Social Anxiety & Community: To “Fit in” vs. “Belong” in a Temporary Home

Yep I said it- social anxiety. I am not using this word lightly, nor do I want to undermine the experiences of anyone who has/had the disorder. Rather, I would like to ask you to read this in the lens of me being vulnerable in sharing my own personal story with the intent to make space for more honest conversations about mental illness and the stigmas surrounding it.

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In our day and people-pleasing culture, we spend a tremendous amount of energy  to try to”fit in”-to be sociable, interesting, likable, and relatable. Perhaps you are extra blessed and could care less about what people think of you (not trying to act “idgaf”, but actually dgaf), excel naturally at socializing, feel confident wherever you go with whoever you meet, and find complete peace and happiness in who you are. Shoot, the old me would have loved to be you instead (okay…maybe even now). Regardless of if you’re another victim to people-pleasing like me or if this is not a general concern for you, it is innately engraved in our human heart and mind to harbor the desire to be accepted by others (“fit in”) and have a place to feel belonging. Somehow, these two desires got skewed and synonymous to one another, when in fact they are quite the opposite.

At this moment, I can call myself a very “social” person and most people would agree with me. I am naturally very relational, strongly value close relationships I can deeply connect with, and have decent interpersonal skills.

Okay, get to the point- So why is someone like you, then, talking about this particular subject matter?

Let’s take a short *ahem*  trip down memory lane.

Growing up, I was a confident, vocal, adventurous, creative, and fearless child. You think I’m sassy now? Well, you should’ve met little Angie. That was true for 8 years of my life until I permanently moved to a new, strange country that is the US of A. Overnight, everything I had gotten accustomed to have shifted: how people interacted, the language and communication style, shows I used to watch (no more “Digimon” or “Dragon Ball Z” dubbed in Korean), types of food available, my family/home environment, the 2 mile path I walked everyday from elementary school to my grandparent’s apartment…

Slowly but surely, I started to not recognize myself. Little Angie learned the hard way that her voice was not easily heard and that home was not a safe or nurturing environment anymore. She suppressed her disappointments, fears, and bitterness and spent her days becoming accustomed to comfortable solitary outlets like drawing, playing games, getting lost in the world of books, obsessing over K-pop, and writing poems. She was actually pretty happy thriving in her own mind and exploring those things, yet not nearly content or complete.

Suppression sunk deeper in elementary to middle school through friend drama-llama and bullying. I had constant ridicule from boys who compared me to other girls my age for my physical appearance and body; some even sexually harassed me. The girls my age talked about things I didn’t want to talk about or knew much of, and didn’t like the same hobbies. Still, I quickly picked up that the best way to still keep people around without being left on the curb was to try to fit in by staying quiet and following whatever other people did. I was labeled as the quiet, nerdy, and shy one of the groups of friends I’d hang out with, and I remember that irked me a lot inside. There was so much more to me than what people saw, and I thought that even my close friends did not really understand my heart language. I had so much to say, so much on my mind. I usually felt misunderstood, mislabeled, unheard, or unseen. I didn’t want to be quiet all the time, I was just scared and anxious of expressing externally what was really going on internally. I became increasingly unsatisfied, and there began the journey of attempting at proving others wrong.

During this time, my family was breaking apart and in constant turmoil. Experiences with peers and trauma from home inevitably led to the development of social anxiety. For instance, if any of my best friends tried coming into my house just to say hi, my brother and I would profusely block the door and not let them in. If there was a foreign knock on the door, I turned off all the lights and crawled under a table to hide and cry.

Fast forward a few years. I became more outgoing, friendly, funny, and “normal”. I had figured out how to fit in pretty well after years of trial and error.

But we all know where this is heading- I was quickly burning out and remained unsatisfied. I had too many masks on trying to fit in with different types of groups and feel liked by everyone. That was the goal, essentially. This fear of being made fun of, outcasted, or left alone drove me to become the best people-pleaser I could be, at the cost of losing a sense of who I was and overdosing on tremendous anxiety. While I started to make plenty of friends and attended numerous social outings at school, clubs, or church, I always felt so exhausted and more alone.

On the outside I was fine- laughing along and smiling at the right cues. Meanwhile, my internal realm of slides and loops would be running 100 different scenarios of how an encounter could become unbearably awkward and calculating how I could fill in uncomfortable silence, prevent embarrassing scenarios, or compensate for others’ awkwardness. All my energy went into trying to gauge how the other person was perceiving me, to replay my actions or words, and to predict the possible turns of a conversation or situation in order to be ready to interact appropriately. I overanalyzed how people may view my words, image, personality, and actions to the point of letting anxiety eventually consume me.

Basically, I started to avoid certain interactions or settings due to social anxiety and stress. I also assumed people will think the worst of me or leave me if I’m not interesting or useful enough. If people discovered that I was not my ideal instagram/facebook version self, or that I was a boring, insecure, emotionally unstable, depressing, selfish, skeptical worry-wart instead of a bubbly, careless, outgoing, funny and a happy jolly-fish, why would they want to be my friend?

These whispers of lies from the enemy became shouting voices that dictated my life and sense of worth, even as I entered into college. Having developed severe depression and other clinically labeled terms in my frosh year (maybe more details on this another time since we are focusing on a different perspective, but I mentioned them as these struggles are not mutually exclusive), I chose isolation and pushed people away (literally or in the most subtle way) throughout my soph year. I hid from God and people, finding relief in self harming habits, obsessive exercising, perfectionist pursuits at academic success. As my mentor Sarah Groot told me in this time, “Angela.. You feel so torn because you’re living two different lives.” I thought if I stayed in darkness, it will be easier. Nobody to try to fit in with, nobody to feel sorry for me, nobody to judge me or talk behind my back, nobody to try to fix my pain or pretend to love me.

I learned to fit in, but did not feel at peace. I fit in, but did not feel like I belong. I fit in, but felt so alone.

I’m relieved to tell you that what I thought was indeed wrong (surprise, surprise)!

How did I overcome these things? Well, to be real, I can’t say parts of it aren’t still there to haunt me but I can say that they no longer hold power over me. It took a long time to get to this place and be able to say that, but it did require action. Many times in the bible, Jesus heals people  and brings them to a wholesome restoration (emotionally, socially, physically) in conjunction with a call to action in obedience. In these past few years, Jesus called me into letting go of my secret destructive habits, identity in anxiety and depression, and past experiences through seeking God in prayer, forgiveness, and becoming vulnerable to community. At the same time, Jesus was calling me into partnership in His mission on campus as a person of influence to my peers and making space for people to learn the word of God through leadership in IVCF at CSULB.

THOSE CALLINGS (…initially) made NO FRIGGIN SENSE TO ME!!

Did God pick the wrong person?! Why was someone with all of my messed up problems being called into this? There HAD to have been a MISTAKE??? Someone else can do it better or have more time, so I don’t need to right? I have more important stuff to get done…. Gosh I hate outreach or talking to strangers… This calls for so many awkward times!! I never saw myself as a leader??  My struggles are my own business, nobody needs to know how terrible I am- people don’t really care or can make a difference so what’s the point? What will people think of me, a crazy Jesus freak??? I didn’t grow up in church how am I supposed to teach the bible?! UGHHH………… #sampletrainofthought 

Those “callings” are for everyone, by the way. You don’t need to muster up super saiyan holiness or level 100 prayer to see what God is calling you into. It’s simple- He calls all to repent, believe, and for those who follow Him to “make disciples of all nations”(Matthew 28:19); to love God and love people alongside the body of Christ. Where and how is what differs in the calling.

Through all of my stubbornness, failures, whining, crying, unbelief, and hopelessness, the Holy Spirit gently and fiercely pursued me with unconditional love and grace. He also provided me with the right (not perfect) community of brothers and sisters Christ to serve on the same mission, mourn and rejoice with me, and encourage or speak truth into my life. There are friends who saw me in my worst and helped me seek Jesus for love and healing, fighting with me when I had no strength to stand alone. After years of doubting that genuine, life giving, Christ centered friendships were possible, I experience joy and life in community today because I don’t have to pretend, fake, filter, or try to feel accepted. It’s not roses and daisies all the time; they come with their baggage, I come with mine. We don’t hold grudges over one another, give grace in differences, practice patience, and invite confrontation of conflict and tense moments in order to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. These people wanted to stay and love me, even when I was being poop or had nothing to offer back. Sounds a lot like His love for us, no? In all of this, my definition of community and the way I saw friendship drastically changed.

Jesus healed me in my brokenness of wanting to “fit in” through this type of relentless, transparent community.

There was immense joy and healing in leadership as well. I found more of who God made me to be through leaning on Him in trying to love those who were not like me, taking risks, and doing things I felt super uncomfortable with. The reward in following Jesus into this calling of leadership and deeper intimacy was (is and will be) so,so much greater than the cost.

Going back to social anxiety: I guess now, I welcome awkward encounters and am unafraid of saying what’s on my mind. I am confident in who I am because I recognize where I truly belong.

What Jesus has been comforting me with on my journey is the fact that we are not made for here. As a follower of Jesus, planet earth is not where I belong. It’s actually a good thing  I don’t fit in or feel content here, because I’m not supposed to!  This is only temporary and there is a real home prepared for me (and you) in a world I won’t feel excluded, fearful, or lacking. That doesn’t mean I get to be excused from seeking to see glimpses of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven, but it does mean I can be relieved and be at peace in knowing where I truly belong- One day at the feet of God’s throne, worshipping in unison with the family of Christ and giving glory to my Father in Heaven for all of eternity.

As it says in 1 Corinthians 4:15-18,

All this is for your sake so that, as God’s kindness overflows in the lives of many people, it will produce even more thanksgiving to the glory of God. That is why we are not discouraged. Though outwardly we are wearing out, inwardly we are renewed day by day. Our suffering is light and temporary and is producing for us an eternal glory that is greater than anything we can imagine. We don’t look for things that can be seen but for things that can’t be seen. Things that can be seen are only temporary. But things that can’t be seen last forever.

On a closing thought, I will leave you with one of my favorite excerpts from the book “Mere Christianity” by writer and theologian C.S Lewis-

The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.

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