I’m Afraid of Everyone: Social Anxiety in Law School

Kevin Schoenfeldt (2L)

Picture this:

You’re at home getting ready for the end of Orientation Week pub night. You were actually invited to a pre-pub night party, but you didn’t go because—you told yourself—you needed some time alone first. But really you just panicked. What if you didn’t have anyone to talk to? What if they didn’t really want you to come? What if you forgot how to act like a normal person? You regret this now because you’re going to have to show up to the pub alone, and what if you don’t have anyone to talk to? What if nobody really wanted you to come? What if you forget how to act like a normal person?

But so you make yourself go. You walk in. You don’t know anyone. You panic. You buy a drink. You walk around the whole bar on the off chance somebody jumps out at you and becomes your friend. Finally you see someone you’ve met and you talk to them for two minutes, but then they get called away by a million different people because everyone has made friends with a million different people except for you.

Then you leave the bar and walk fifty feet down the road before forcing yourself to go back. You eat some food. You talk to one or two people who are then also called away by a million different people. Youno kiddingleave and come back again. You decide to buy another drink because then you can’t keep trying to leave. You feel physically uncomfortable, hyper-aware that you physically exist. You finish your drink as quickly as possible. You walk around the bar two more times and then, finally, you leave. This time you don’t come back. You go home. You lie on your couch. You text a friend: “It did not go well.”

In case it’s not obvious, that was me last year.  For those who aren’t sure who I am, my name is Kevin Schoenfeldt. You might know me from making brief eye contact in the hall and then me immediately staring at the ground. Or that time… no, that’s probably it. Unlike my esteemed colleague, Cory Bettel, I did come to law school hoping to make friends. I’m just really bad at it.

I’ve experienced social anxiety for as long as I can remember. It used to be much worse: in grades seven through ten, if anyone that I didn’t know spoke to me, I blushed, felt sweaty, and my eyes started watering. I was not popular. Back then, talking to people in and of itself was difficult.

It’s not like that anymore. I’m not really that shy now. I spent the last four years serving at a restaurant; it was literally my job to talk to strangers all day. I don’t find talking to people that difficult. What is still difficult is putting myself in the position of having to talk to people in the first place. My baseline instinct is always not to get into social situations where I don’t know people well, or to leave them immediately if I do go. I have a rule for new situations that works really well when I actually enforce it: don’t turn down any invitation. The problem is, you don’t have to break that rule very many times before you stop getting invitations at all.

That’s how I find myself in the position of having gone to only one pub night — aside from Orientation Week — in the last one-and-a-half years. That, incidentally, was also the only time I went to a law school party, and only because I happen to live in the same building as someone else from U of T Law and they were nice enough to invite me. And I even had fun! That is, until we went to the pub and everyone spread out and I wandered around for a bit and left half an hour later. History repeats itself.

Let me be clear. I’m not trying to win sympathy, I’m not complaining, and I’m definitely not blaming anyone. Also, don’t worry, I have plenty of great friends. My point is just to describe my  own experience with social anxiety. As much as I don’t understand how some people move through the world feeling comfortable, I know some people don’t understand how some simple things can be so hard for some people. Here are some things I find unreasonably difficult:

  • Phoning anyone, ever (I know I’m not alone on this one);
  • Saying ‘hi’ to an acquaintance in the hall if they don’t say ‘hi’ first;
  • Asking anyone for notes if I missed a class; and
  • Going to any event I didn’t get an explicit direct invitation to from someone.

And so forth. The worst part for me is that anxiety makes it hard to be myself. I like to joke around, I like to talk about the movie I just saw (The Bye Bye Man is terrible), and I like to hear about people’s lives, but it’s hard to do those things when you’re fixated on the quickest possible exit. It’s hard to act natural when you feel anxious. On the worst days, it feels like I constantly stand out, as if I’m huge and every single person in the room will notice my every movewhile at the same time it feels like I’m a tiny person trying to navigate through a crowd of giants. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense. So when I’m with my friends I’m one person, when I’m at school I’m another, and when I’m by myself I talk to my cat.

We all have our collection of selves that we display or conceal depending on the context. The way we act in front of our closest friends is different from how we act in front of our bosses, our parents, our professors. Everyone knows this, but it can be hard to remember that about other people. I try to remember that the person in class who appears supremely confident may constantly doubt that they deserve to be here; that the person who seems surrounded by friends may feel utterly alone; that some people smile in public only to cry in private. I try to remind myself that people who don’t know me very well often think I’m uninterested or, worse, that I just plain don’t like them. The truth is I’m afraid. Of not being accepted. Of not belonging. Simply put, of not being liked.

To some extent, everyone has something they’re afraid of, something they’re insecure about, something they think is wrong with them or weird about them, and everyone is affected by these things differently. Everyone displays or conceals these things in different ways. I think it’s important to remember that. I think it’s important to talk about that. And sometimes, if you need to, I think it’s important to take comfort in that. You’re not alone. We’re all weird.