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“The act of curating one’s own experience is a defining aspect of what it is to be human.”
– Emma Brockes, writing in the New Yorker about playwright, Jez Butterworth
The cool thing about being an adult is that you get to choose how to live your life. This is probably why I have always gravitated toward working with adults, and in my personal life, it’s certainly something I revel in. There was a time when I did things just to be different, like wearing white canvas shoes that I used to draw on. I get some level of joy just from refusing to take seriously some things that other people take very seriously. Driving a dirty, old car (when I had one) through Los Feliz, back when I first came to LA in 2000, gave me pleasure amidst the tedium of driving. Sure, I couldn’t afford anything newer anyway, but it made feel defiant, refusing to be cowed by the disdain of others, sitting smugly inside my 25 year-old Honda Civic between the Beemers and Mercedes on Franklin and Gower. “I don’t care what you think,” I thought to myself, as if anyone even noticed me at all.
I came to social work, originally, after meeting a group of children with autism in Portland, just after I finished college. I’d never seen anything like it, kids biting themselves, refusing to wear clothing, banging their heads in tantrums for unknown reasons, lining up five hundred toy cars in a perfect grid on a table only to smash them all to the ground in something like simultaneous terror and ecstasy. These kids were entirely un-socialized, unencumbered by pop culture and social niceties. Another appealing aspect of working with these kids, something I only realized later on, was that they did not judge me by any of the cultural markers of the day. I learned to socially relax working with autistic children, and this soon began to help me in other social situations.
I suppose it might have been more a trial by fire kind of social anxiety intervention, come to think of it. Dealing with a nonverbal adolescent, who is not your own child, that is throwing a tantrum while rolling around on the pavement in the middle of a crosswalk on a traffic-heavy afternoon in Portland, somehow made other socially awkward situations seem much less difficult. Being at a loud, raucous party suddenly seemed so much easier.
Social anxiety is a small prison that we carry around inside of us. There are two distinct barriers to our sense of social comfort, and both are essentially internalizations of what society expects of us. One is material, the other behavioral, and both are conquerable. Unique to LA, the material is viewed as behavioral more than in any other city I’ve lived in. It’s easy to stand out if you don’t embody the right social markers, such as the right clothing, and not everyone enjoys feeling exposed like this. Anxiety specialists will tell you, if you fear looking out of place, try doing so intentionally and learn to manage the feelings as they arise. I never really had this problem. As I said, I liked flaunting convention from an early age. My biggest fear, shared by hundreds of people with social anxiety whom I’ve spoken with, was that I would look anxious because I was anxious, a self-compounding cycle. For some reason, it took much longer for me to learn to apply the same solution to this problem as I did in the first instance. If I feel anxious socially, the first step is to try to consciously feel comfortable with the feeling of being anxious in public.
Being totally OK with feeling anxious has given me amazing freedom in my life. One of the first things I heard in my work from someone in pain that truly resonated with me was, “I just want to live my life.” Social anxiety is based on internalized social constructs. Society doesn’t always seem to be doing such a great job in other areas, so why should it get to decide how we should live?
Dave Leon is the founder and director of The Painted Brain