So you’ve read some stuff and one day you realise that the word must become flesh (or however you say that in English). You become active in a movement or organisation. You’re probably not ~officially diagnosed~ with social anxiety, you just know that you hate meeting new people and picking up the phone. That, of course, is what activists do most of the time, and if you sense a contradiction here, you’re right. As I’ve made many stupid decisions in my life (although most of them, as shitty defence as it is, unaware of the consequences), I will be your helping hand: I will tell you what to expect, and then you can make your decisions as someone close to the rational human being economists would like us to be.
How to be an activist with social anxiety
- If you’re similar to me, the most difficult part won’t be canvassing or starting a conversation with randoms on the street. The real plague are the many events during which you have to discuss and plan actions with people from your organisation – you’d much rather write comments in an online thread (reminiscent of safe spaces such as Revleft or the mailing list of the failed Occupy protest in your city), but these meetings are held in real life. Before the group decides to do something you totally disagree with and designates you to do something you hate, you should force yourself to speak. Raise your hand, if needed, or wait for a moment of silence. Even if other people begin to talk over you, there’s a chance that the shocking experience of hearing your voice for the first time in ages shuts them up quickly.
- It’s true that most political activities depend on contacting people and networking *nauseous emoji*, but there are many which need to be done individually. Someone has to design, print and distribute the flyers; someone has to write texts (“copy”), translate them, manage the website and social media, do research etc. You shouldn’t avoid the social activities forever (more on that below), but doing these individual tasks is a good way to be useful in a less challenging way.
- You have to accept that you’ll see activists less dedicated and competent than you (or, what often hurts more, than your friends) attaining high positions in organisations simply because they are good with people. You can’t deny that this is the key competence, and therefore you’ll ask yourself why the fuck are you even bothering with this. You could be doing something productive instead, for example sweating at raves waiting for a publisher to pick up your yet unwritten novel (something that worked for Zadie Smith, IIRC; I swear that review I promised months ago is in the works).
- More sadly, you’ll realise you’re not connecting with people that seem likeable and worth your while, because there’s a limit to meaningful relationships you can maintain and social interactions are difficult. That’s quite frustrating as everyone else will appear to be BFFs working on their cool secret projects. But in this regard activism isn’t that different from everything else in your life, so really, you should get used to it by now.
- Sooner or later, you’ll be valued for your contributions, or just for making an effort, since political groups are the most welcoming environments you’ll ever experience. Of course they are: they depend on your, most likely entirely voluntary, work and one of their main goals is to attract and keep as many activists as possible. If you’re not getting any recognition at the moment, just keep believing in yourself and your assets. (If you can’t, I must refer you to the yet unwritten guide ‘How to Be an Activist with Low Self Esteem and/or Depression”, hopefully produced by one of my comrades in the future.)
- An even more difficult case is becoming an activist with social anxiety in a country where you barely speak the language, but as I don’t expect most people to reach this level of self sabotage, I won’t go deeper into it. (I would like to meet you, though, to share tips on setting realistic goals and loving oneself.) At least you’re rewarded with learning the language, if you persist.
- The whole enterprise does have its advantages. As much as I hated the idea for the most of my life, exposure actually helps to deal with your fears, and if you’re presenting a campaign ten times to ten new people within an hour, by the end you may be exhausted, but also less scared than you were in the beginning. One of the biggest surprises is discovering how nice people are. We hear about varieties of the bystander effect and heinous crimes on daily basis, but these are the exceptions: most of us behave decently (while sober). For me, the absolute pinnacle of this experience was hearing Polish conservatives politely refusing to sign our pro-choice petition, and after that I’m afraid my fear levels are dangerously low. Of course, these people probably still write terrible things online, but they are simply not socialised to start screaming expletives in your face. Rare moments of actual rudeness disappear among the hundreds acceptable encounters.
Next to managing your social anxiety better and better thanks to exposure, advantages include feeling like you have a purpose in life, spending a lot of time outside, developing organisational skills and meeting a partner (happened to me and many, many others).
Still, there are moments when you are overwhelmed by work which keeps bringing disappointing results *cough*everyelectioninthelasttwoyears*cough*, when you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious around people you’ve seen a million times, when you hear that only 1.5% of Dutch citizens are members of a political party and you suspect there might be a reason for that. There are moments when you’re frustrated by ineffective organisations and dying out movements; by the media which frame your actions so aggressively they’re essentially lying (or, even worse, ignore them); by your fellow activists who, just like you, often fail at balancing their work, politics and whatever remains of their social lives. There are moments when anxiety and tiredness kill your motivation; in short, moments when your personal ‘How to Be an Activist with Social Anxiety” guide could be summarised in a single bullet point:
Work for yourself, your future and your own little family. Plan your career carefully, and refrain from any activities that do not contribute to this career in a tangible way. Become a responsible adult.
But why would I want to do a thing like that?