Dipped in Fire: Social Anxiety in the Workplace

I work as a proposal manager at a real estate project management firm, and as part of my job I am expected to go out and mingle with potential clients and perform debriefs when the proposals we submit fail. No big deal, except that I struggle to master the art of human interaction. It’s so tempting to just say: “no thanks” and sit safely behind my computer screen, typing away at something that really isn’t that important.

Some people are more afraid of public speaking than of death itself. I’m not there yet, but it’s definitely not an activity I seek out. Send me a written inquiry and I will submit a lengthy email reply. I’ll even enjoy it. I like the distance between me and the inquirer, the atemporality of the act. I can put my response aside for a day or two if I really need to; a 24 hour delay is OK.

But in person, just me facing another person? Where is the armour to protect me? Too much stimulus, too many opportunities for humiliation. What if I say something so completely, totally wrong that the other person never wants to do business with me, us ever again? Bearing the weight of such failure upon my scrawny shoulders just seems like too much of a risk.

Ah, risk.

Really, the opportunity for total and utter failure is small. On Thursday, for example, I will attend a seminar on social media tools and how businesses can leverage them to increase connection with clients. Let’s say the worst thing happens and people discover that I’m weird. So what? It’s one morning on one day in the year 2013. Give it a week or two and who will even remember that I was there? Who will care?

Maybe what really terrifies me is that I won’t be seen at all. It’s a fear I’ve carried with me from a young age. Growing up in a household where my (surprisingly functional) invalid of a father was constantly on the brink of death, the messages I received from my mother was that I’d better behave, because else I will upset my father and if I upset my father too much he might die on the spot. Who wants to be held responsible for the death of their parent? I learned to keep my thoughts, my actions to myself, mostly. I figured, the less I rocked the boat, the less chance there was for me to do my father in. I chose to make myself invisible. And, for the most part, I succeeded.

Turns out I needn’t have bothered. When, at 25, I was already well on my way to becoming the man I felt myself to be, I thought I could keep it secret from my father – we lived on different continents after all. He and my mother owned a home in a suburb in Pretoria, South Africa, and I was making a go of it in kinder, gentler Canada. Phone calls were awkward, however. We didn’t speak often, but when we did, my father would comment on the deepening of my voice; he would ask if I had a cold and, not knowing how to speak the truth, I said “yes” I was sick and we left it at that. I knew I couldn’t hide my secret from him forever, but one more day would be OK…

When he died, a year later, I was devastated. My attempts to hide my true self had only worsened our already complicated relationship. He died heartbroken, not accepting me as the man I felt myself to be. My mother blamed me for killing his spirit. At least at the end he said he loved me no matter what. I cling to that.

As a trans man, I had to quickly learn the social cues of masculinity by sheer observation. Early on, I tried my best just to fit in, just not to draw attention to myself. Blending in means staying safe, and I was terrified of ending up like Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry.

It’s been almost 10 years since I started my journey to manhood and I have to say, the self-erasing gig may have kept me safe, but it has done little to help my social skills. What I want is to make my voice heard, to speak up and make things happen. Instead, I am a social stutterer, awkward and invisible. Really, what do I have to fear? The worst has already happened; my father is already dead. And, though I didn’t cause his cancer, I broke his heart.

It can only get better from here.

Knowing that, I will go this Thursday, despite my fear. I will step out of my comfort zone and accept that stepping out of it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am also automatically stepping out of the safety zone. Safety, as Seth Godin writes in The Icarus Deception is overrated, a relic of the industrial economy. In the connection economy, the one we are currently living in, standing out and standing up is what’s valued more.

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