For ten years I felt shy, awkward, anxious and unlike myself around people. After spending four years on lots of exposure and classic self-help but seeing poor results, I was ultimately able to cure my anxiety by learning Vipassana meditation. Now I can socialize easily, it feels natural and good to express myself, at the basic level I am much more comfortable in my skin. All thanks to changes I made to my subconscious mind.
Because my story is dramatic, and because I never expected to recover from social anxiety, I know how it might seem from the outside. Like bullshit because:
When someone first suggested Vipassana to me, I dismissed it as a waste of time. Only after coming to the end of the road and finding nothing else would work did I consider trying it. As a last resort I signed up for a ten day course. I only wish I would have sooner. A deeper solution was sitting under my nose the whole time.
The purpose of this post is to encourage others with social anxiety to try looking into the practice that had a profound positive impact on my life. This is the post I wish I had read starting out.
What follows is the story of my struggle with social anxiety, and how I ultimately broke free of it.
I am an introvert and a highly sensitive person. I get energy from being alone, and I seem to be deeply impacted by the environment and my surroundings. That is, my brain seems to process sensory information and stimuli more intensively - especially the emotions and facial expressions of others.
While my sensitive nature made me more shy growing up - there was nothing yet to suggest the catastrophe of my teenage years. Early on I wasn't completely in a shell. More quiet and reserved than other kids. But soon enough I came out and warmed up. Made friends and felt comfortable.
Around age thirteen, that's when I noticed new feelings start to creep in. Inexplicably it began to feel harder around people - even my own family. It’s almost like my personality started to shrink. And as it shrunk, the walls started forming and I started feeling increasingly unsure.
At sixteen, it got worse when my parents required I become an adult and get my first job. It was hard, working as a busser cleaning tables, being around so many people. Like going into battle. Levels of tension and stress I'd never felt before. Lost from myself and looking for a way back.
Only a way back was never found. And by age twenty it showed. While all my peers were developing fine, I was becoming further deformed. And the worst part? I didn't know why. Everyone else seemed to socialize and get along easily. Not me. I was an alien. Existing in a world I didn't belong.
The message should’ve sunk in but it hadn't. Only in my last year of college, twenty three years old, did it hit me. Socially inept, sheltered, single and relationship-less, still living at home. If nothing changed? I was fucked. Time would only make it worse and there'd be no stopping it.
In the next section, I chronicle my four year journey trying to escape social anxiety before hitting on the meditation technique that started my deeper recovery.
I followed a weightlifting program called Starting Strength at my local YMCA three times a week, on the premise that “confidence starts in the gym”. Although getting into shape raised self-esteem and helped me feel more secure in my appearance, unfortunately it didn’t go much deeper than skin. Long after transforming my skinny physique I still felt anxious. By lifting I was able to mask some of my insecurity. Make it seem like I was this strong and imposing person. But mostly it was smoke and mirrors. Being around people still rattled me.
I called my old job bussing tables and asked if I could return, but this time as a server. As much as I resisted it I knew ultimately there was one way out. Through. That's what everyone online said. "The only way to overcome it is to take action. Talk to those people. Get out more. Meet others and socialize." So what better way than a customer service job that required it?
Facing the fear was like stepping into a fire. In the beginning it burned, badly. But through the repeated exposure I slowly got used to it. Through the flames I started to form callouses. And after a few months it wasn't as severe. I could stand in front of people without feeling blasted like a furnace. I could keep my shit together without melting down.
But helpful as that was, being able to do my job and function? I still found it hard. Even after serving tables two years, taking care of thousands of customers, I still dreaded talking to people. On the surface it was less visible. I could hide my anxiety and suppress my true feelings behind a “confident mask”. But underneath? I still felt fragile. Like the collapse of my world was close at hand.
I focused on retraining my brain to be more positive and less pessimistic. I made sure to get adequate sleep every night. I changed my diet and ate clean foods. I meditated every morning and tried to stop my thoughts and be present to the moment. At the first hint of any negative thought arising - for example, an anxious thought about a future social event - I immediately tried to spin it in a positive light. When I made embarrassing social mistakes I practiced self-compassion and telling myself it’s human to mess up.
To be sure, it lifted my spirits. It created a sense of empowerment inside me. But in the end it was like building a house on shifting sand. Though it sheltered from the elements, protected from the rain and sun, it didn't provide a true sense of peace. Think positively as I wanted I couldn't shake that uneasy feeling around people, the sense something wasn't right. Somewhere close to the core I still felt weak, deeply inadequate. And no amount of thinking optimistically could change that.
I moved out of my parent's house after graduating college. I signed a lease for one year and went into it with high expectations. I had believed that a lot of my problems stemmed from living at home and being stuck in the nest. Meaning if I could get out on my own and establish myself, then maybe I would grow up and get past my fears. Maybe I would take flight and start to finally live my life.
One year later - my wings still felt clipped. Moving out had forced my senses to grow a little sharper... but basically I had just dropped down a branch and created another nest for myself. I was still living a sheltered lifestyle and not making friends or talking to girls. So with my lease ending? I decided to take a much bigger leap - pack my car and move cities, create circumstances that would give me no choice but to change.
And maybe that would be the beginning to something better...
Over the course of that next year? I did feel like I grew a lot. Living alone in a new city and learning how to navigate everything on my own, though immensely scary, it expanded my comfort zone and helped me to feel more capable of operating in the world and getting around in life.
But after yet another year of taking on even greater challenges? I still felt like I had failed at my essential purpose. I was now twenty six, and I still felt so far behind compared to my peers and to where, ultimately, I should be in life. This whole time I’d failed to take any real steps towards intimacy and building relationships; fear had caused me to stay mostly in my own bubble, a recluse wherein my final months I barely spoke to anyone and was counting down the days until I could escape this bleak and lonely situation.
After that year on my own in a new city - I tucked tail and moved back in with my parents for a time. I got my old job waiting tables again. And I started to contemplate and seriously consider what it was going to take to break out of this cage and live my life.
And then not long later, it happened.
A painful event. A girl at my workplace who I really thought I was going to take that step with. It’s crazy. But that’s what I really believed. That fate had brought us together. And unlike all the other times in my life I now felt as ready as I'd ever be for it. A relationship. Almost twenty seven. Working hard on my social anxiety and personal growth for the last three and a half years. And chemistry between us that was a complete no-brainer.
Fucking up an opportunity like this would be unforgivable.
Some lines you cross and you can't go back. And this was one of them. As it played out again, as I stood on the sidelines and watched it happen, it was a feeling of devastation I couldn't put into words. I honestly couldn't believe myself. A girl who truly felt like my other half. And even with that intense desire I still defaulted just like every other time to paralysis and avoidance: I couldn't ask her out.
How utterly pathetic was I?
I couldn't in good conscience go on anymore like this.
Something had to change. This life I was living? Something had to give. So to redeem myself I traveled from the USA to Europe on a one-way ticket and told myself I wouldn't be coming back. Not until this shit was handled. Not until I had learned to talk to girls. Not until I had gotten past these fears and hang-ups and finally become a fucking man.
I only wish it could have gone like I saw it going in my head. Me becoming this confident and carefree person when it came to women, to people, and to just being able to live my life. Fear to courage. Stepping into my potential. Starting down my true path, coming full circle and making amends for all the mistakes I'd made in life.
But sadly reality had a different idea for how my time in Europe would go. Barely talking to any girls in the first few months and staving off suicidal thoughts. Eventually signing up for an expensive dating bootcamp as I found I couldn’t do it on my own. Making some progress - talking to girls and going on my first ever dates - seeing a ray of hope through the clouds. But within a mere month of being back on my own? Slowly slipping back into the same stagnation…
Difficult just to leave my apartment every day because it was so hard to motivate myself to talk to girls, people, anyone.
At this point in life I had reached a place where I could functionally manage with my anxiety. I could get along better in daily life. But I still wasn't able to live authentically and how I wanted. I was still avoiding fundamental things like intimacy. I was still wearing a mask and had to put on this "nice face" around people to cover up the fear I felt inside.
I had gone on dates with girls in Europe - but they hadn't gone anywhere. During the date I was frozen. I felt so restricted in my personality, cut off from my feelings. I didn't know how to act. And it felt like more repetition would only reinforce the problems I was having. I had tried for six months and talked to a lot of girls but I was still fundamentally closed off and couldn't go any deeper. All my dealings with women felt shallow and superficial, pointless.
I was close to giving up and committing suicide when I remembered something one of my dating coaches had told me. Vipassana and how it had greatly helped him in his personal life. When he first recommended it I had put it off and didn't really think it was a good use of my time. But now I was desperate enough to try.
It was like my first taste of sunlight after being chained in a dark cell for decades. One week of bringing focused awareness into my body, and it was like I finally started to thaw. All the tension and stress of a lifetime that had "built up" inside me, that had "calcified" and "accumulated" in my body - it began to melt. And immediately I noticed how much easier it was to be around people.
Most notably how easy it was to make eye contact. Before? It had always been hard. I could hold eye contact - but it wasn't comfortable. Now though? It was as if looking into another’s eye was warm and welcome. No more intense stirring in my body. WOW. This is what life was supposed to be like. Human for the first time.
And in that moment I knew I had finally hit on it. After all these years of trying so hard to overcome social anxiety - I had finally found the solution.
The way out.
There was still a long way to go. I learned that in the following weeks as I returned to more normal living. Not even close to being completely cured. But within two years and two more ten day Vipassana retreats of continuing to bring awareness inside, work on my issues? I was able to heal and resolve a great chunk of my problem.
I realize this sounds ridiculous. How could "awareness" fix my social anxiety? It would take another article to unpack, but I'll keep it short by saying that awareness was the solution because it allowed a lot of stuff I was carrying around on the inside to surface, where I could then begin to release and let go of it. I learned that, inside of me, there had amassed this pile of, for lack of a better word, crap.
Living in me and taking on a life of its own, this "deeper level" is where a lot of my problem was stemming from. The reason I felt so anxious and insecure? is because of this deeper layer of contracted and fearful energy that had taken up residence inside me. The slow accumulation of many painful experiences - it had essentially shaped me into this closed off and very rigid personality. Easily triggered and set off.
Imagine a rock formation by the ocean. The waves crashing and beating into it on a continual basis. Erosion. That's essentially what the "waves of life" had done to me. They had altered and had a very profound effect on the very stuff I was made of. Shaping me smaller and making me fundamentally afraid of life. Incapable of handling the intensity and pressure of certain situations, people.
And through the act of "simple awareness" I was able to begin to slowly reshape myself back into form. I was able to emotionally process and digest a lot of the issues underneath that were driving and causing me to feel socially anxious and emotionally incapable of dating and getting into relationships.
It wasn’t easy.
That first Vipassana retreat was the hardest thing in life I ever did. Think of it like you are performing "emotional surgery" on yourself. Dealing with everything you carry inside is serious. Facing your deep-seated fears is extremely difficult.
And that's why I don't recommend it for every socially anxious person. It takes a very serious person, someone who actually wants to address and get to the bottom of his issues. And more than that, it requires a lot of preparation before going into a Vipassana retreat. You need to get your mind right if you're to get anything out of it and actually complete a ten day course.
There is not enough space to say everything here about Vipassana and how I applied it to my life, the steps I took to prepare for it and get myself ready to go on a retreat. My only purpose is to share my experience and what greatly helped me to finally overcome my long fight with social anxiety. Think for yourself. Figure out if something like Vipassana is for you.
I am not a psychiatrist or doctor. I'm not advocating that anyone do what I did. I'm only putting this out there because of the tremendous success that it brought my life. Maybe your situation is different than mine, and you need treatment and professional help.
That said, if you've been battling with social anxiety for a long time, you might consider being open to other options than the usual advice for social anxiety that, in my estimation, will only get you so far.
I tried conventional tactics for treating my social anxiety with limited success. Once I uncovered the root cause I was able to see a much greater change. Today my life is completely different.
There's a lot more to talk about - which I will certainly do in upcoming posts. If you're interested in learning more about the process of overcoming social anxiety, then sign up and get notified by email for future posts in this series.