Ask MR: Is My Social Anxiety Making Me Paranoid?

Ask Man Repeller Too Paranoid

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I am constantly worried that I said something wrong. I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking about who I may have accidentally offended that day. I am always nervous. But I wasn’t always like this. Am I getting paranoid? How do I make it stop?

Dear Wind and Caution,

I don’t know why you’re waking up in the middle of the night. I don’t know if you’re unintentionally insensitive and therefore more likely to accidentally offend someone. I don’t know if, by clinical definition, you are in fact paranoid, but I do know that you’re afraid. There is a big great fear inside of you and I know this to be true because I listed similar symptoms over dinner with my dad last January, and he diagnosed a similar fear inside of me. I have been trying crack it open for the better part of two months, since he first raised his left eyebrow and redundantly used two sequential synonyms to describe my fear, and I’m pretty sure that in trying to answer your question, I may have answered my own. It took me writing, deleting, then rewriting like, 10,000 words, to arrive at this discovery, and now that I’m here, I refuse to delete a single word heoncforth and onward. I mean henceforth. (And onward.) This is going to get awkward.

In the first draft, I presented a theory that because your prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until you are 29, perhaps what you’re feeling, really, is just your executive function kicking into gear. In the second draft, I congratulated you for not being a sociopath, and in the last one, I tried to drill down on what specifically is keeping you up, skirting the larger question because, I don’t know, maybe it was easier to answer by not really answering at all. Intentionally missing the point. Yes, that would have been safer. By avoiding what I really want to say, I’m less likely to make myself vulnerable to having a good intention taken out of context and dragged through the internet as a sort of proof that I Am Bad.

But here is the thing I’m not saying: The internet — and the way it metabolizes information — is turning me into a doggone coward. There is a big great fear inside of me and that fear is governed by how much I care what other people — strangers! — think about me. And for someone who has long believed she gives zero fucks what other ppl think, I am 10/10 unclear on whether there is even still ground under me on which I can walk.

I can trace inklings of this feeling back to last September, when a king of call-out culture described me as a designer knocking off another designer. I don’t blame the account — it looked bad. Here a brand called Area had shown a pair of rhinestone heels the previous September at a fashion show where I was a guest. Here I had designed a shoe with a very, very similar rhinestone finish on the heel. Here the call-out account just wanted to restore the natural order, get the afflicted party the credit they deserved and defame the copycat.

But I wasn’t a copycat — by the time of Area’s show, my rendering had existed for two months, and was now at a factory in Portugal being made. But I didn’t think of any of this. Instead, I was proud — naively validated to find myself tuned into a similar design frequency, on the same wavelength as two American legends in the making. I reviewed the show, didn’t mention the shoe, but once the Instagram police came-a-knocking, thousands (and I do mean thousands) of people rejoiced with genuine thrill at the possibility that I was finally falling from grace. Exposed. Being canceled. It would have been cool not to care, but I cared so much.

Distinct personal style is my ~thing.~ I am supposed to be good at fashion, yet recent, unquestioned evidence suggested this was not true.

I felt like Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy — framed! Besmirched! Would my kids, my husband, my team ever look at me the same way? All I wanted to do was correct the public opinion. Show them the email dates with CAD renderings attached, commit to sharing in-progress photos for any future design endeavor and so on and so forth. But to do that would be to feed the fear, to cater to the fool’s errand of pursuing anonymous approval. So outside of contacting the designers to explain the mishap and apologize, I kept my head down. I vowed to not point the finger back at the accuser or adopt the position of deciding who is truly Good or Bad. Because, really, what the fuck do I know?

You might be wondering why I brought you here, how a question about paranoia turned into a confessional about me. But I invite you to absorb the following as advice: If you are waking up in the middle of the night, afraid that you hurt someone by accident, if you are worried that you might be paranoid and you want to make it stop, if you’re constantly nervous, you have to do one thing only — discover what the hell is making you feel so damn scared. Ask yourself: What is this big great fear? And when you come up with an answer, ask what is deeper. And when you come up with an answer, ask what is deeper and keep asking until you are three, or six, or 100 drafts in and satisfied with the answer. You will know you are satisfied when your body releases…something. It might feel like the unclenching of your ass cheeks, or maybe like your heart is dropping into your vagina then re-centering. Once you get to an answer, the paralysis starts to melt away. The room you’re in gets brighter, your body feels lighter and, if you’re lucky, you remember what it’s like to be alive — focused on what will go right, not just what could go wrong. The hardest thing you’ll have to do from here is to nurture this. In the middle and the end, it’s all we’ve got.

Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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