As a psychologist, I am frequently inspired by the resiliency people display in everyday life. Through the Internet and the power of social networking, I have met amazing people whose stories need to be told. Let me introduce you to Marla Genova, a woman who has worked hard to confront her own social anxiety, and ultimately, help others do the same.
I first learned about Marla upon reading about how she went to Disneyworld and wore a t-shirt that boldly stated: "ASK ME ABOUT MY SOCIAL ANXIETY." I had to know more about someone who could confront her own anxiety with such boldness and humor! She agreed to share her story.
Marla remembers always being a shy child. She "quit" preschool after another child accidentally stepped on her hand. When she began kindergarten, she did not speak. The teachers and other students always noted how shy and quiet she was. She did not have many friends growing up, but felt fortunate to have a few in middle school, and met a lifelong friend in high school who was so outgoing that she helped bring Marla out of her shell.
She describes school as "an absolute nightmare in terms of social anxiety." Her first full-blown panic attack was in 7th grade, and this led to a pattern of extreme avoidance. She would take an "F" if an oral presentation were required in a class. She would negotiate with teachers: "If you let me skip the presentation, I will submit 10 extra pages of written work."
This pattern of avoidance continued into college and graduate school. Marla would negotiate with the professors, and drop a particular class if the professor didn't allow alternatives to presentations. This took considerable time and left her drained.
Despite her anxiety, or perhaps because of it, Marla remained highly motivated to do well. But, her avoidance behavior prevented her from getting both her undergraduate and graduate degrees on time. However, "failure was not an option for me," she noted, and she eventually finished with honors.
Living in daily fear is what tortured Marla the most. She would wake up with her heart racing, thinking about what the day would bring. "Is there a staff meeting where I may be called upon to speak? What should I do about lunch with my coworkers? (She has situational anxiety about eating in front of others.) Will my boss need to speak with me? Will someone have to observe me as I train them or they train me? What if they invite me to happy hour? And the list went on..."
Marla also struggled with social settings, such as weddings or formal events-basically anytime she felt she had a "role" to live up to. She placed so much pressure on herself to perform well.
She has, though, noticed some changes in her thought processes over time: "I used to obsess for days to weeks about attending social events. Who will be there? Who will I know? Who will be my security blanket? What are the seating arrangements? Do I have an escape?"
Now, she notes, "I no longer do this as it is a waste of time and I've finally realized that there is no way to predict how the situation is going to go no matter how many insignificant details I try to acquire beforehand. Also, time and time again, I have done well in these situations and have no rational evidence that something bad is going to happen where I will make a fool of myself in front of everyone. When I occasionally disclose how much anxiety social situations cause me, people are shocked and don't believe me."
Speaking of disclosing her social anxiety, what was it like for her to wear her Social Anxiety t-shirt at Disneyworld? She walked around the park for 12 hours with her significant other, Kurt. "There were mixed reactions. Some people laughed at the paradoxical joke the t-shirt implies. Others would ask, 'What about your social anxiety?' I would respond with, 'I have it.' Some would ask for more details and say they think someone they know has it. I met a psychologist that was intrigued and thought I was brave just for being out!"
In addition to her unique Disneyworld experience, Marla has another interesting story to share. She recently had a minor part in a reality television show, My Extreme Animal Phobia, along with Kurt, who has a horrible fear of bees (he couldn't even spend time out on their deck). The show involved extensive taping in their home, and although Kurt was the major focus, Marla was a part of it all. "Knowing this was going to be on national television and not having any control over what would be aired was really scary at first. But I was so proud of Kurt and what he accomplished confronting his fear, that I was surprisingly okay."
Marla credits a lot of her own progress to being in support groups focusing on social anxiety disorder. She started attending a group in 2006 as a participant, and has now become a group facilitator herself. "I am so passionate about this cause-to raise awareness for social anxiety, to offer hope, to show people they are not alone, and to let them know they don't have to live their lives in fear."
I'd say this shy little girl has transformed into a brave, compassionate woman.
(In my next post, I'll share more about what Marla has learned by leading and implementing support groups, and all the different groups that are offered. In the meantime, if you want to check out her site, click here.)