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Enmerkar, a young Chinese woman from Jiangsu, shares her experiences of her life. She works in Shanghai and is currently studying for a role in the civil service.
I selected a position on this Monday and paid the fee. The test includes two written tests, one interview. If the candidate passes them, they will have a physical checkup and a political investigation because the government doesn’t hope to employ individuals who have terminal diseases or individuals whose relatives are engaged in overthrowing the government. Once all the procedures get done, the person will be a civil servant.
The written tests covers a variety of knowledge like spatial reasoning, general knowledge, Chinese language skills, maths, patience, reactions to stress, writing skills, understanding of the state’s policies.
I am very positive about my test. I’m not admant on passing it, it could not be any better if I secure the position, if I don’t, that is also fine. My current job is also fine. I can take the tests for several times every year, traveling to different places to take tests also broadens my horizons and fulfills of wish of sightseeing and tasting local food. The more tests one takes, more patterns of the tests one can catch.
I’d like to be a civil servant because I’d like to serve my people and to get the welfare provided by the government. It will be a lifelong position, the income is okay, most civil servants don’t have to work overtime. If I become one, I’ll have the time to further my education, to interact with my friends, to invest more time in my hobbies.
My other jobs are office work, from jobhunting applications. Most people here look for a new job by jobhunting apps.
I manage the database of test questions (primary school, middle school) in a company. Other information should remain confidential. My company doesn’t like employees revealing info about our projects to outsiders, they have signed a contract with us.
Difficulties? Difficulties don’t exist as long as one isn’t absent-minded when working. If the employees make mistakes for many times, he/she may be scolded by the supervisors.
Pleasures: free meals, snacks, fitness center, presents. I can also listen to Chinese lectures, documentaries, audiobooks on various fields, and friends’ group calls when working. Not working overtime won’t make managers feel disappointed about us.
My weekly working hours: 8×5=40 hours.
The workplace is far away from my apartment, it takes me 3.5 hours or so to go to work and to go home. I have a habit of reaching workplace 45 minutes before I start to deal with today’s tasks.
I no longer feel anxious about talking to people because I realize I don’t have to build bonds with the vast majority of people, they are merely passers-by of life. I mean I realized I don’t have to befriend every individuals I come across. Also there is no point in trying to being gregarious when one has their own circles of friends, and can get along with people who share nothing in common with them.
Social anxiety didn’t interfere a lot with my life, like most Chinese students I also spent most time at school studying together with my classmates, we didn’t really have many social activities. I was well-liked and had good friends when I was a student, and I am still in contact with them. As a hardcore introvert, I prefer to have a couple of friends rather than groups of friends, though due to my easy-going personality, I have tons of acquaintances whom I’m unfamiliar with online and offline.
I didn’t consider myself to have any mental issues, and I have never been diagnosed with mental health issues. I didn’t feel I was ill mentally, so I didn’t need a psychiatrist or a therapist.
I’m an inquisitive and curious introvert who seems heartless because I use heart less. Life trained me to be self-sufficient, resilient.
Introverts: people who aren’t energetized by interacting with many strangers or people they are unfamiliar with on social occasions, instead they will feel drained after socializing with tons of strangers. Introverts are also relatively reserved on social occasions.
I used to feel overwhelmed by social interactions. Now I tend not to participate in social interactions, because I have better things to do. I prefer to read articles on my phone than to initiate conversations with strangers.
I also pursue freedom and self-realization. I wish someday I could break yokes that were placed on me with my own will.
Self-realization: I think two Chinese sayings can explain it.
I. 修身，治国，齐家，平天下 which literally means Cultivate oneself, Bring order to the family, Govern the state, Bring peace. I’m an ordinary person from an ordinary background, so I am simply qualified to pursue a minimalized version of that saying.
II. 读万卷书，行万里路 which literally means reading a lot and travelling countless miles.
Freedom: freedom of doing things I’ve been interested in like furthering my education. I could have insisted on doing my master degree but considering my parents are very old, I don’t stand they making money for me for more years. I’ve saved money for the higher degree I’ll probably do once I get employed by the government.
I think the society here itself believes the importance of education, also the government has tried to rid the state of illiteracy and poverty. My parents’ mindset must be affected by the society, our Jiangsu province is relatively prosperous, the education is the most developed in China, when parents have chitchats with each other, they mention their kids’ rankings in class, grades.
My simply told me 书中自有黄金屋/ in the book there is a house of gold. My dad also got expired magazines and newspapers from a friend of his who worked in a high school. He let me read those publications when I was at home. Once he took a thick old Chinese dictionary home, I was very delighted to get it.
*Text within interview in italics are copied from Enmerkar’s InterPals online profile
The cumulative burden of emotional difficulties, vulnerabilities and harm and their life consequences can leave those with emotional disorders vulnerable to being emotionally hurt. Apparently minor events of harm or difficulty can trigger a long history of pain and distress and manifest in reactions that seem disproportionate to the isolated event.
A strong disagreement over text message with a friend, about the actions of a mutually known person, resulted in Miss Wellne, a blogger who writes about her life and reflections, including experiences of borderline personality disorder, punching a wall and responding with multiple messages: “I was full of shame, anxiety, confusion and everyhing in between. I punched the wall, I wrote a bunch of shit to her, that I wasn’t trying to defend him and that I deserve to die because I’m his friend and shit.”
Though she deleted some of her emotional initial outpouring, her friend accused her of responding self-centredly and excessively, both in terms of emotion and content. Miss Wellne reflects: “So yeah, I guess now that I write all of this down I realize it all sounds pretty ridiculous and we’re both acting like preteens or something. But yeah, hello, Borderline. Again, I got so afraid of loosing someone that I drove them away by acting fucking crazy. If I just hadn’t written her like 15 messages after she stopped replying, we’d be all good.”
A “harmless” and “playful” comment made by the brother of blogger, Cherry Northern, that he should eat slower, caused Cherry to feel emotional pain, though he hid his hurt. The incident revived Cherry’s thoughts about moving out and living in isolation and away from scrutiny. He reflected on living with his brother: “I just feel a void within me and I can’t seem to fill it myself. And I hate to admit this, but I’m so robotic during conversations because there’s shit in my head that makes no sense for dinnertime talking. What I provide is minimal listening. I feel so inadequate.”
Cherry reflected: ” I’ve always felt that I’m not built of the toughest material. When I feel hurt, I feel the need to separate myself from human interaction. It’s the only balm that makes sense in the moment.”
The Amethyst Lamb, in a piece on practising gratitude, writes about turning attention to our personal sensations and appreciating small pleasures. She writes: “I want to be able to remember these truths in each moment. To keep them close to my heart. To allow all of this gratitude to flow freely from me always. What a different life that would be.”
Raised consciousness of oneself and moment-by-moment experiences, The Amethyst Lamb, suggests, can help control the triggering of “decades of my personal, unconscious reinforcement of that pattern of thinking”. She writes “…rather than focus on how upset and helpless I feel, I can focus on the fact that I have recognized this, that I am able to change it.
The Amethyst Lamb adds: “I may not feel different, but by following this intention and practicing it again and again, I will be different. Even if it’s hard to notice at first. And after all, what else have I got to do with all this time?” For writer, Emily Hawkins, the difficult first step is to simply slow down.
For Adrianna Carlesimo, her healing from social anxiety difficulties must include social awareness and activism: “If I heal my own social anxiety, on an individual level, I will live a much more peaceful life. My mind, heart, and body will be at ease in a way never before experienced. But what good is that if I’m not using my newfound voice, the voice that I had been suppressing to cope with my anxiety, to support humanity at-large?”
Social anxiety, in the grand scheme of humanity by Adrianna Carlesimo, The 30 Day Social Anxiety Experiment – January 24, 2021
Lost by Miss Wellne, The Life on the Borderline – January 27, 2021
Fresh by Cherry Northern, The Affliction Hunter – January 26, 2021
Practicing Gratitude by The Amethyst Lamb – January 26, 2021
Discontentment and Hurry by Emily Hawkins – January 23, 2021
The words go unread
like the rain
upon the firs
the sun’s flock
watch them rise
to the tall trees
turned all around.
but not the ship
nor the sea
not the day
nor her night
will sing of walks
in other worlds.
The night’s rain
face of the stream
of white gulls.
Cognitive behavioural models of social anxiety disorder are based on the idea of thought distortions in individuals giving rise to disproportionate experiences of fear. The use of the word ‘anxiety’ in the name of the condition, as opposed to ‘fear’, is sometimes explained as to distinguish the presence of an unknown threat or an internal conflict rather than an external threat. When assessing social anxiety disorder amongst individuals who experience stuttering, medical professionals more readily acknowledge the reality of threats, harm and vulnerabilities, arising from the impediment of stuttering.
In the case of individuals who have no obvious physical condition to explain the root of their social fears, CBT models sometimes tend towards denying validity to their overall experience, presenting fears as wholly irrational. Central to this approach is to present social anxiety as a fear of social evaluation or scrutiny, which limits the reality of the extent of social interactions. Social attack or harm can go beyond judgement, whether advertantly or not, to include words or actions to isolate, humiliate, dominate, manipulate or exploit. The most extreme social attack is threat of attack or actual physical attack.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines defines social anxiety disorder as the “persistent fear of one or more social situations where embarrassment may occur and the fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posted by the social situation as determined by the person’s cultural norms.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) adds that: “The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others).” Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are persistent, interferes significantly with normal functioning and recognised by the individual to cause unreasonable or excessive fear.
For people who stutter, social attacks and harms “typically commence in early childhood, including experiences of bullying, teasing, victimization, exclusion, and rejection.” Social and speaking difficulties might then be intensified by experience of negative reaction in social situations. Some of the social fear of people who stutter is considered to have a rational basis, such that, up until quite recently, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; APA, 2000) excluded the diagnosis of social anxiety disorder in people who stutter, if the fear was related to the stuttering.
Non-stuttering individuals who experience social anxiety disorder experience dysfluency and affected speech, including changes in voice acoustics and a reduced rate of speech with greater pauses in some anxiety provoking situations. It has been speculated that whilst other speech effects might be disguised, slower speech and more frequent pauses are difficult to conceal as they may relate to changes in cognitive activity. Working memory may be degraded by social anxiety in some situations – especially, in relation to information not connected to social threat.
Performance deficit is considered to be a factor in the maintenance of social anxiety, as safety behaviours such as avoidance prevent the exposure and practice necessary to develop social skills, increasing objective social deficits which may already exist due to the cognitive effects of anxiety. Anxiety and bullying were correlated in a study on university students, though the nature of the correlation is not clear.
Social anxiety disorder is said to restrict educational achievement, job performance, social functioning, personal relationships, and quality of life. It is associated with “low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, lower education and socioeconomic status, unemployment, financial dependency, and being single.”
The original vulnerability of non-stuttering individuals with social anxiety may not be physically apparent but the secondary vulnerability of its symptoms are often apparent. The fear that arises from the condition affects social functioning in some analogous ways to stuttering and can expose individuals to low social status or influence and to social harms, from rejection to victimisation and a lesser quality of life. Such experiences may contribute towards the maintenance of social anxiety.
The overt acknowledgement that social harm or threat exists as a cause of fears is a first step towards a more holistic approach to treating social anxiety. Whilst the initial vulnerability may not have clear rational basis, the secondary vulnerabilities, affecting cognitive and physiological functioning, do. For socially anxious stuttering individuals seeking treatment, speech and language therapy has been recommended, alongside CBT treatment which includes graded exposure. For non-stuttering individuals, treatment for individualised vulnerability, as well as CBT’s rationalisations and exposure will likely be beneficial. Recognition of the reality of social threat and harm and individual vulnerability will likely better enable patient and therapist to identify suitable gradations of fear exposure to reduce fears.
Trauma experts state that recalling and articulating a traumatic episode is a vital aspect of recovery, by virtue of integrating the experience into the individual’s life experience. Judith Lewis Herman, in her book, Trauma and Recovery, quotes Freud: “His illness must no longer seem to him contemptible, but must become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence, and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived. The way is thus paved… for a reconciliation with the repressed material which is coming to expression in his symptoms while at the same time place is found for certain tolerance for the state of being ill.”
At some stage, trauma sufferers also need to make the future part of their existence too. Herman writes of a stage of recovery from trauma: “She has mourned the old self that the trauma destroyed; now she must develop a new self. Her relationships have been tested and forever changed by the trauma; now she must develop new relationships.”
Loss of any sense of having a future can be a symptom of depression, as The Amethyst Lamb writes in a recent blog post, referencing the book Time Warped: Unlocking the Secrets of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. The Amethyst Lamb writes “…depression also effects one’s ability to imagine the future. So not only do they feel like every moment is taking longer than it objectively is, they also cannot visualize a future for themselves. Granted, being depressed, they may only imagine an awful, bleak future if they can imagine one, but they are incapable of imagining things getting better. They can’t imagine things ever changing in general.”
The Amethyst Lamb goes on to suggest that inability to imagine a future for oneself may be used as a diagnostic indicator of depression and the increased likelihood of experiencing suicidal ideation.
The importance of addressing the present/future was presented in a study of major depression disorder sufferers from 2011. The study found that patients responded more favourably to what was called Future-Directed Therapy (FDT) rather than cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that focussed on changing negative thoughts about past events.
The patients treated with Future-Directed Therapy (FDT), conducted in a group environment, received support in skills for positive thinking about the future and in taking action to change their circumstances, for example, through goal setting. Whilst the sample in the study was small, the outcomes for those who received FDT was considerably higher for depression, anxiety and well-being scores.
Brain activity can vary from task focused modes, when the prefrontal “executive” network, which governs planning and impulse control, amongst other things, dominates brain activity to periods of anxious rumination, when the “salience” network, which processes emotions, takes charge, overriding other networks. Treatment for depression and anxiety which strengthens task focussed prefrontal network activity, may assist in an individual’s capacity to manage decisions and experiences.
In a recent blog post, The Meaning of Your Life, AP2 writes of hopelessness: “They stop believing that there is any point to life. They start believing that their suffering is in vain. So they choose to live their lives in pursuit of immediate gratification. Nihilism consumes and they choose pleasure over purpose.”
He writes, addressing his newborn son: “The truth is our lives hold as much meaning as we give them. Which is why you must give yours as much meaning as you possibly can. In your relationships. Your work. Your family. You must fill every corner of your precious existence with it.”
Hope and optimism is said to arise when, according to FDT, one feels the capacity to achieve a desired future state and reach what one wants. Obstruction to achieving or imagining a future desired state causes distress. One of FDT’s principles is that: “Preparing for the future is essential to thriving and much of human functioning has evolved for the purpose of creating the future.”
Judith Lewis Herman, in Trauma & Recovery, suggests that reconnection with oneself, others and a community, are necessarily aspects of recovery. Imagining a future for oneself, for anxiety and depression sufferers, will also likely involve these connections in safe environments – as well as connection with painful memories. In the meantime, meaning in one’s life may, as AP2 suggests, be found in its meaninglessness and the opportunity this offers us.
Mental Health & Time Perception by The Amethyst Lamb – 14/01/21
The Meaning of Your Life by AP2 – 06/01/21
Gyula Krúdy’s short tragi-comedy tale, Death and the Journalist, captures the extreme loneliness and emptiness of living with hopeless dread. It follows a character who is due to participate in a duel with an expert marksman the following day. The eponymous journalist, Titus Finehouse moves between familiar pubs and cafes, having desultory encounters with acquaintances and strangers from the underclasses of Budapest.
One of the most pitiful moments is when Finehouse returns to his room, in which an obituary of his mother hangs on the wall, and hears creditors come to the door, demanding satisfaction. One, an instalment agent, sits outside his door, determined to wait it out: “He scratched his palms, he scratched his head; he dug around in his ears with a match, gurgling blissfully during the operation; he rubbed his legs against each other. There are people who are never bored, because they always find something to occupy their bodies. And so Mr. Munk, when he could think of nothing better to amuse himself with, kicked his shoes off his feet and sat about in his stockings.”
Hours before, Finehouse was drinking champagne with a former scullery maid, who was now the mistress of a rich cabinetmaker. She approached him, sitting alone in the upmarket Orpheum Cafe, having heard of his fate and they sat together whilst his two duel seconds, who he had accompanied to the cafe, talked private business. “But when the head waiter, at last, arrived with the bill on a silver tray, the cunning expression of a highwayman on his face, our hero suddenly realized that he would be left, after paying the bill, with barely enough money to pay the janitor for opening the house door, and even that only if he could, somehow, manage to cheat the waiter out of part of his tip. Eliza drifted away towards the washroom. The two seconds got into their cab and shouted to the journalist through the window: “See you at half past four tomorrow afternoon, Francis Joseph barracks!””
Finehouse receives mostly superficial interest from those he meets, despite the publicity surrounding his duel, and quite a lot is made of his green Tyrolese hat and a cane he has acquired. The most kindness Finehouse receives, aside from advances from his editor at the newspaper, on his meanderings, is from Olga, a cashier at the Franciscan cafe: “weary, melancholy, hopeless, as always at the break of dawn, after another night devoid of events worth mentioning.” It is Olga who has given Finehouse the so-called sowgelders hat and the cane from the ‘lost property’ collection at the cafe. Later, Finehouse goes back to her to propose marriage: “My name would be surrounded by a nimbus of sorts, and people would know that I did not live light-mindedly, from one moment to the other, but had a purpose in life which I fulfilled.” Olga offers him brandy and suggests they talk about it the following day.
On the day of the duel, having slipped his creditors, Finehouse finds himself admiring his hat and cane, when he remembers his fate: “All of a sudden, he remembered the duel in the afternoon, the duel he had not had the time to think of because of his visitors. In the face of other troubles, we sometimes forget even death.”
The story is typically descriptive and tragi-comic and, as with other Krúdy stories, there is a narrowness of portrayal of female characters that also limits his storytelling. Nonetheless, the story is not only entertaining and vivid but it is a fine depiction of overwhelming dread and loneliness. It painfully highlights the futility and degradation of distractions in the face of such dread – but, nonetheless, the appeal they hold over us.
An essay on Gyula Krúdy – “a truly significant innovator in the person of Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933), who produced a narrative technique which had no direct antecedents in the diversity of literary currents, and which in many respects was a forerunner of the trend that became finally shaped as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in the writings of such great authors as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf in the 1920s.”
Review of N.N by Gyula Krúdy – “the story of a man who, after being famous in Budapest, comes home to Eastern Hungary and wanders between dream and reality on his childhood land. He resuscitates his youth, the people, the places, the customs.”
Essay by FERENC TAKÁCS – ‘Gyula Krúdy and Szindbad’
Bibliography – Works by Gyula Krúdy
Summaries of Gyula Krúdy’s significant works
Barlow’s ‘triple vulnerability model’ of emotional disorders broadly theorises that they arise as a result of an interaction of (1) general biological vulnerability (2) early learning psychological vulnerability developed towards controllability and predictability of life events and emotions and (3) disorder-specific psychological vulnerability.
The developmental model of emotional disorders places childhood experiences at the heart of a partly learned/trained process. Blogger, Cherry Northern, recounts in their very insightful, personal post, The Scourge of Social Anxiety: “And what I think is that children who explore what’s new (leaving the safety net, so to speak) often find their exploration rewarded by learning a new skill or social function that, on the whole, is healthy for development. With each new place, person, or experience a child encounters, the child’s brain will say, “Hey, that wasn’t bad at all! We can keep doing this!”
Cherry Northern recalls that in preschool he went into a ‘survival mode’ of flight, which took the form of minimised verbalisation and interaction, to avoid attention. Trapped in this state of fear, he missed out on learning opportunities and he thinks, developed social anxiety, which he believes, may be serious enough to be considered a disorder – and is, he suggests, a modified version of his childhood survival mode.
For blogger, The Savage Damsel, her childhood worries, as she thought of them, were reinforced by some of the teachings of the Christian missionary community she grew up in: “I was told that worrying was wrong. I was told that if I trusted God or prayed enough my worry (what I learned later was anxiety) would go away.” It was in nursing school that she learnt more about mental health and that: “There are chemical and hormonal imbalances that affect me. There are traumatic situations that I’ve been through that have changed the pathways and chemistry of my brain.” She experiences chronic anxiety and panic disorder, social anxiety, eating disorder and mild PTSD.
Cherry Northern writes: “If you don’t discover your affliction is a mental illness, then you’re next natural assumption is that your mental illness is your character.”
Unlearning the fear, trauma and training that contributes to anxiety disorders will likely involve exposure to fears. Cherry Northern writes that his job in retail and being forced to engage with customers helped him but, at times, damaged his confidence and self-esteem. He suggests that: “However, I do think exposure therapy is best done amping up the social difficulty at a gradual level. If you take on too much for too long without some structure, then exposure might only hurt you. It takes a balance.”
The question of how to develop the strength to move out of “survival mode” of anxiety symptoms is discussed by Gwen Richards, in her recent blog post, Is it courageous to simply be? The last year was extremely difficult for her and, rather than continue particular struggles, including her career path, she changed her situation to find a more comfortable one: “Soaked and frightened, I imagine myself clung to the rocks at the side of the rapids, almost being drowned or swept away. But I found the strength to pull myself out, only to stand up and realise there was a peaceful stream running right alongside the rapids. A stream that I’d never seen before.”
Akhilesh Magal, in his recent post, The Problem in America is not Trump – it is You and Me, presents a suggestion for what it means to be courageous. He quotes US existential psychologist, Rollo May: “Finding the centre of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs – not new ideas and inventions, important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can be, that is, persons who have a centre of strength within themselves. It is our task to find the sources of this inner strength.”
Cherry Northern puts this inner strength in the context of his difficulties with social anxiety. He writes of the fear of wearing a brightly coloured and eye-catching jacket to a restaurant, rather than a beige one: “What you have to do is train your mind to say, Regarding this jacket, though, what do I want to do? Maybe you feel insecure about ordering a big meal when you feel hungry while what everyone else orders is lighter fare. Again, But what do I feel like eating?.” He adds: ‘The attitude I try to harbor is simply this: “Do I like/want/feel it? Nothing else matters.”’
The Scourge of Social Anxiety by Cherry Northern (7/1/21)
Mental Illness and Covid-19 by The Savage Damsel (8/1/21)
Is it courageous to simply be? by Gwen Richards (7/1/21)
The Problem in America is not Trump – it is You and Me by Akhilesh Magal (9/1/21)
Creature of the reflection
shadow of the shadow
in the breeze.
and magnolia trees.
The many wings
of the sky.
reflected in the mind.
but for children’s cries.
The night of the fox,
breaking of light.
With cries and barks,
The fox barks
in the night.
High, her voice
reaches the hills.
A heavy mist.
in the morning.
Davelle Lee has run a public ‘social anxiety-free’ blanket fort project to get people to engage with others and share their thoughts and feelings. In doing so, she challenged her own insecurities and capacities. Here, she shares more about her projects, which includes a podcast and talks about her experiences of social fears, growing up in Singapore.
I had been running the podcast for a while and felt like I was preaching to the choir because my listeners were people who were familiar with social anxiety or experienced it themselves. So I started to look for ways to reach a wider audience, but first I had to decide what kind of audience I wanted to court.
The festival I ran my first blanket fort at [in 2018] was called the Conscious Festival by Green is the New Black. The organisers advocate for conscious sustainable living in terms of environment, business, personal well being etc., and my message lined up nicely with their ethos. So I pitched the idea to them to create a cosy space for people at the festival who might get overwhelmed by the presence of too many other people.
I wanted to create an environment that was un-intimidating and could immediately give people a sense of safety. What came to mind was an episode of the TV series Community, in which Troy and Abel construct a labyrinth of bedsheets and blankets in their school dormitory that is quickly inhabited by other students and even faculty. Sure, the pair were accused of being immature for building their blanket fort at first, but the cover from the soft bed linen proved to appeal to large swathes of the adult population at campus.
I set out to recreate this feat IRL, hoping it would attract the same response with the Conscious Festival crowd – and thankfully it did. People would poke their heads in just to check the fort out, and then within moments they’d strip their shoes off and start to talk to me about their lives, their dreams and fears. And I’d listen, for hours and hours on end. Someone described the space as magical, which really moved me because that’s exactly what I’d hoped to achieve – to add a little bit of wonder into someone’s day, and to provide a little bit of solace.
After doing a few iterations of the blanket fort over the last two years, it was clear that I was ill-equipped to support some of those who visited. Sometimes, someone would come in with dark thoughts and a lot of hurt. I’m a good listener, but when they asked for advice, I didn’t know what to offer. So this year, I took a post-graduate diploma in psychotherapy to accumulate the experience and skills to guide others better. It’s been a really fruitful journey. I feel like I’m much better prepared to hold space for people now, and I’m looking forward to when I can run my blanket fort again.
I’ve always been a nervous kid. When I was in kindergarten, I had this habit of standing at the side of the playground and watching the other children play. If anyone came to talk to me or ask me to play, I would freeze up. I couldn’t even speak to them because I was just terrified of all these tiny humans. That’s shyness.
Not only that, I didn’t even want to play by myself, and looking back I think it was probably because I didn’t know what to do and I was afraid of being laughed at or criticised if I ended up playing “the wrong way”. This of course has nothing to do with being shy, but I would only find out much later in life what it was.
So I had a lot of trouble making friends growing up because I was painfully shy, and then as I got older I learned that I had to talk to people or I wouldn’t have any friends so I did. By the time I got to university, I would say that most people couldn’t tell that I had once been really shy.
All that time I spent working on my shyness, I didn’t do a thing about my social anxiety. Because I just trusted that voice in my head – the snarky one that pointed out all the things I was saying and doing that was wrong, or embarrassing, or stupid – without questioning it. It seemed like she was protecting me from harm by telling me the truth about myself.
So thank God for university, because if there’s one thing that you get from doing a major in psychology is endless opportunities to psychoanalyse the crap out of yourself. And in the pages of my textbooks, I recognised that voice that was telling me that I wasn’t cool or smart or interesting enough. It had a name: social anxiety.
What is social anxiety? Social anxiety is really just the fear of looking stupid, of being judged, by other people. I want to clarify that social anxiety is not always a disorder. It can be, and when it is a disorder it is completely debilitating. But in my case, it isn’t, it’s just an aspect of my personality that’s heightened as compared to others.
This aspect is the tendency to overthink about what others think of you, and to catastrophize over it. We all compare ourselves with other people. How else do you know where you stand? I’m funny if I make people laugh more often than other people, I’m smart if I know the answers to more things than the next guy. With social anxiety, the comparison is almost consistently negative.
When I learned about this at school, for the first time, I realised that this voice in my head, my inner critic, was abnormally loud and bossy, and that she was ruling my life. That was a powerful turning point for me. I began to notice all the ways that this anxiety was preventing me from living life to the fullest (pardon the cliche).
Long story short, over the next few years I’d learned how to be more aware of that inner critic, to call her out every time she tried to stumble me, and to do things in spite of my discomfort.
I wanted to share my truth about social anxiety through a medium that could best communicate my internal experience. The objective was twofold: I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and put myself out there, essentially the most masochistic thing someone with social anxiety could subject themselves to. Because I needed to grow, and this was the perfect challenge. The goal was also to help others who are fearful like me understand themselves better and in doing so, overcome their insecurity and anxiety. I felt like I had to set an example.
At the time, I was writing for a magazine and I thought about bringing my message to our editorial pitches. But the written word felt flat, insufficient. In hindsight my editors would probably have thrown out the idea anyway – it isn’t fashionable to be afraid of people.
I really love podcasts. They’re raw and intimate and they allow you to connect with an audience in a way that you just can’t with text alone. Because the human voice is, well, it’s the sonic essence of your soul pouring out of your body unfiltered.
So that’s the direction I chose. My little brother’s a musician in a band called Cosmic Child, and he’s been a huge blessing, supporting me with the sound design for the project. He taught me how to edit, and sent me off with a little handheld recorder to do my first episode.
And here we are now. I’ve experimented with various formats and topics, and the podcast has evolved from simply raising awareness about social anxiety to trying to speak to our common humanity, whatever the heck that means. My latest series makes an attempt to tap into our universal frustration with the state of the world at present to draw some comfort from the tiny glimmers of optimism in these personal essays.
To give you a bit of context, what someone typically asks when they enter my blanket fort is, “So, what’s this about?” I introduce them to the concept of social anxiety and how all of us experience a fear of being judged to varying degrees. Then I explain how the blanket fort was designed to be a space that’s judgement-free and that they are free to be themselves and use the space however they deem fit.
At this point, many people will tell me that they don’t have social anxiety, but then quickly proceed to contradict themselves by telling me about situations in which they experience that fear of judgement – at work, in their friendships, and especially dealing with family. In families with very traditional values, it can be hard to have open and honest conversations. There are also a lot of rules, and an expectation of a certain level of propriety (e.g. one must never talk back to your parents). And while this isn’t inherently bad – some rules are good, they provide order and a sense of predictability – it can sometimes cause friction between generations. So this topic came up quite a bit: of parents being unable to accept the dreams, ambitions or lifestyles of their children, and children not knowing how to deal with the conflict with their parents.
A young man based in Malaysia told me that moving away from his family took a bit of an adjustment. He loves his parents and wanted to be a good son, but now realised he didn’t actually know what they expected of him. So he called his mother one day and asked, “What are the unspoken agreements that I have with you that I haven’t been fulfilling?” In other words, what were the things she thought he should be doing for her but was not.
She said, “I wish you’d call every week.” And he asked, “Why didn’t you ask me to?”
Her answer: “I always thought that if you missed me you would call me.” As a millennial, texting was his way of reaching out and showing her that he was thinking of her and it hadn’t occurred to him that what she needed in order to receive his love was a phone call.
And so he agreed to call her more. Then she asked him what unspoken agreements she had with him that she hadn’t been acting on.
I adore the concept of speaking our unspoken agreements aloud so we can love one another better.
The subject of pursuing a career that aligns with one’s passion also came up often. People are burdened with the expectation (their own, and from others too) too that they must make a certain amount of money in order to sustain themselves and their families. At the same time, they worry that they are wasting their time in jobs that they don’t care about.
Conversely, it was really nice to listen to people talk about their passions. Whether it’s writing poetry, or making their own clothes, or saving wildlife, or starting a business. A lot of people are excited about their ideas but afraid to talk about them in case they are put down, or they don’t manage to accomplish what they set out to do.
I’m working on accumulating client hours to get certified as a therapist. If any of your friends needs one, let me know! I do not charge any fees. It’s been really tiring on top of my day job but it’s been really fulfilling too. I don’t think my calling is to be a therapist, but I do think that I can change people’s lives by teaching them how to have healthy conversations and creating safe spaces for them to do so. I’m trying to find out how to use my skills as a therapist (-to-be) and as a writer, and my experience with the blanket forts and podcast, to create something of value to offer to people that’s also a sustainable business.
Working in magazines was really fun. I got to meet and interview people from all walks of life, celebrities, doctors, financial experts, entrepreneurs, chefs, and also just everyday people with interesting stories. It also really challenged me to become a better writer.
The downside was that the magazines I worked for were pretty conservative (and we also have a high level of censorship here in Singapore), so the stories I pitched were often deemed inappropriate or not of value to the mainstream audience. I’m not proud of the countless inconsequential listicles (“10 ways to please your man”, or “7 things you must eat to prevent bloating”) I churned out on the regular during my time there. Also, it paid poorly and saving money was a struggle.
I left my job and freelanced for a year. That same year, I started the podcast. Then I decided I needed more stability and managed to find a government job as a communications officer.
Growing up, I worked part time jobs just like everyone else. I served frozen yogurt, and was a barista at a cafe, and waited tables at a restaurant. I worked at a childcare centre the year before I entered university. And then for a couple of years, I was a research assistant and project manager for a study on the development in children in different types of kindergartens.
Davelle Lee’s writing and podcasts, which she creates in collaboration with a variety of people, including her friends in Singapore, can be found on her site, www.somescuffs.com.
Read about her reflections on her blanket fort project in her article, Build a Blanket Fort to Rediscover Connection