Dear Teenager; You’re Not Shy.
Recently I’ve started reflecting on what it is to be a teenager in today’s world; being 23 now, I am starting to be able to bear looking back on my teenage years and reflect on what happened and why. Being a teenager isn’t easy for anyone and when you come out the other side of it you wish you could go back and give your younger self some insight into how to get through it all in one piece. To be fair most of us do make it through in one piece, however suicide rates in teenage girls and boys are becoming alarmingly high (read some of the more recent statistics here). I wouldn’t want to go back and tell myself what to do or not to do; what I wish I could do is go back and explain to myself the changes that are happening, and why I had the feelings I did. I thought maybe if I shared a few of these ideas here, that somewhere their may be a teenager who gains a little insight into themselves; we can’t prevent ourselves from making mistakes but we can learn to understand ourselves so that when we make those mistakes we don’t feel so ridiculous about it.
One of the biggest insights I have gotten into my own behaviour since getting a little older, and having done a module on developmental psychology in college, is that I suffer from social anxiety. I was labelled the ‘shy’ one from a very early age, especially in school. So, I grew up telling myself that I was just shy and there was nothing more to that; but when I hit the pre-teen years (11-12) things started to change, not just in me, but in those around me too.
There is this idea that being a teenager starts when you turn 13, that you wake up on your 13th birthday and suddenly everything is different, you are a teenager. However, from personal experience I think that change starts a lot younger than that; even from observing children in school settings, a dynamic changes in a group between the ages of 11 and 12. These essentially are the pre-teen years; I began to feel more aware of myself in comparison to others, as did everyone around me, it’s like before that we weren’t really aware of each other as individual and suddenly we felt the need to group ourselves based on common interests. My body began to change; I started to wear a bra, I no longer understood how my hair was behaving or my skin for that matter, and suddenly I began to see my body shape and how it was different to the other girls around.
It probably didn’t help that I went to a primary school that was girls only from the age of 7/8 upwards, girls are mean. Reflecting on it now, girls weren’t so mean until the pre-teens, perhaps our inner b*tch is awoken with all the new hormones flowing through our little bodies. Suddenly how we interact with boys changed; I didn’t know any boys, I hadn’t been friends with a boy since I was 7 and now all of a sudden I was strange because I didn’t have a ‘boyfriend’? How laughable it is to think about 11 and 12 years considering themselves to be in ‘relationships’, but as I said something switches in you at that point and now it was time to stop innocently playing Mummy and Daddy on the playground, and start exploring what a relationship was.
It was at this point in my life that I first started to feel ‘different’, I knew that I wasn’t the same as those around me but I couldn’t understand what it was that made me feel like this. I felt uncomfortable at school a lot of the time, people I had considered to be my friends, I no longer understood them or how to be around them. It was also at this time that I began to learn how to be alone, and I was too good at that sometimes; I remember in Primary school, sitting in a toilet cubicle on my own, with my legs pulled up so that no one would know that I was there, crying. I hated the playground from that point, my peer groups had fell apart in my eyes, everyone was in love with basket ball and I ‘wasn’t a sporty person’ or so I told myself (and others told me too when they didn’t want me on their team).
I was just shy though, right? I would have to learn to get over it, confidence was something I could learn surely? My mother was such a confident person, she was so good at socialising and I’m sure she found it odd that it didn’t come naturally to me; I thought I would probably just grow out of being shy, but I didn’t.
Now, if I thought things had changed when I was 11, nothing could have prepared me for the social jungle that was secondary school. I remember being petrified about my first day, there would be boys, new people from other schools, new teachers and so much unknown; it was at this point I began to learn that I am not good with change, but I’ll talk about that another time. Part of me was looking forward to secondary school because I thought I would find people with similar interests to me, and I would no longer have to hide in toilet cubicles (I was wrong on this one).
Secondary school was a whole new social game, very quickly people started to form friendship groups, and while these groups may have changed slightly over the years, essentially they stayed the same. I found some good friends while I was in Secondary school, but I never really felt I fitted into one ‘group’, I had two friend groups, who didn’t really get along with each other and I often found myself upsetting people and feeling I wasn’t a good friend. But I was shy remember? I wouldn’t have been very good at speaking out, I wasn’t a ‘leader’ that could have tried to find some common ground and make everyone happy.
By the end of secondary school I felt so insecure with myself that I was never secure in my friendships. Now I’m not blaming those people for how I felt, because they were socialising like normal teenagers, friends argue, they disagree and they get over it; so why did I find it so difficult to trust people? I had this constant feeling hanging over me that I didn’t fit in, I didn’t belong, I didn’t feel comfortable and I used to think it was them but when I reflect on it, it wasn’t.
With my self-esteem in my shoes, I headed to college; more change, more new people, hardly any familiar faces. My solution? I decided that because so many people had ‘hurt me’ in the past, I would completely isolate myself in this new setting; nobody knew who I was (except for two people), and nobody needed to know. I completely separated myself from my peers, I would go to class and I would go home, I wouldn’t talk to people and guess where I would spend most of my time? In a toilet cubicle.
So, being around people made me feel unhappy and not being around people made me feel very unhappy.
If I could go back to my pre-teenage-self I think one piece of information would have made my life a lot easier at this time, it would have prevented everything that happened, but it would have helped me understand why I felt so out of place. You see, I was behaving this way because I was shy, I felt so out of place because I was social anxious. As an adult I now understand that certain social situations make me feel really uncomfortable, starting conversations with people, strangers or otherwise, does not come naturally to me, being in situations where I am surrounded by a large amount of people I don’t know makes me really anxious. I started to join the dots and look back on the points in my teens where things went ‘wrong’ for me and saw that at least one of the above factors was an influencer; in my pre-teens socialising started to be more important to the people around me and it didn’t come naturally to me, in secondary school I was at first surrounded by so many new people, it made me anxious, I began to feel insecure about all these social groupings and it didn’t feel comfortable, then I reached college, I knew no one and I was by this point petrified of socialising for fear of doing it wrong!
Social anxiety is an “unreasonable fear of social situations”, it causes a person to become self-conscious because of a “fear of being closely watched, judged, and criticized by others.” (Source); any of this starting to add up? If I had known and understood what it was to be socially anxious, if I had even known that it was a real thing, I would have understood so much about myself. The first time I even heard this term it was like a light-bulb moment, suddenly so much of my behaviour made sense to me and I started to forgive myself and others for teenage experiences of crying in a toilet cubicle. Having this knowledge was so empowering, I was now able to know what situations would distress me and why, I could start to explain to people why I was so strange sometimes; to my former self and all who knew me, I was not being ‘snotty’, ‘stuck-up’, ‘shy’ or ‘quite’, I was simply uncomfortable talking, because my subconscious had created this idea that if I said something wrong, you might hate me forever, judge me or think I was an oddball.
I’m not saying that every teenager is socially anxious, I just saying that such thing does exist, and if my story sounds familiar to some of you, or you feel something isn’t right, then maybe you too and social anxious. We can’t really expect others to understand and accept us as we are, unless we make a conscious effort to understand ourselves and except our personal challenges not as flaws, but as part of our identity. So much of being a teen is consumed with the need to ‘fit in’ and ‘belong’; we end up berating ourselves because we are not the same as everyone else, but in actual fact no one is the same.
Take control of your mind, stop listening to the little voices and start questioning them. Start analysing yourself, rather than criticising yourself; ask: how do I feel right now? When do I feel like this? Why do I feel that way in those situations? Start to understand your mind, it is a powerful tool but it can also be self-destructive if you let it take control. Talk to someone you feel comfortable with, and explain to them what is going on in your mind; this can be difficult if you are socially anxious because you might not know how to start this conversation, but know that sometimes saying how you feel out loud to someone can help you understand so much about yourself.