Fake it Till You Make it
When it’s busy at work, I never look at the line. I don’t want to know how busy it is. One day, I looked. I saw a huge line and for the next few hours, my hands shook. I stumbled over words. I could hardly breathe.
I assumed everyone could tell I was freaking out. After it was over, a coworker expressed that I seemed calm and everyone else seemed stressed. I laughed, because I thought he was kidding.
But he wasn’t. He had no idea. I hid my anxiety and stress in those hours so well that I appeared to be the calmest person there, even though I could hardly breathe.
This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. Many people are surprised to find out I have social anxiety disorder. I’m usually flattered by this now, because it means I’m doing a good job managing my anxiety.
However, I didn’t always have the handle on my anxiety I do now. For a long time, I wasn’t managing, I was masking. I was pretty dang good at that too.
What’s the difference? Masking and managing look similar from the outside, but inside they don’t.
Masking is what I did before I was diagnosed, when I didn’t want people to see I was nervous and make fun of me. I’d hold my breath so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. Sit on my hands so they wouldn’t shake. Not speak so I wouldn’t stumble over words.
Managing is what I do now, because I don’t want my anxiety to control me. I take controlled, measured, and intentional breaths. I give my hands something to fidget with. I reroute my sentences to words that won't trip me up.
The first is unhealthy, the second is healthy, but both are versions of “fake it till you make it.”
I used to mask my anxiety because I was terrified people would find out. Part of the difference between masking and managing is that now I’m okay with people finding out, because I’ve accepted my anxiety and work on it.
One of the big reasons I am able to manage my anxiety instead of mask it is because people are typically receptive to finding out I have it. People are usually surprised, but very rarely do they not believe me. However, it sucks when they don’t and sends me right back to trying to hide it, not live with it.
There are some people I work with who know about my anxiety, and I love working with them. There’s a lot that don’t know that I also love to work with. There’s a few I know wouldn’t take it well, and I don’t love working with them. I hate it. I dread it. I avoid interactions with those people because I feel like I have to hide my anxiety around them like it’s a big, ugly secret.
People with anxiety shouldn’t have to be afraid of others finding out. If someone tells you they have anxiety, believe them. It is much easier to deal with anxiety around people who provide a safe environment to open up.
Please, be that person. You don’t know if someone is hiding anxiety. You have no right to assume you know what’s happening in their brain. You can cause someone a lot of relief just by being supportive, willing to listen, and trying to understand, even if you think that person is completely fine.