What happened when I stopped fighting against my social anxiety

To everyone else, my story was a story of mental health victory. But it wasn’t, and I knew it, deep down inside.

To tell you the full story, let’s travel back in time. To the year of 2016.

A time when I was so focused on “overcoming” my social anxiety.
 
 

Ian Chew drew himself drowning from a "monster"

 

Seeing my anxiety as a challenge to conquer, I forced myself to “get out there” in every way possible… and it seemed to have worked! Despite my anxiety, I was able to interview hundreds of strangers on the street. I did a TEDx talk and I managed to rub shoulders with some of the most accomplished entrepreneurs and leaders in Canada. But did all these efforts pay off?

Yes, in many ways.

But if I was truly honest with myself…

I wasn’t quite the success I portrayed. The biggest reason was this:

I just didn’t want to feel what I felt.

Not only did I reject my experience of anxiety, I constantly criticized myself for it. I’d say things like:

“What’s wrong with you!?”
“Argh, I shouldn’t have said that..”
“No one will like me”

I’m not unique, of course: research shows that socially anxious people have significantly less self-compassion than others.

Now, did I instantly realize how unkind I was towards myself? Nah.

We aren’t in the movies, you know.

It took years of little Ahas — moments of blooming realization that I could treat myself better.

One such insight came in 2019…

It was fall in Toronto. After supper with friends, I wandered on the street. True to my bookworm nature, I opted for a second-hand bookstore over the mall nearby. As I was about to leave, a title caught my eye:

Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chödrön.

Pema Chödrön is one of the most celebrated mindfulness teachers in the world, but I had no idea who she was back then — all I thought was “hmm, this seems fascinating.”

I went home and started reading the book that very same night. A few pages in, I gasped. As I felt the weight of her words sinking into my soul:

“…the only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay.”

At that moment, I finally saw that fighting against my anxiety was futile. I fought all these years… but it was a battle that I couldn’t win.

Research backs this up too: a study shows that volunteers who suppressed their anxiety ended up feeling even more of it. Iffah Suraya Jasni, a counsellor and lecturer at Perdana University, said: “When we’re not compassionate towards ourselves, we resist our anxiety. This blocks the regulation of the emotions that underlie the anxiety, and anxiety is maintained as a result.”

Inspired by the book, I started practicing mindfulness and being more accepting of my anxiety. I also meditate on and off. For a few minutes, I would…

  • Sit down
  • Close my eyes
  • Breathe
  • Stay with whatever comes up in my body and mind

All this wasn’t easy, but over time, something magical happened:

I learned how to befriend my social anxiety. It might not be a friend I truly like or welcome. But I could at least acknowledge its presence. When I stop fighting my anxiety and start acknowledging it, and even embracing it, I found the freedom I was looking for.

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Thank you Iffah Suraya Jasni for sharing your wisdom and Yue Yun Aw Yong for checking the research I cited.

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