More >