Mental health difficulties are never easy to cope with, but they definitely present a lot of additional challenges at a time when you are coming into your own. You’ll know if you’ve read my other columns that my mental health issues can be traced back right to early childhood.
If I were to pinpoint a time when my mental health issues were the most challenging to cope with and keep at bay, I instantly think of my teenage years in particular.
At that point in life, there was a big pressure to fit in. When I was in school, fitting in was all about ticking the right boxes – being likeable, having other friends, liking the right things, and not being different to the majority. This was already difficult for me since I ticked off one of those boxes if not the most important one: not being different.
My anxiety meant that I was an over-thinker and over-worrier and that just wasn’t cool when I was growing up.
At a point in life that is all about enjoying yourself and not sweating the small things, I definitely came across a bit much and uptight to some. Not only that, but my negative and paranoid thoughts would often make others think I was a pessimist, and in this period all about fun and being young and free, that wasn’t a very likeable trait. As a result of all these things, I struggled to make friends. And also to keep them.
However, I still managed, maintaining small circles and naturally, navigating some “not true” friends during this time as we all do. When the word friendship pops into my head, it is an exciting thought but definitely a bit of a daunting one. That’s because, in some ways, my anxiety has always made me feel as though I don’t meet the mark when it comes to quality friendship.
My coping mechanism with trauma has always been avoidance. I’m in constant survival mode, so I try to avoid situations that will upset or harm me. Additionally, I avoid situations that feel too close to those traumatic experiences I encountered during childhood and my teenage years. For the first half of my teenage years, this was pretty manageable.
However, after that, following much more bullying, I found myself not being able to “show up”. Friends would throw birthday bashes and, while I really wanted to go and celebrate their special day, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Most of them understood but just because they understood didn’t mean I didn’t feel like a bad friend. I struggled to be the friend who would attend outings but was more than happy to be there for friends to listen, offer guidance or engage in deep conversations.
During my teenage years, there were times I did venture out only for my bullies to find and humiliate me
Some definitely appreciated having a friend like this, but others couldn’t understand why I couldn’t “show up” and ultimately gaslit me for my inability to. At that time of my life, I didn’t really understand why I was scared to show up because I was still sort of acclimatising to my anxiety. What I also failed to realise was that there are other ways to be a good friend than being the life of the party.
Beyond the gaslighting, I also found traits of my mental health issues being mocked by “friends”. Whether it be that I’m no fun because I overanalyse or overthink everything, or I’m trying too hard to be wise because I want to dive deeper, I found myself envious of others for their ability to be a “normal good friend”. Even when I think back to my teenage years, I remember older people telling me I was wise or had an old soul.
Meant to be a compliment, but I found myself feeling inferior for it and even more resentful at the people involved in the traumatic events I experienced for causing me to grow up too quickly. These traumatic experiences caused me to engage in a lot of avoidance, which went beyond friends’ birthday parties and special occasions. The idea of going to the pub for drinks or a club, or out to a restaurant felt very unsafe and overwhelming.
During my teenage years, there were times I did venture out only for my bullies to find and humiliate me. With this worry in mind, I felt engaging in these activities – where they could likely be – just wasn’t worth it. Besides the traumatic experiences fueling my disinterest, I was also paranoid about other potential things going wrong.
When I did try and go out with friends, I felt like they either left me for understandable reasons like spotting another friend or going for a dance or they felt an intense pressure to nearly babysit and safeguard me to make me feel okay.
Another part of my anxiety that often made me feel I wasn’t cut out for friendship or relationships in general was that I constantly needed reassurance
Either way, it meant I felt dependent on them, and I didn’t like that or the idea that being that way would ruin their night. How I felt about these outings meant I would often flake on events. Friends would tell me the plans weeks in advance, and the event in itself would consume me with worry and anxiety. The result would be me flaking. Most of the time, they had other people attending the plans so they wouldn’t be alone but that didn’t mean the guilt I felt wasn’t enormous.
The dialogue in my mind would always go back to wishing I was just like my peers. Another part of my anxiety that often made me feel I wasn’t cut out for friendship or relationships in general was that I constantly needed reassurance. Everyone needs reassurance in life, but for me, it’s like the reassurance I do receive doesn’t sink in. While I try to hold myself back from continuously requesting this from friends, sometimes it can feel near-impossible.
The result is coming across as annoying or that I lack trust. It’s understandable to a degree because who enjoys being questioned about their intent. However, I never meant it in an insulting way, it’s just because my mind is constantly clouded with these overwhelming negative thoughts. If I don’t see a friend in a while, my overthinking hits into overdrive, and I often think it’s because they don’t want to see me. This is something I’ve particularly encountered in adulthood.
Logically, I can recognise that it is down to being busy and having things on, but somewhere in the back of my mind, there is a voice saying the person no longer likes me or I’ve done something to ruin the friendship. My anxiety has always meant that I’ve felt like being my friend is a massive undertaking. I’ve felt this to the point where I almost feel guilty for the people in my life.
It’s taken a lot of rewiring to think differently about all of this, and it’s been down to having such a strong support network. From speaking to others who struggle with anxiety, these feelings are not so strange. Many worry that their limitations are too much of a hindrance to friendship. When I look back to friendships throughout my life, I’ve definitely had some great ones and navigated some toxic ones.
It’s important to be aware of this but not to use those toxic friendship experiences as evidence that you are unequipped to be a good friend to others. For those with a friend who struggles with anxiety, the best way you can support them is to recognise their limitations and understand that they aren’t just excuses.
The reality is if we could switch off our avoidance, over-thinking, and need for constant reassurance, we would do it in a heartbeat.