The Peculiarities of Anxiety

This is something I wrote a few months ago when I was just finding my feet in the grown-up world of corporate politics and etiquette. It was a scary time and I was terrified of screwing up.

There is an email in my inbox and I can’t read it.

Just thinking about it crouching in my inbox like a toad makes my heart beat faster and my stomach lurch. It’s not even a big deal: an email from a colleague either saying “Thanks but we may need to review a few things together”, which is polite and normal, or “This is good”, which is brill. I know both outcomes and I can 100% deal with them written here – so why can’t I open the damn email?

In the case of email, the damage is done: whatever catastrophe it contains has ALREADY HAPPENED. Putting off opening it doesn’t delay the problem; it just delays my preparation for dealing with it.

It’s not always but it’s often. At university I couldn’t read my emails at all because my attendance was poor and I was self-sabotaging myself into dropping out. Ignoring my emails for weeks at a time made things SO much worse – all the offers of help and support missed. I used to get my friend Oli to open my inbox and read through all the messages, relaying only the information I had to hear.

Three years into my big girl career and I can handle work email, but only by keeping on top of it at all times. I go through every email first thing in the morning and deal with things straight away. Throughout the day I read emails instantly and file them. When I get home from work after my two hour commute, I read any emails that I might have missed while I was travelling. I stay online all evening to make sure I don’t miss any problems from the US.

This is the ONLY way I can deal with my anxiety about email. Even now, I can’t watch emails coming into my inbox after I open Outlook. I have to minimise it, then get the full impact in one glance.

I’ve engaged in hours of discussion around social anxiety, but only recently have I said those exact words out loud. I struggle to assess whether it’s a real thing I have, or I’m just awkward and like the convenience of this forgiving phrase when I’m finding it hard to deal with a situation.

Are all these little human foibles sorted into darkly glamorous compartments where they don’t need to be? I read all the ‘Mental illness is an illness – it’s in the phrase’ stuff and I believe it – but when it comes to establishing my own ‘issues’ I often feel like I’m just giving myself a neat way out, and the added artistic allure of appropriated neuroses.

I write about myself because I am the subject upon which I have lavished the most committed study. I wouldn’t say that I know everything about myself – I have a very hard time assessing how I ACTUALLY feel about something, rather than what I have affected – but I have put a great deal of work in.

It was Oli The University Email Gatekeeper who first provoked this deep questioning of myself. Possibly because he was the first person with whom I ever had the kind of conversation that I wrote about last week: the endless loops and tunnels of investigation and analysis. Possibly a professional would say that both Oli and I analyse ourselves too much. I would hazard that I would also be found to show narcissistic tendencies* – an unhealthy self-absorption certainly.

But people who are obsessed with themselves are not always in love with themselves. Often the opposite. I hinder my own happiness with my constant insistence on perfection or near as all-dammit. I always imagine people are looking at me, and finding me lacking. Which has led to a self-consciousness beyond what is probably normal.

I fear walking into a restaurant and not knowing if who I’m meeting is there already or not, what the rules are. I fear any new place, any new situation. I fear small talk because of my own inadequacies: I WILL ruin this and they WILL hate me. It makes me blush and blurt out things I would never normally say, if I can’t find a way to escape the interaction all together.

An interview is my worst nightmare. I shake so much that I have a hard time keeping my voice even, all because of the build-up I’ve created in my head. What do I wear? Do I know anything? Is everything I ever thought about myself a lie? Will I be late? What if I get lost? Am I about to humiliate myself?

What’s the worst that can happen in this situation? I suffer a couple of hours’ discomfort and then don’t get a job. Nothing changes in my life. But the apprehension of an activity like this is often so high that I consider just not going. That old self-sabotage.

However, in the case of the three interviews for my new job, this obsessive fear was put to good use. I did more preparation than I could possibly have needed and fought against my brain’s instinct to put up a massive barricade and say ‘That’s it, I’m not doing any more, I’ll just have to wing it’.  My nerves still made me blurt out things I probably shouldn’t have said from a recruiter’s point of view (‘I’m still Jenny from the block” and “You weren’t there, man” for instance), but I think it’s possibly these little madnesses that got me remembered and eventually chosen.

I really am those escaped oddities, but thankfully I’m a little more considered and deliberate in a normal situation. After a few days, I will settle down and hopefully find a comfortable resting place among people that don’t look at me and think ‘You don’t belong. Grow up.’ as some do here by default, because I’m under 30 and wear glittery shoes.

I know that my obsessive nature will stand me in good stead as part of a small, creative team. As long as I know what’s going on and what’s expected of me, I am a high functioning kid. I can temper my mental leanings towards chaos and panic with strict organisation and meticulous preparation, and I do.

I can manage now. Real life is another matter, but this bit I can manage.

* Although I can see myself in the accepted list of narcissistic features, the mere fact of this awareness could suggest that I am either not a narcissist (by way of Catch 22) or I battle hard against the traits. My issue arises in my inability to say for sure that I empathise – the voice in my head says “Yeah, but do you REALLY or have you perfected an impression of empathy?” I am paranoid about the possibility of this False Self (Sam Vaknin), which leads to an endless cycle of self-interrogation. 

This, in particular, sounds very familiar:

[Narcissistic Personality Disorder] is considered to result from a person’s belief that they are flawed in a way that makes them fundamentally unacceptable to others. This belief is held below the person’s conscious awareness; such a person would, if questioned, typically deny thinking such a thing. To protect themselves against the intolerably painful rejection and isolation that (they imagine) would follow if others recognized their (perceived) defective nature, such people make strong attempts to control others’ views of them and behavior towards them.

I should pay someone to do this for me.

Am I right? Tell me!

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