As an anxious introvert, I have been wearing many layers of social armor ever since I can remember. The biggest positive to come out of my TV panic attack and my subsequent writings on my anxiety experiences has been the space this has opened for me to finally take that social armor off. However, wearing the armor has exacted a heavy emotional and physical toll.
I have dealt with anxiety my whole life. My baseline psychological state is a heightened level of situational awareness, a couple of rungs below fight-or-flight but well above what would be considered normal. I have always felt uneasy in social situations because I am intensely tuned in to everything going on around me and I process that sensory information within the rich high-resolution inner world of an introvert.
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When I was younger, I unconsciously developed a set of behaviors and traits—social armor—which helped me cope with my anxiety. My social armor materialized as an attempt to reclaim some sense of agency in situations in which I felt powerless. These coping mechanisms were never particularly effective but represented my unconscious mind’s best attempt at reclaiming power in the moment.
The armor stays on, however, long after the stressful situation is gone.
In this article, I will empty my emotional wardrobe of all its different suits of armor, reflecting on why they might have evolved as coping mechanisms for my anxiety and depression. I’ll conclude by looking back on my long process of self-discovery which led me to be honest with myself.
Using Humor as a Defense
The social armor I have developed over the years is fortified with quick humor. There are moments when I am genuinely funny. But, when I’m hiding behind humor, it can lead to superficial conversations and stupid comments that often don’t do justice to my depth of thought.
I suspect I first developed humor as social armor as a means of deflecting bullying when I was in primary school. As a highly sensitive kid not prone to physical aggression, returning verbal fire was my version of taking a swing at the person picking on me. Alternatively, I would use humor in an attempt to laugh off taunts which in reality were cutting me deeply inside. As an adult, I have deployed humor to deflect attention in situations in which I am feeling deeply anxious and uncomfortable.
In the Machiavellian teenage world of Mount Gambier in the mid-1990s, firing back at verbal abuse from others with insults of my own was like a quick sugar-hit that satiated my immediate need to reclaim some dignity. But like a quick sugar-hit, the effect wore off quickly and left me in a worse position.
For example, when I was in high school, there was one guy who teased me mercilessly about my big ears. My attempts to stick it to him ended up with me getting punched and humiliated in front of a large group of peers. The verbal abuse continued, I was publicly humiliated, I felt even more isolated and ashamed, my anxiety was exacerbated, and I slid into ongoing depression. No one who may have been in a position to help knew about my plight because I never asked for help.
In hindsight, I could have responded to his verbal abuse with an assertive but non-confrontational comment like, “What are you trying to achieve here?” Also, I should have asked for help from friends, family, and teachers. I have come to see that the best way to recover power and dignity in a dehumanizing situation is to ask for help (and at times that has been a very difficult bridge to cross). Trying to cope alone has never been a winning strategy.
Alcohol Dulled My Anxiety
When I was eleven years old, I made a conscious decision to get into trouble more at school as a means of becoming more popular. I had discovered prior to this decision that demonstrating intelligence and being nice was not an effective pathway to social acceptance. Instead, I chose the attention-seeking tactic of attempting to be the badass. Initially it worked.
Social approval was like crack for my vulnerable teenage mind, particularly when alcohol became part of the mix in my mid-teens. Even the smartest of young males are not particularly bright when in groups and they become even less so after drinking. We do all kinds of stupid crap when drunk to impress others—stuff we’d never do as sober individuals. That is the power of the need for social acceptance.
I remember the first time I got drunk. I remember the intoxicating feeling of being part of the group as we bonded through the process of engaging in something elicit and clandestine. It felt like I was being accepted into some secret society! The only reason young blokes drink when they are fifteen is for social acceptance. After all, alcohol at that age tends to taste like Chewbacca’s back sweat so I certainly wasn’t in it for the palette.
By the time I got to university a few years later, I was thoroughly committed to wearing attention-seeking + alcohol as my social armor of choice. Living on campus, I engaged in such self-destruction masquerading as social bonding as the Bachelor of Applied Drinking (24 pots in three hours of pub crawl around North Adelaide) and the Bachelor of Applied Eating (consuming the entire McDonalds menu in three hours, with some assistance from the gunja god), day-long sessions playing Golden Eye and Mario Kart on Nintendo 64 with the boys (and the aforementioned gunja god), among other things.
Just one problem: by the end of a year courting popularity by proving how hardcore I was, I had completely failed my first year of university, acquired a beer belly that has been with me ever since, and carved a yawning gap in my soul which should have been nourished by my authentic self and meaningful relationships. That year prompted an existential crisis within me that took the next fifteen years to disentangle and spiraled me into further bouts of depression.
It’s clear to see why alcohol was so seductive for me in my late-teens. Being drunk dulled my introversion and anxiety symptoms, opening a window for me to step outside of my comfort zone and connect with other people. This is also what led me to experiment with ecstasy at raves. Unlike alcohol, which is a depressant drug, ecstasy is a stimulant that promoted feelings of euphoria and overwhelming empathy with other people, along with the ability to engage in the kinetic release of dancing all night to hard music.
Of course the high is only a temporary experience that could not make me feel better all the time. One night of partying on the weekend would conclude with several days of comedown and recovery, building up to reaching for the high again the following weekend. This quest for connection and release turned into a weekly treadmill that impacted other important aspects of my life as I wasted days of productive time physically and emotionally cooked recovering from the last party. What started out as a liberating experience ended up as pure self-indulgence and self-destruction, again leading to the very exacerbation of my anxiety and onset of depression that I was attempting to escape.
As an anxiety palliative, alcohol and ecstasy proved (inevitably) to be dead ends. My challenge since kicking the party scene to the curb has been to find that same connection and release in the everyday, rather than periodically reach for temporary escapism in the confected environment of the party scene.
Being ‘the Helper’ Gives Me Control
I like helping other people. It is why I am an academic and why I am involved in community work. It is why I blog about my anxiety and depression. However, I have discovered a pattern in my behavior in which I have always attempted, unconsciously, to place myself in the position of the helper. On one hand, making myself useful would appear to be a social acceptance strategy. On the other, being “the helper” may really be about being in control.
Asking for help involves a degree of vulnerability that I have always found deeply uncomfortable because of my anxiety and introversion, and therefore I have tried to avoid being in that vulnerable position by cultivating expertise and self-reliance. This self-reliance and the associated ability to get things done is one of my anxiety superpowers, without which I would not have achieved many of my life successes. However, as I explained above, not asking for help when you really need it is exceedingly stupid.
When I am “the helper” in a relationship it means I have a degree of control over the situation that reduces the potency of my anxiety. This in itself is not a bad thing. What turns this tendency sour is when it morphs into an omnipotence fantasy in which I believe that I can fix any and all problems I encounter, both for myself and for others. This can lead to burnout as I take on too many responsibilities and sometimes even end up in toxic co-dependent relationships with other needy people. It can also lead to anger and despair when my unrealistic expectations of other people and my own abilities collide with reality. Each of these outcomes inevitably pours fuel on the fire of my anxiety and depression as their inevitable end point.
To nourish my love of helping people in a positive manner, I need to be conscious of my strengths and limitations, be realistic about what I can offer in a given situation, and make considered choices about who to devote my attention to. After all, you cannot help anyone if you grind yourself into the ground.
Looking in the Mirror Without Flinching
These elements of my wardrobe of social armor evolved unconsciously. It is only now with the benefit of hindsight and introspection that I can reflect on their shortcomings and develop more effective ways of managing my anxiety.
Coming to understand the nature of my social armor has been a long process. It began by making a lot of life mistakes (a couple of which are mentioned above) and starting to listen to the nagging feeling that no matter how hard I tried, something in my life was not right. It came from the ill-defined shame of doing something stupid or interacting with others in an inauthentic way. When that nagging feeling became depression, it was clear that something was deeply wrong. Figuring out what that was would become the obsession of my last two decades.
My first attempts at figuring this out began with poetry. Those writings evolved into rap lyrics when I was an undergrad. In my early twenties I discovered meditation and made great strides. At this stage, I also traveled overseas to South Korea, during which time (and every trip since) I kept a journal in which I record my thoughts, feeling, and experiences; this helped me evaluate my life and come to important realizations.
Nonetheless, no amount of self-reflection was ever enough to address my periodic bouts of depression. I needed professional help. One of the positive aspects of the university environment is the availability of counseling services, which I made use of for the first time during my PhD candidature. Since that time, I have worked with a number of psychologists and counselors, each of whom has helped me progressively peel back my layers of social armor. I would still be painfully lost, writing rap lyrics angry with misdirected disenchantment, had I not mustered the courage to seek counseling. It is the most important thing I have ever done.
Today I try to learn about myself through observing others. Interacting with the wonderful young adults I teach at university is like having my past reflected back at me in the present, for all the good and bad that it represents. I am also immensely privileged to work with many wonderful colleagues who are emotionally switched on, willing to talk about mental health issues and most importantly, demonstrably give a damn.
My current self-reflective task is learning to be okay with myself as I am. A never-ending quest for perfection is profoundly disempowering for someone with anxiety, so if I am to successfully manage my anxiety then I need to re-evaluate my expectations and come to a place of acceptance.
How Heavy is Your Social Armor?
This article is not a how-to guide for coming to terms with your demons, and my experiences are not necessarily generalizable to other people. However, there might be snippets of my story that are familiar and resonate with you. If that’s the case, let me send you a pre-emptive hug and encourage you to persevere with looking in the mirror.