Exploring Connection & Anxiety with Strangers – Interview with Davelle Lee, from Singapore

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

Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website: https://samuelaliblog.wordpress.com/

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