Updated: Jan 30, 2020
“We must each of us bear our own misfortunes.” ― Charles Portis, True Grit
Have you ever asked, who is the person who stands before me, the person behind the label, and what is their story?
I have a hidden story that, until recently, outside of my parents and siblings, only three people knew.
I am sharing my story as an example of what lies hidden beneath the people we think we know - their anxieties, fears and vulnerabilities.
If you want to develop better, psychologically safer, working environments you need to build greater awareness of the stories that define who people are. Because, as human beings, we could all do with a bit more empathy and compassion in our lives.
I carry a label, but have I been labelled correctly?
If you have met me, you might say that I come across as a confident and friendly person. Others might call me cold, distant or difficult to connect with. Many have labelled me an introvert; a label I have embraced as a way of explanation for who I am.
You can ask me to speak in front of 1500 people, and I will thrive. Ask me to network a room of 10, and I will panic. Ask me to speak one-on-one with the CEO of a Blue Chip company, and I am in my element. Ask me to come out for drinks when I don't know you that well, and I will try and avoid the opportunity like the plague.
You see, I suffer from severe social anxiety, and that anxiety has a hidden story.
Shining a light on the hidden stories hide who we are
When does a person develop mental toughness?
I didn't have a particularly pleasant childhood. I spent a lot of time on my own, governed by emotionally confused parents who decided that I was an inconvenience that brought them together. I spent a lot of time in isolation, punctuated by physical and emotional outbursts that were at times extreme and shocking. Outside of school, my opportunities to socialise were severely limited, which left me isolated and socially awkward.
In 1985, at the age of 15, I found the courage to rebel, announcing that I wanted to join the Royal Air Force on a Youth Training Scheme. I didn't know what I was getting into, I just wanted an escape, and the military offered the perfect vehicle for my needs.
I don't think my parents expected me to go through with it, but off I went to the local recruitment office. I performed well on the tests, and I applied to be an Air Cartographer Photographer, which resulted in a specialist interview outside of London. I still remember the happiness; a trip to the East Coast of England, transiting through London - I was living in Swansea (three hours away from London) - a night away, all expenses paid and, most importantly, on my own!
I arrived the day before my interview, spending a night in a barracks. The next day, I went through the interview process with seven other people. The interview went well, but, more importantly, I connected with someone, and she was terrific. This girl was my age, and she found me funny, not awkward at all. The interview process finished, and we travelled back to London together.
We were both transiting through London, leaving for home from two different stations. However, we were getting along so well, I decided to stay with her as long as possible, and she decided to wait until the last possible train to go home. It was amazing! However, I was incredibly naive and hadn't considered, hers being the last train, I wouldn't be able to get to my station. You see, I thought the London Tube ran all night. It didn't. I was now stuck. It was 01:00, I didn't have any money - the RAF had issued train warrants for the transport - and I decided that the simplest thing to do was walk across London to my station.
To cut a long story short, I got lost. What do you do when you are lost? You ask for help. That's what I did. My luck was in, and a man kindly offered to walk with me as he was going in my direction.
I will spare you the details of what happened next. The outcome involved a knife, hospital, a police station and ultimate humiliation.
I didn't go back to school. My parents didn't know what to do with me and, immediately on returning home, sent me away to live in a caravan on my own for a week. I went to a hospital for tests that I couldn't comprehend, and I spent a lot of time living with my grandmother.
I don't know how I got through that period of my life, though I remember the aching loneliness. The mind works in mysterious ways and mine worked to protect me. I compartmentalised the incident, treating life as if it had never happened. I missed the opportunity to join the RAF in my chosen trade, but I was desperate to leave home, and the recruiter could sense it - I ended up joining as an Admin Clerk.
I found myself at 16, serving in the RAF, scared to be on my own, having severe trust issues and socially inept. I developed a facade of over confidence. I became reckless, having little to no concern for the impact of my life decisions on my future. I wanted to be liked, but I didn't know how to be liked. I wanted to be socially accepted, but I didn't know what that meant. I struggled to converse with people I didn't know, and it was difficult for me to break into established social circles. I would spend hours engaged in self-analysis, but I couldn't unlock the secret to good conversation.
A test of mental toughness
In 1990 life brought me to face my biggest fears. Through various twists of fate, I left the RAF and moved to the United States. Outside of my RAF training, I had no qualifications. I needed to work. I scoured the local paper and applied for anything and everything. I struggled. Then, one day I saw an advert for a sales management trainee. I applied, interviewed and my British accent got me a job as a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman.
Four weeks into life in the US and I was in a minibus with fourteen or so other management trainees, being dropped off in remote areas of a country I had never visited before. My job was to knock on doors, develop a rapport with the person who answered, get invited in and sell encyclopaedias. There was no basic salary, and each sale was worth $250. My life depended on my ability to overcome fear, where every knock on a door sent my mind into a panic - think of your worst horror movie experience, and you'll have a good idea of where my mind would go.
I lasted six weeks. Some nights were better than others. One night I couldn't control my anxiety, and I spent four hours pacing under the light of a 7-11 convenience store to be picked up by the minibus driver. The next night, I went back out, got control of myself and sold two encyclopaedia packages. Fear was ever-present, but most days I found the grit to face it and move forward.
I'm still living, fighting, surviving and thriving
It took me until I was 37 to accept my past, to get a grip on my life, understand the destructiveness of impulsive decision-making processes, and move on.
I still struggle today. I have developed coping mechanisms, but I still battle with trust and moments of severe social anxiety. I can struggle in one-on-one in situations where I am not focused on work. The past still likes to occasionally tap me on the shoulder, sending me back to a time and place that I have done my best to forget.
This is who stands in front of you. I am human. I have hopes, anxieties and vulnerabilities, just like you. I believe we can create more psychologically safe environments through greater awareness of what others have experienced in life.
Sometimes I see myself as having mental toughness, and doing a good job in life. Other times I need to demonstrate greater empathy and compassion.
Today, I am the best version of myself. However, I am a work in progress and I know I can continue to improve.
I know I will do better. Are you willing to take the opportunity to share your story, shed your labels, and help make life better for others?