5 Ways I Navigate Social Anxiety in the Tech Industry

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Do you ever feel like you miss out on life because of social anxiety? According to USNews, Social Anxiety Disorder is dubbed “the disorder of missed chances.” As someone recovering from social anxiety, a question I’ve been asked is “are you sure you had social anxiety or were you just shy?”

Let me paint a picture for you…

About six years ago when my daughter was a newborn, I was filled with emotions. I was so happy to have her! But I was so worried- always worried that people were going to judge me because I didn’t breastfeed her,  because she wears pink and has her ears pierced, or because I hadn’t lost the baby weight. These can be normal thoughts to have, but it crosses into a not so healthy situation when they begin to impact your life.

“I got so anxious I was not able to check the mail or leave the house more than once a week when I needed to buy groceries.”

It was only when I started reading online accounts of other peoples’ experiences when I felt like I could do this; it was not going to be easy or meant to be pleasant because change is rarely a walk in the park.

Fast forward a few years and I’m doing so much better! During those years, and now in the tech world, I am seeing a common theme of social anxiety. As a result I’ve spotted a few factors that seem to be the most helpful in overcoming it. It can be an isolating experience to be a woman in tech. When I first came into this world, I was taken back to those intense feelings of social anxiety, especially when I was being told to show up online in a meaningful way and I was scared shitless!

“I thought: people are going to judge me, I’m going to look stupid, who do I think I am, I’m nobody.”

I contemplated many times closing my Twitter and Instagram accounts and just ghosting my way back into safety. In today’s post, I’m going to share the top three things that helped me overcome the worst of my social anxiety.

1. You are not your anxiety

When you are in a state of anxiety, it can be hard to see things objectively since you are so caught up with your worries that you are not able to see a way out. I was scrolling through Pinterest looking for a new recipe when I stumbled on “Do you have anxiety? Take the quiz and find out!” I had just found out what kind of sandwich I was so I might as well find out if I’m an anxious grilled cheese.

Long story short, I was a very anxious sandwich. When I got the results, it said something that stuck with me:  “you’re not alone, here’s how you can help yourself..” I can help myself? I thought I needed to go to a professional to get better? My mind was racing with questions and possible scenarios.

I want to add that while helping yourself is the first step, if you find you’re not getting better, it would be a good idea to consult a professional. I poured over the articles it recommended. I felt ready! The first step for me was recognizing I am not my anxiety. I can still be me without anxiety.

2. Start Small

The first action step I needed to take was to start taking care of myself. I always put everyone’s needs before my own and it showed. The thought of taking care of myself didn’t seem possible. It felt impossible for me to jump from where I was, to taking full care of myself the way I knew I wanted to, and when I tried that approach, I failed. I failed a couple of times and it felt like I got the wind knocked out of my sails each time.

I had to try something else. Maybe I was trying to do too much, so I started smaller. I started journaling again. I used to keep a journal when I was younger, it helped me express myself in ways I could never say out loud. I aimed for a few minutes every night, realistically I only did it a few times a week. But it was something! I wrote about my day and how I was feeling. As a result, it felt nice and made me feel like I’d just had a great chat with a good friend.

3. If you feel it, do it!

Slowly, I was able to add to this, I was riding this emotional high when I decided to sign up online for my local gym. At that moment, I knew if I didn’t act when I had the thought that I might never get to it.

“I knew if I didn’t act when I had the thought that I might never get to it.”

I learned I wasn’t comfortable talking or moving in front of people the second I walked into the gym. I was dripping sweat like I was in a sauna and shaking on the walk from the daycare to the women’s bathroom.

I’ll be completely honest, I cried in the bathroom the first day because I just couldn’t. That was the only day I went that week. I might never have gone back but I signed a full year’s contract which my husband so kindly reminded me. Damn it, he’s right I thought to myself. The next week I felt a little brave again, so I grabbed the babies and made a run for the door as soon as I felt that small bit of action stirring in me. If you struggle with inaction as I did that was one of the biggest lessons for me. If you think and feel it, do it! Or you might miss out on that opportunity and have to live with that feeling. You know the one I’m talking about. Regret.

4. Find your people

There were other people like me at the gym. I saw them. They saw me. But we were too scared to make the first move. I didn’t have many friends growing up, I was the quiet awkward girl with the strict mom, I never really got to have friends like some others talk about. I always envied those relationships. Why couldn’t I have that too?

As I explored the world of adult friendships, I realized it was harder than I thought. Many people feel like they need to change themselves to fit in so they can have that community. But when you change yourself you don’t truly belong and that can lead to furthering the anxiety.

“When you change yourself [just to fit in], you don’t truly belong and that can lead to furthering the anxiety.”

There are pockets of communities in the tech world, but they can be hard to find. Being a self-taught developer, a community can be even harder to come by. You might try on some communities and realize they don’t fit quite as well as you hoped. I want to tell you it’s ok to keep looking and to keep “trying on” communities.

A couple of observations I’ve made as I’ve passed through communities include that the best communities were active, encouraging, and compassionate. The communities that weren’t thriving were mostly quiet and when they were engaged it was often with the same people, newbies were often ignored, and people were not as welcoming to each other.

Sometimes you can’t find local communities that check those boxes for you, but that’s when you can turn to the online communities. I’ve found so much value in finding people through hashtags like #womenintech #womeninstem #codenewbie #momscancode #100daysofcode. There’s also something to be said about communities that have a barrier to enter like a monthly fee or another commitment. I’ve found that the people in these communities are more engaged and willing to participate. Some of my favorites are @momscancodepgh, @freecodecamp, and @codenewbie.

5. You belong here

It can feel like there are so many barriers and obstacles in this field, which is like a ton of bricks to hold up when you have anxiety that prevents you from engaging in meaningful ways. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have a banging career. You deserve to have friends and community that support you. Even if you don’t feel this yet, it is true. Social anxiety can rob you of your happiness, but you have the power to take steps to help take your happiness back. You are not your anxiety, you are a beautiful, amazing person! Start small, give yourself grace and time to try what works for you. If it doesn’t work, don’t dwell on that too long, move on and try something else. I know it’s terrifying. Believe me, I know. I never thought I would get here. But every day, I wake up and ask myself, is this really my life, and I thank myself for being brave and doing my best. Sounds corny, I know, but it helps.

Finding your people can be a challenge, but keep looking, there are 7.2 billion people on Earth at the time of writing this! Your people are out there. The journey is going to be tough, but the suck is part of the process. Hang in there, I can’t promise it will turn out exactly how you imagine it, but I can promise it will change you in ways you didn’t think were possible for you. The women in tech I’ve met have all been amazing and kind, I recommend reaching out to someone you admire and letting them know you admire them. The only reason I got the opportunity to get to know Alison, (the amazing founder of WIT PGH) was because I reached out and let her know when I connected with her posts and we got the chance to chat. The faces you see online are real people and most want to help you succeed.

I would love to know your story, do you struggle with social anxiety? Have you done anything to help yourself deal with it? I would love to connect! You can find me on Twitter or Instagram.

Melissa is a web developer and mother. Her goal is to create a life that she doesn’t want to take a vacation from while inspiring women to be their best.

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