When I was in the eighth grade, I didn’t love myself.
That would have been a perfectly natural attitude for a teenage girl going through puberty and trying to figure out her life if it hadn’t stuck around in the ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade, right up until about my sophomore year of college.
I loved the things that I did. I loved that I was involved in so many things in high school, that I managed to stay on the National Honor Society consistently and competed at the state level as the English Sterling Scholar at my school. I loved how it felt to get a perfect score on the reading portion of the ACT and a five on the AP English exam. I loved that I was smart and accomplished, that I could do hard things.
But I didn’t love me, because I could never seem to beat the one thing that was hardest of all: my social anxiety.
Before I had any idea what social anxiety was, I was put into a speech therapy class because I was too shy. When teachers called on me in class, I would panic. When I had to do group work, I would clam up, too nervous to contribute anything.
I’m sure my parents were told that it was just a phase I was going through, that I’d adjust eventually. I’m sure they stopped believing that when year after year after year, my teachers would say to them, “Your girl is really smart, but I worry about how quiet she is,” when, come junior high, I was spending nights in my room crying into my pillow, scribbling things in my journal like, “My mom says to be more outgoing, but I don’t know how” (2007) or “I hope I can become braver” (2009).
It was somewhere around that time period when I caught on to the idea that there was something seriously really wrong with me. I liked being home better than being at school. When I had to give class presentations, I felt sick enough to pass out and legitimately wished I could die instead. Making friends in the Young Women’s and at school was a real struggle for me, because I could not get myself out of my shell for long, no matter how hard I tried. Liking boys that I would never talk to and who didn’t even know I existed became a normal occurrence.
Then, in high school, it got bad enough to interfere with my friendships. It culminated with friends, the ones it had taken me so long to make, telling me that nobody liked me and that I would never get over all of the things they hated about me, all of which were related to my anxieties.
That’s when I chose to hate myself, to believe I was broken.
I thought that was confirmed to me when, two years into college, my anxieties about getting close to other people cost me three relationships. One that I wasn’t ready for, two that I wanted to work out so badly that it just about destroyed me. On the eve of the death of the last of these relationships, I was told that my shyness was a problem and that I was essentially better in writing than I was in real life.
At a pivotal moment, when my writing was just about the only thing I had, I went home and just about gave up on it. I was weak and I was broken. I was hurting. I would open up my scriptures and read Ether 12 over and over and over again, trace my fingers over the words:
“And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing…thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words.”
I felt like the Lord was mocking me. I would read that and I would cry to Heavenly Father, demanding to know why I couldn’t have been blessed with powerful speaking and mighty words instead of my lousy writing. I was so angry at Him. These men, who wanted badly to write as well as they spoke, had been given a gift that I had never had in my entire life. Why couldn’t they be grateful for it? I would trade everything to be able to be as comfortable speaking in front of people as they were, yes, even my writing. I never wanted to write a single thing again.
Social anxiety, shyness, introversion, whatever you want to call it…it was a curse to me. A weakness that I couldn’t get over. I was mad at myself, and I was mad at God for making me this way. This stupid, messed up, broken way.
Then something changed.
Somewhere along the way, at my lowest point, I decided that I liked writing, that I couldn’t just give it up because I was bad at speaking with people or dating. So I kept writing and I kept trying to be a better speaker, to forget about my insecurities. For the first time in my life, I admitted to myself that I really sucked at being in social situations and that that was okay. I pulled myself to my feet one inch at a time, brushed myself off, and chose to move forward. And something amazing happened.
The scripture I had failed to see that dark November after being sorta dumped was a mere two verses beneath the ones I had been fixated on:
“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
What I had not recognized is that my writing, the one thing I love doing more than anything in this whole world, would not be a strength today if my social anxiety hadn’t been such a weakness to me yesterday. Because I was shy as a kid, I read a lot of books. Before my eighth birthday, my grandpa gave me a journal, and it only made sense to me to document my adventures like the adventures I read about in Harry Potter and Eragon. So I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Every moment I spent in my journals as a kid, even if it was spent in self-pity and despair, I was honing a strength. When I felt alone, I wrote. When I felt insecure, I wrote. When I hated those things about me that I couldn’t seem to overcome, I wrote.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that I would be happy writing for the rest of my life. So that’s what I do. I write, I blog, I craft, I create. And all because I had a weakness.
Do I believe that God only turns weaknesses into different strengths, though? Absolutely not.
It wasn’t until I admitted to myself that I sucked in social situations that I actually got kind of okay at them. And the great thing about Heavenly Father is that He is endlessly giving me opportunities to overcome my social anxiety. There are the big ways, such as being a student leader in the Institute last year, and there are the little ways, such as being acutely aware when someone in a room is feeling left out or in need of a friend or overwhelmed by the crowd.
Because I have felt alone and scared and misunderstood, I am better able to reach out to those who are alone and scared and misunderstood. Because I have been the weird kid with no friends, it’s easier for me to befriend the weird kids with no friends. That is a gift I never recognized until I learned to be grateful for who I am and who I can be.
So, sure. I’m bad in certain social situations. Singing karaoke and being proposed to at a ballgame on a big screen are still two of my worst nightmares. I get really antsy when I feel like commenting in Sunday School. I sometimes pep talk myself on my way to parties and events to convince myself that I can talk to people and it will be fine. My legs shake so badly when I speak in church that it’s a wonder no one hears them. And I couldn’t tell you how many times I have escaped to the bathroom to breathe after being in a crowded room for so long.
But because I have social anxiety, I get to face my fears every single day. Because I have social anxiety, I am a writer and I am good at writing. Because I have social anxiety, I have empathy.
And that’s why my social anxiety, for as annoying and inconvenient and inconsistent as it can be, is my greatest blessing. And maybe, when I think about it, my greatest strength.