Fitting In

I spent this weekend at a rehearsal, in the company of people I had never met before, but who shared a few key interests with me. Within a few hours I was chatting and chilled. Now, I don’t make friends easily (thanks, social anxieties!) so to feel relaxed around new acquaintances that quickly is a pretty big deal for me. Needless to say, I arrived home a few hours ago in high spirits.
My children were dropped off an hour or so later, in similarly good moods. We had the usual kerfuffle at the door with shoes and bags, with the only noticeable difference being that The Girl had been to a party at which face-paint was on offer, and had insisted on keeping the painted on Catwoman mask for me to see. Honestly, it was a pretty good job. I could tell who she was before she told me, which is always a plus.
 
So, to the point. We were sitting downstairs together before bed, and she gradually started to look a little uneasy. I could see the expression deepen as she told me her friends had Shopkins facepaint. Oh dear, I thought. I know where this is going.
 
Sure enough, the next thing she said was an expression of regret about her choice.
“Don’t you like Catwoman?” I asked.
No, that wasn’t the problem. Nor was it that she preferred Shopkins, or was unhappy about how her face looked. In all honesty, I don’t think she could really articulate what was wrong. And in fairness to her, it’s a challenging concept for a young child to put into words.
 
The crux of it, I think, is that she’s almost six now, and she’s picked up on the fact that in some hard-to-define way, fitting in and being the same is good, and being different is… not fitting in.
She’s in Year One, so I don’t think they’ve yet reached the stage of picking on the kids who are different (and the school is very inclusive, which I think helps prevent that attitude getting too entrenched anyway), but society as a whole has an unerring tendency to guide people into this mindset. Fashion. Trends. Adverts. They all, subtly or (usually) otherwise, guide people to the conclusion that fitting in is good, and sticking out really isn’t.
So when my daughter, aged five, chose to have her face painted as Catwoman, and several of her friends chose to be (identical) Shopkins, she was left with that odd, hard-to-place feeling that somehow she’d done something…not wrong, but not entirely right, either.
 
And it’s awful. A five-year-old girl feeling like she made a bad choice for being a character she loves, because it’s not the same as everyone else. As far as I know, no one even said anything about it. It’s just a concept she has already internalised.
When I was younger, I worried a lot about this myself. I always knew, deep down, that I didn’t fit in, and for a long time this made me panic and try extra hard to mask that fact. Now, I won’t ever claim I tried to fit in with the popular kids (it was never gonna happen), but I certainly did my best not to stand out, either. One of my best friends once described my wardrobe as the sort of thing “normal people wear in films”. I never quite passed for real-life normal, but I had near-as-dammit down to an art. I faded into the background like a movie extra. Never the centre of attention, but still part of the crowd.
I nodded and smiled when the conversation turned to TV shows I didn’t watch, or the attractiveness of actors whose names I seldom knew. I painstakingly taught myself to recognise double entendres and laugh with the rest, and I got used to never mentioning my quirkier interests, or denying them outright if people spoke ill of them. (“Oh, yeah. People should absolutely get more fresh air and not spend all their time playing computer games. It’s not healthy!”)
It took me a long time to have the courage to not care, and before I could be myself, I had to try out various alter-egos. I had my faux-goth phase. My jewellery-as-armour phase. My ostentatious-I-don’t-care phase. The last one still flares up now and then, but mostly, these days I have settled into quietly doing and wearing whatever the hell I want.
Still. The road to get here was long enough that the thought of my daughter setting off down it fills me with sadness. As her mother, I don’t want her to be at the start of a long road filled with heartache and self-doubt. I don’t want my daughter’s future to be a war between enjoying the things she really loves to their fullest, and putting some of her interests aside so she can avoid feeling like a pariah.
We had a conversation before she went to bed. I don’t think she really took it in, but that’s okay, because I’m very prepared to have it again, as many times as she needs to. It wasn’t long, but I made sure to tell her that I thought she looked fantastic with her Catwoman face paint, and that, if there was one thing I wanted her to learn from me, it was to be herself, always. To do things because she wanted to. And if it happens that the thing she wants to do is the same as the thing her friends want? Hey, great, no problem! But if it’s different, that’s not a problem either.
And this time, aged five, there wasn’t a problem. There wasn’t a: “Well why did you pick that.” So part of me feels a little like I sprang the “be yourself” speech early. But another part knows that for it to really stick, you have to either grow up with it or learn the hard way. And the hard way really, really stinks.
When the cliques start (and my memories of what teenagers are like assures me they will), I want my children – both of them, although The Boy has so far shown little signs of noticing what happens outside of books – to have the confidence in themselves to be themselves. Because you know, several times this weekend, I had the passionate wish that I had met that group of people earlier. That I hadn’t spent so many years thinking there were only a handful of people who got me, when it turned out that, all along, there was a place where I could feel entirely at home.
So the message I want my children to learn is this:
Don’t “fit in”. Find the people who fit you, instead. It’s well worth the extra time it might take to find them.

‘Tis the Season…

…To be piling on the anxiety, it seems.

I’m like it every year – every season, really, but particularly Christmas it seems, because there’s so much to worry about. Gifts to buy, and to wrap, cards to write and send, and now school events to remember, attend, send cakes/money for, and friends to consider.

And as someone who dislikes crowds due to social anxiety, even popping to the shops for a pint of milk can become a little daunting. I get home and want to curl up on the kitchen floor with a cup of tea, reassuring myself that I don’t have to go out again. Or I would, except that I do have to go out, because if there’s one thing I can rely on at Christmas, it’s that the stress of trying to be on top of things and remember everything will lead to me in fact forgetting more than usual.

So far, I have written half of my Christmas cards and posted none. And as I type this, I realise I went shopping earlier (with the Girl in tow) and despite writing “stamps” on the list, forgot to buy any. So that will be another trip out. Tomorrow, it can be tomorrow, and I’ll suck up the price of a first class stamp, sighing with relief that due to a bit of travelling around, I only actually have to post three or four cards this year. Or five. Could be five. Either way, hooray for not having a lot of casual friends, eh?

I’m riding the adrenaline rush at the moment and hoping the seizures don’t happen at the wrong time. I had two yesterday, and both fortuitously managed to be when my children were at school/pre-school and then asleep. I gloss over the note of fear which whispers into the back of my mind that one day, surely, the law of averages will spring one on me at a bad time. It’s a chiming worry which I never listen to, apart from late on those nights when sleep eludes me, and if I were a child again I’d want to turn to the comfort of a parent to reassure me that all is well.

That’s the thing about adulthood. I have to smile and reassure my children; all the while I’m fighting the urge to call my own parents and ask them the same thing. The single-parenting aspect gives me so much freedom – I went into town today straight from school and stayed there until I wanted to come home instead of rushing back, feeling as though time were ticking away – but the counter to that freedom is the anxiety that I’m an army of one. Help is on hand, but it’s a hand several miles away, to be summoned by a phone I can’t always use.

And for every person who helps me, I feel the nagging tug of an obligation to be repaid. A debt I owe, one which mounts with each and every favour I offer to repay in kind but never quite settle to my own satisfaction. Then looms Christmas, and I settle it on myself to repay at least a little with gifts and cards. Gifts and cards which must be bought, prepared, and given. All added stresses which I balance on my scales, adding and subtracting what I can do and what I have to let go. And for the let-gos, do I rush to catch up later, or call for help? My cycle of anxiety grows and multiplies.

Yes, ‘Tis the Season. To be Merry, to be Festive, and to smile brightly, all the while I am masking wishes for it to all be over so that I can try and find some time to catch up on the things I have not done, the things I forgot, and the favours I am sure to owe in the New Year.

Problems with being Socially Anxious

I don’t do people. I don’t have a massive problem with them or anything, although large crowds tend to set shivers down my back and have me watching over my shoulder every now and then as though someone is about to run up behind me and plant some sort of: “I look really stupid, please laugh at me” sign on my back. 
Pictured: My trusty shield, defending me from imaginary “kick me” notes for a good decade or so.
It was once an indispensable part of my wardrobe. 
But largely. I can manage. I can walk next to people without freaking out. I might even make small talk with other parents outside the school gates after I’ve “known” them for six months or so. Heck. After the Girl had separation anxiety and used to go, screaming, into pre-school every day, I perfected the: “Oh well, it’s just a phase,” line as I forced a smile onto my face while walking past all the other parents with their not-screaming children, hoping that they weren’t judging me, mocking me, or despising me for being responsible for such a noisy child. (And thankfully the Girl has gotten over her own anxiety and is quite happy in the mornings now.)
I will readily admit that as much as I try not to label myself, the terms “shy”, “social anxiety” and “people phobia” spring readily to my mind when I think of my personality, along with somewhat more stigmatising terms such as “recluse”, and “social pariah”.
For the most part, I live my somewhat solitary life more vicariously through the internet. Here, at last, I am free, cut loose from my anxieties because no one can see how my forehead contorts with nerves as I post on forums. No one knows that I sit for five, ten, fifteen minutes with my mouse hovering over “reply” – all they see is TottWriter, a name on a screen, sounding confident, opinionated, bold. Even if the name does post somewhat infrequently.
Parenting puts a bit of a dampener of that shield, however. There’s the school run, for starters, And while it’s less daunting in reality than lots of forum topics would make it out to be (I’ve yet to see the parents actually divide into tribal formations, taking out the weaker specimens for sport), it still involves a degree of social interaction which I flounder on at times. Left to my own devices I would walk alone, stand alone, collect my children and flee, feeling pangs of longing for the parents who natter and gossip with ease, but knowing it’s not for me.
Then, the Boy went and made friends, and suddenly we have a group of people to walk to and from school with each day. I’ve taken to calling bedtime “The Gauntlet” due to its somewhat challenging nature, but my true gauntlet runs twice a day, at starting times of 8:20am and 3:00pm. Here is when I am tested – when I smile and make small talk, all the while noticing every pause before someone replies to me, every time people don’t hear my remark and talk over me, every time I am three paces behind the main group instead of one or two. Every occasion where the other parents are meeting up outside of school and I am not, when a grudge or conversation is discussed in which I had no part. 
In short, every time I feel that little bit more invisible than the others, when I start to worry that my mask of confidence has slipped and people can see me for what I am – an outsider, desperately clinging to the pack for my children’s sake and out of loneliness.
I know I don’t belong there, in conversations about nights out, fashion, and men. I’m none of those things. I stay in, I have never been fashionable, and I am currently coming to a full realisation that I am far closer to asexual than allosexual. I don’t fit, and I never have. 
The problem with being socially anxious is that, even though I know that no one “fits” a group perfectly, instead of finding the common ground and building friendships. I falter at the first hurdle, and spend years berating myself for that failure, for “getting it wrong”, for standing wrong, dressing wrong, staying quiet when I should have talked, or babbling when I should have been quiet. It’s that I over-analyse every mistake I make and let it cloud my social interactions in the future, and although I no longer wear a rucksack and a mid-length coat to defend myself from other people, I still feel like I need to don armour every time I walk out of the house.