The study of history can put our own experiences into a fresh context and provide greater understanding of ourselves. The bird’s eye view of society, through time, that history can give us, reminds us that pain, suffering and death are inevitable. We may feel part of legacies that have, at times, courageously struggled to overcome challenges. The bravery and inventiveness of forbears can, somehow, encourage us to renew our own battles, with fresh awareness of the unpredictability and brevity of life.
Watching a BBC social history show, available in the UK, called, A House Through Time, which investigates the lives of people, through the ages, who lived in a particular house, inspired me. The current series delves into the inhabitants of a single house in a suburb of the northern English city of Leeds, which was built in the early 1850s. Using archival records, the show reveals the stories of successive families who occupied the home, sometimes uncovering drawings or images of early occupants and, later, interviewing living individuals to reflect on their memories of the house. Personal lives are often connected to wider stories, as newspaper and legal archive records reveal individuals’ connections to industry, crime, religion and politics.
In one sense, it’s surreal to think that I worked for some time in a part of London that was in fairly close proximity to the Ecuadorean Embassy where Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, was confined, sheltering under political asylum from British police. He was due for extradition to Sweden to face questioning on sexual misconduct allegations, though he had not been charged by Swedish prosecutors. His offer to go to Sweden for questioning, if their authorities gave assurances that they would not extradite him to the US, was rejected.
In September 2012, he had breached bail and taken refuge in Ecuador’s UK embassy, where he was granted asylum on the grounds of political persecution. It was widely suspected that should he be extradited to Sweden, that country would extradite him, in turn, to the US, where there is bipartisan political support for his severe punishment for Wikileaks’ publication of classified documents that revealed, amongst other things, possible war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq. Whilst no evidence has been produced to show that Wikileaks’ publications has endangered any lives, the current US President, Joe Biden, likened Assange to a “hi-tech terrorist”, in 2010, when he was vice-president.
After over six years in the embassy, on 11 April 2019, a new Ecuadorean leadership withdrew Assange’s asylum and soon after, British police entered the embassy and arrested him. The Swedish prosecutors dropped their sexual misconduct investigation into Assange that year, citing that the period of time that had passed weakened evidence. Images published around the world showed Assange being dragged out of the embassy building in Knightsbridge, London. He was imprisoned for breaching his bail and US prosecutors unsealed an indictment that charged Assange with breaches of the Espionage Act 1917, for allegedly assisting Chelsea Manning in accessing and leaking the Iraq War logs. In fact, Manning already had access to the logs and Assange is alleged to have provided some advice on how he might hide his traces better, a category of support that all publications involve themselves in when working to protect sources leaking classified information.
This year, 4 January 2021, with Assange in maximum security prison, a UK judge refused the US’ extradition request, citing the impact that it would have on Assange’s deteriorating mental health. In the US, he would likely face spending the rest of his life in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. Back in 2019, the United Nations special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer, warned that Assange health was failing, stating, “in addition to physical ailments, Mr Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.” Assange remains in a British prison, denied bail, pending an appeal by the US.
On one hand, my personal physical proximity to these historic events feels surreal but, on reflection, it isn’t. I was quietly sitting at work streets away from where Assange was holed up but our society, largely, was indifferent. We live in a society of amnesia and fear, encouraged by a media and political system that forgets or buries important news. Julian Assange’s story has significance for press freedom globally. It raises questions of whether the media can publish classified information which sheds light on the actions of our governments and, at times, their wrongdoing. However, the UK media and political establishment had decided that the imprisonment by their government of a media publisher, which Assange was, was not particularly remarkable.
On Monday, this week, news emerged from Belarus, that opposition activists, Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak had been sentenced to 11 and 10 years of imprisonment respectively, for their role in the political opposition and protest movement that erupted after the widely disputed 9 August 2020 election victory claimed by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko claimed an 80% share of the vote, against opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now in self-exile, having fled the country, fearing the safety of her children. Her husband, a Youtuber and pro-democracy activist, had been imprisoned in May 2020.
The vote was condemned internationally as not being fair and transparent and major civil unrest followed with large protests attracted crowds of tens of thousands of citizens. Lukashenko responded forcefully, with an estimated 35,000 people arrested. Over 650 political prisoners are thought to currently be imprisoned and a “purge” of opposition organisations has occurred.
39 year old Maria Kolesnikova, who is a former flautist in the Belarus Philharmonic Orchestra, has been called a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. On 7 September 2020, after joining a seven-member Coordination Council to challenge Lukashenko’s election victory claim, she was kidnapped by masked men in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and taken to the border with Ukraine. It is reported that rather than accept forced exile, she tore up her passport to prevent her own deportation. She has since been in pre-trial custody in Belarus and, nearly a year later, sentenced to 11 years of prison for crimes, including, plotting to seize state power unconstitutionally and calling for action to damage national security.
All the opposition leaders that challenged Lukashenko in August 2020 have been imprisoned or are in exile. Lawyer, Maxim Znak, who was sentenced with Maria Kolesnikova, has undertaken a hunger strike to protest his pre-trial detention. Whilst, the UK media covered Belarus during the mass public protests and arrests at the end of last year, now that the streets are quiet, coverage is muted.
Earlier this year, the organisation, Index on Censorship, published a letter written by Maria Kolesnikova to her father, from prison. The letter was written by Kolesnikova on the day that a court rejected her complaint against the extension of her pre-trial detention to 1 August 2021. Her father attended court that day, but he was only permitted to do so after he turned the t-shirt he was wearing inside out, to hide the image of his daughter printed on it. Kolesnikova’s sister, Tatsiana Khomich, referenced as “Tania” in the letter, says that their father has been repeatedly prevented from visiting Maria in prison.
Letter from Maria Kolesnikova to her father Aliaksandr Kalesnikov:
16 July 2021:
Hi my dearly beloved world’s best dad!
How are you doing in this trying time?
I’m constantly thinking of you, grandpa and all our nearest and dearest – sending my hello’s and lots of hugs to all!
The court hearing took place today so I already know how you had to ‘get changed’ – I bet everybody in the detention centre could hear me laugh! You really think fast on your feet. You see, now nobody can doubt that I’m my father’s daughter – and I’m so proud to be one!
I’m so glad that you are keeping your spirits high and are managing to get through these crazy days with a good sense of humour 🙂
Keep it up!
Today I received two! Letters from you and two from A.
You wrote that you’re in awe with Tania – I’m also writing this in every letter to her. What she’s doing for me and our whole team is unbelievable and incredible.
Please ask her, as do I, to make sure that she takes good care of herself and makes every effort to find time to rest.
And of course, the joke that your Berlingo [car] is crumbling and ageing faster than you are has also put a smile on my face. And so it should be, Dad, you’ve got no need to crumble!
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, when four coordinated plane hijackings and crash landings occurred in the US, including planes directed at and destroying the twin towers of the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan, New York. The attack killed 2,996 people, including 19 hijackers. The toxic pollution in New York, created by the attack, would go on to killed and ail thousands of people in the coming years.
It shocked the world not just because of its brazen and mass violence but because it struck at the world’s military and economic superpower, which had never suffered such a terrorist attack on its own soil; the US has some 4% of the world’s population but accounts for nearly 40% of global military spending. There was an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from across the world and President George W. Bush vowed not to retaliate blindly, saying in a speech: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”
On 7 October 2001, within a month of 9/11, the US commenced a bombing campaign in Afghanistan, demanding that the ruling Taliban regime hand over Osama Bin Laden and his associates in the Al Qaeda network that were accused of conducting the attack and taking refuge in Afghanistan. The Taliban made efforts to negotiate with the US, requesting evidence of Bin Laden’s guilt and offering to hand him over to an Arab state to be tried. The US refused to enter into negotiations.
US and UK special force troops were in Afghanistan from September, coordinating with Afghan warlords from the ‘Northern Alliance’, to prepare for a ground invasion and occupation, to topple the Taliban rulers. The US-led war took place without authorisation by the UN and without real evidence that it was an act of self-defence, casting serious doubt on the legality of the attack and invasion. The US and UK would go on to attack and invade Iraq, in 2003, again, without gaining authorisation from the UN or presenting a real case for acting in self-defence.
On 12 November 2001, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan fell to the Northern Alliance and by the end of the year, the Taliban regime had been all but displaced and a nearly twenty year US-led occupation and war commenced. It ended a few days ago, on August 31st 2021,when most US troops left Afghanistan, after a chaotic evacuation of thousands of foreign citizens and Afghan allies and their families. Strictly speaking, the conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to be over, as the US asserts the right to use drone attacks to strike at ISIS or Al Qaeda suspects and other suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. A recent US drone strike at supposed ISIS targets in Kabul allegedly killed civilians, including 10 members of one family, of whom, six were children.
In 2001, I was in my mid-teens. Despite attending a reputable secondary school, having passed an entrance exam for the privilege to be there and being a relatively good student, albeit in freefall, I had virtually no knowledge of global politics. It did not exist as a subject at our school, until Sixth Form level, when, boys in the final two years of pre-university study, aged 17/18, could opt for a course in Government and Politics, as one of the three or four A-Level subjects that would ultimate dictate one’s university qualification fate.
Naturally, I did not opt to take Politics when I reached Sixth Form. Like History, it seemed to attract many of the extroverted and opinionated amongst my peers. If I remember rightly, there was a notable crossover of students who took Physical Education (P.E.) with Politics. I did take the less fashionable Economics and, perhaps, gained my first extended insight into the functioning of the wider world during that two-year course. However, the Economics I was taught, from what I recall, was based on theoretical models rather than reality and rarely, from what I can remember, involved deep study of real events.
I had no context to understand the events of 9/11. Around this time, whether it was before or after, I can’t remember, an Afghan boy called Saqib joined our class. I remember that he was cheerful, spoke quite good English and was a fairly good football player. Contrary to how he had been introduced by our form tutor, he was not quiet or shy. I remember the type of school shoes he wore, for some reason. I also remember that he was subjected to mockery, intermittently, from one of the socially dominant members of our class. He may, I vaguely recall, have been injured by that person whilst playing football in the school yard. Then, one day, that year, our form tutor announced that he had left the school.
Around this time, aged 15/16 years old, we had a course in Current Affairs or some similar name. I don’t remember many classes, so it makes me wonder if it was a short course conducted over a few weeks, rather than a full year’s worth of classes. It was in one of these lessons that I first heard that newspapers carried political bias towards particular political parties. I remember being confused and shocked by this revelation.
Our teacher conducted the classes as lectures and I had the blissful experience of sitting back and listening to interesting accounts about the world, none of which I remember, without the need for any work. That changed when a new teacher took over the class. To my great disappointment, this teacher, a South African, announced that he did not believe in teaching Current Affairs and proceeded to cover Shakespeare’s sonnets instead. My hazy recollection is that he said that he did not believe that he could teach what he considered to be the truth, so he would rather not teach the subject at all.
In 2003, my final year at secondary school, aged 17, the US and UK led an invasion and occupation of Iraq. They lacked authorisation from the UN but claimed to be acting in self-defence against the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which, it was later proven, did not exist. Other claims used to build support for the war, including that dictator, Saddam Hussein, was allied with Al Qaeda, were also false. It was later established from internal documents in the UK that Prime Minister Tony Blair and other ministers were warned by advisers that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The senior legal advisor to the government, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, had been advising that UK participation in the war would be illegal without UN authorisation. However, after a meeting in Washington DC with US officials in March 2001, he changed his mind and not long after, the invasion commenced.
On 15 February 2003, a month before the US and UK attacked Iraq, a coordinated global public protest took place opposing the impending war. An estimated 6-10 million people are thought to have protested in countries across the world over two days. In London, alone, as many as 1 million people were estimated to have joined the protest march. The global demonstration is considered to be the first in human history to oppose an impending war and is credited by at least one expert as having a restricting effect on the US and UK, preventing them from the types of excesses of, for example, the Vietnam War.
A classmate talked about attending the protest. I had known him since primary school and was certain of my social superiority, especially, considering his relatively weak academic results. Now, he was planning a career as a doctor, had long surpassed me academically and seemed full of confidence. I remember him insisting that religion was the cause of most wars. I tried to argue against the claim, feeling somewhat under attack, having had a religious upbringing, but found myself spluttering without any counterclaim. (Whether this argument occurred in my head or in person, I am not sure, as I was mostly silent at school).
In my apolitical world, the Iraq War public protest was act of futility or, even, vanity. These last years at school were an apparent acceleration of growth amongst my peers, both physically and mentally. Somehow, my peers managed to keep up and excel in the increasingly difficult lessons, whilst I fell further behind. Some got part-time jobs, adopted new hairstyles, dropped out or became School Prefects, taking responsible roles in the school community. Groups went to the pub after school and one classmate turned up, apparently, drunk for a crucial final exam. Those who had joined the Army Cadets at school were no longer just marching in uniform but leading with loud orders that echoed around the school yard.
This was, I realise, the last steps of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and my peers were adapting in preparation for their new lives at university, in relationships and in the world of paid work. In my limited consciousness borne of social anxiety and isolation, I remained in denial and only pushed along by time and the school system.
Some estimates put the Afghani civilian death toll at 71,000, since 2001. A similar number of Afghani security services and police have died, fighting on behalf of the US and British-backed government. 457 British personnel and 2,461 US service persons and over 3,000 US contractors have been killed over the 20 year war.
President Joe Biden, completing the draw-down of the war, which former President Trump initiated, stated that he would not send another generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan. He said: “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
Both US and British leadership blamed faulty intelligence on their underestimation of how quickly the Taliban would defeat the Afghan government forces, which disintegrated in the summer of 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Foreign Secretary and some other officials were on holiday the weekend that the Taliban surged into the capital, Kabul, and effectively completed their takeover of the country. In truth, it was well known that the Afghani forces, trained and equipped by the US and Britain, lacked discipline, numbers and motivation to fight the Taliban, which itself, received support from Pakistan and had infiltrated the Afghan military.
The embattled US and British leaders barely said a word about the over 70,000 Afghan civilians who died during the twenty year occupation and war. Desperately, they sought to evacuate their own citizens and some Afghan allies and vulnerable people, such as journalists and activists, from the country, with the permission of the Taliban, prior to the August 31 deadline. Britain is said to have evacuated over 15,000 people, including Afghan colleagues but some Afghanis who worked with Britain remain in the country and face reprisals from the Taliban. Now the evacuations have officially ended, many Afghans are amassing at the border with Pakistan to try to flee. Britain is resettling some 5,000 Afghans this year and has said it will take in another 20,000 in coming years. Given the role Britain has played in the twenty year war, some have criticised the country for not taking more Afghanis and there is doubt as to whether they will fulfill even this. Neighbouring Iran and Pakistan have absorbed around 1 million Afghani migrants and refugees respectively.
British leaders challenged the idea that their own service personnel had died in vain during the war. Al Qaeda had been uprooted from Afghanistan, they said. They did not mention that since the Afghan and Iraq Wars and the global War on Terror, Al Qaeda and associates had multiplied across the world, including, in Africa, in the form of groups such as Al-Shabab, and that, in some places they have been overtaken by the even more extreme ISIS. They did not acknowledge that much expense and bloodshed could have been spared if the US and Britain and allies had attempted to remain within international law and negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban in 2001 and, at least, pursued the offers made and used violence as a last resort and in a proportionate manner.
I did learn the politics of power at school – to do as I was told, get good grades and otherwise, remain unseen, whilst deferring to the hierarchy of teachers and socially dominant students. This way, I avoided humiliation and bullying and remained, apparently, respected.
In History classes, which I took all the way through secondary school, up to the age of 18, I learnt about some of the battles for power and ideologies. As well as studying aspects of WW2, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, in later years, I took courses on British political history, which included, for example, the formation and growth of the Independent Labour Party, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, now known as the Labour Party. I learnt about some of the laws passed by the Liberal Party of 1906-1914 to reduce poverty and protect workers. I recall learning about the women’s suffrage movement. None of these events triggered any emotion or thoughts in me and I hastily forgot them almost as quickly as hearing of them. In my vacuum of knowledge and agency, they seemed to have no relevance. We learnt of isolated events and actions, often, without the social movements consisting of ordinary people that enabled them. To me, history seemed to come out of thin air.
I remember an occasion which, seemingly, was used to crush the idea that democracy had any personal relevance. In a junior year, perhaps, when I was 12 or 13, a school feedback system was created to solicit suggestions for school reform from classes. Our class submitted something and we heard no more of it. Some time later, perhaps one or two years, the Headmaster had, apparently, recovered our feedback and during a school assembly read out, in front of the whole school, our class’s suggestion that changes be made to the roofing of some of the school buildings to stop footballs getting stuck and ending an exciting game. I seem to remember the Headmaster barely disguising his amusement as he read it out and I recall my deep sense of humiliation and self-disgust for our collective small-mindedness. By then, I believe, we were senior students and permitted to leave the school yard during lunchtime and our games of football had ended.
Then, there was the education at home and via the internet and radio waves, for, due to my social anxiety symptoms and cultural isolation, I had little other contact with anyone outside of my family. My father ruled the home through force and social dominance, and I asserted my own role, whilst reading and listening to football and sports productions, in which individuals and teams received adoration for their own dominance. If I had a community, beyond my siblings, it was an online supporters’ messageboard for the team that I followed.
In the run up to the Iraq War, in 2003, British military intelligence advisers warned the government that a war would likely increase the threat of domestic terrorism. On 7 July 2005, London was hit by coordinated suicide bombings by individuals inspired by extremist Islamic ideologies, killing 52 residents and injuring 700. On 21st July 2005, a further coordinated bomb attack was attempted, this time injuring one person. British police shot and killed an innocent Brazilian man the following day, having chased him through the public transport system, believing him to be connected to the attack.
The US-led War on Terror, meanwhile, continued to escalate, including “special renditions” or kidnappings of suspects, detention without charge or trial, including at Guantanamo Bay, torture of suspects, bombing, drone assassinations in various states and, apparently, endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, secret surveillance of the public was increased and those who turned whistleblower to raise the alarm to the public, were persecuted ruthlessly, like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.. Terrorist attacks by disillusioned individuals inspired by extremist Islamic ideology or attacks carried out by organised extremist groups continued to occur across the world, mostly, in non-Western states, with Muslims being the biggest victims.
On 22 March 2017, four people were killed and 49 injured on Westminster Bridge, in London, as a driver turned his car onto pedestrians. Two months after, on 22 May 2017, a suicide bomber detonated a device at an Ariana Grande music concert, in Manchester, killing 22 other people. Less than a month later, on 3 June 2017, a driver targeted pedestrians on London Bridge and then stabbings took place on the street, with 11 dying, including three perpetrators.
At this time, I was still living near London, trying to find a place in society and to address my social anxiety and isolation. I had passed through university by revising hard for exams and minimal interaction with people. When I travelled to London for interviews, jobs or social anxiety support events, I found myself oppressed by the high alert security atmosphere. Sometimes, my fears, as a brown-skinned man, were, at least partly, imagined, based on the stories I heard about undercover agents tracking people, interpretations of looks that I received from people on public transport and from the police. Other times, there was some clear basis to my fear, including a few incidents of harassment by police officers and extra security checks I faced, at times, at airports.
The reality of making a living and holding down a job was the next part of my education in politics. Unlike in school, I found that exam grades and certificates and sporting ability counted for nothing without social strength – the ability to engage and converse with other people. I learnt that I was prey, due to my social vulnerability.
In my subsequent spells of unemployment and depression, I learnt from radical speakers on Youtube, that exploitation and bullying was part of the structure of our societies and the impulse for wars. I was moved to righteous anger and attended some public protests for some causes and attended activist meetings. Soon, however, I retreated, finding that social strength was necessary too for activism and, whilst I was not prey in these places, I felt weak and valueless.
Afghanistan was supposedly the “good war”, especially, in comparison to the Iraq War. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is widely hated for taking Britain into Iraq. With Afghanistan, a popular perception is that the 2001 invasion and occupation was necessary to destroy the perpetrators and supporters of Al Qaeda, the terrorists behind 9/11. The media choose, even now, not to focus on the small print concerning international law, lack of UN authorisation and the alternatives to a full-scale invasion and occupation, such as considering the Taliban offers to negotiate.
The Taliban were quickly defeated but they did not go away, aided by allies in Pakistan, where Osama Bin Laden was finally found and killed, by US forces, in 2011 – nearly 10 years after the invasion of Afghanistan. Between 2013 and 2020, annual civilian deaths in Afghanistan remained above 3,000, despite the millions of dollars being ploughed into the country by the US and Britain to build domestic military and police forces. Whilst elections took place, a domestic media industry grew and female rights, such as access to education, improved in areas, especially, cities fortified by the West, it was not replicated in rural areas and, as proved, was not stable long-term. Women and children accounted for 43% of casualties during the war. ISIS, borne out of the Iraq War and the destruction of that society, began to take form and conduct attacks in Afghanistan.
It was apparent that the West could not win the war against the Taliban insurgents. In 2018, President Donald Trump made the move to commence negotiations with the Taliban. On 29 February 2020, a peace deal was agreed in which the US promised to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to stop attacking Americans. Talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban formally began later without any real results. The new US President, Joe Biden, in April 2021, announced full withdrawal by 11 September 2021. Encouraged, the Taliban forces commenced an offensive taking city after city, sometimes, without a fight, and, soon after the President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, on 15 August 2021, the Taliban seized Kabul. With the US withdrawing, the UK and other Western allies had no option but to follow and a scramble to evacuate their citizens, some Afghani colleagues and staff and other vulnerable persons commenced, with the Taliban insisting on the deadline of 31 August 2021.
Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of the defence staff, said of the returning Taliban regime: “We have to be patient, we have to hold our nerve and we have to give them the space to form a government and we have to give them the space to show their credentials.” Whilst Britain is forced to acknowledge the need to negotiate with the Taliban now, twenty years after invading, a humanitarian crisis exists in Afghanistan. Over 500,000 people are thought to be internally displaced due to the increased fighting this year, the majority being women and children. Two million children are malnourished and one third of the 38 million population faces food insecurity. The UN estimates some 500,000 will leave the country in the next four months.
There have been a few unofficial “Freedom Days” in Britain lately. The most recent was 19th July 2021 when most national restrictions on social movement, association and mask wearing for reducing Covid-19 transmission were lifted. The following day, 430 undocumented migrants on dinghies crossed the English Channel from France, which was a record number of such arrivals in one day. The current Conservative Party government, which relies on anti-immigrant sentiment for support, responded by pledging £51.4 million to France to increase measures to stop migrants attempting to cross. Meanwhile, the government are pushing legislation to make it a criminal offence to enter the country without documentation to claim asylum.
The pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and refugee issue has raised some understanding and empathy for ethnic minority groups in the UK. However, it has not translated into political power nationally, as the right wing Conservative Party continues to hold power and social insecurity and some insularity fueled the Brexit vote to leave the EU, in 2016.
I look on at events with glazed eyes. Passing through temporary jobs in retail and data entry and periods of unemployment, due to my health difficulties, including social anxiety symptoms, I have built up no economic or social strength, only, it seems, emotional pain. I wonder if I’ve been mistaken in expending so much effort to try and integrate, be accepted and change as a person. Perhaps, I should be focusing only on survival and self-sufficiency, acknowledging my deep limitations and the cruel indifference at the core of my society.
As social anxiety symptoms can suppress one’s sense of self and emotions, a common response is to ‘fake it until you make it’ or perform a role to fill the apparent void. However, if this intense contextual social performing persists for a long-time, the sufferer will inevitably lose or not develop a sense of a stable personality. Rather than being a solution, the performances become intricate safety behaviours which may offer some comfort but, ultimately, may obstruct exposure to the fear which may be necessary to better understand it and to adapt to it.
In a post on Reddit, a user with social anxiety describes using shifting personas or ‘techniques’, both in the virtual and ‘real’ settings, to be “more able to deal with anxiety and the stresses of life.” These include, “faking confidence, trying to find the humor in things and life, thinking more positively, trying to be more talkative, forcing myself to have more energy, trying to enjoy social situations more, forcing myself to concentrate on the outside world so i dont miss something out, trying to put myself in the shoes of someone else so i can see where they are coming from and there are a few others too that i have experimented on throughout the years.”
The writer describes regularly shifting performances and mind-sets depending on circumstances, such that they would even do so mid-conversation, depending on who they were addressing: “As you could imagine, that was extremely confusing for me and lead to me withdrawing from many many social situations. In all honesty I’ve become more of a recluse as time has gone on because socialising became such a drain for me to do.”
Having tried to be their ‘natural self,’ without social performing, for several years, the writer describes experiencing an overwhelming social anxiety and, eventually, returning to the performing: “Without using the techniques the anxiety builds up and i start feeling so low and even paranoid that I feel I just have to change my personality to deal with the stresses of life.”
The most fundamental apparent harm of the performing or shifting of personas has been a continued lack of sense of self in the individual, such that even relaxation methods, such as meditation, “feels like another technique that although helpful, makes me feel unnatural and disingenuous.”
“So i often think i can’t win if i let myself be and just try and be natural because i get anxious stressed easily, but i can’t use different techniques because they just make me feel like i am not being my true self.”
In a separate blog-post, blogger, Sadie, describes her struggle to express her “unfiltered, un-curated thoughts in real time” – ascribing it to: “Fear of rejection, fear of conflict, fear of disapproval. Fear of losing control over myself. Fear of what others might think if they meet the Unfiltered Me — because I don’t even know who that is.” (My emphasis).
Sadie does at least have some sense, it seems, of what she wants, if not who she is: “And I’m tired. Tired of the constant tug-of-war between my true desires and the disorder that stifles them.”
One approach to reducing the persistent and physically draining social performing – which can create, an “internal barrier between me and myself” – is to concentrate on the myriad performances themselves and try to reduce them, as the Reddit user attempted. However, it may not be obvious what is natural and what unnatural. For someone suffering an identity crisis as serious as that individual, any adjustments themselves may seem like an artifice and be rejected.
A compassionate approach may be to resist passing judgement on the naturalness or otherwise of one’s social behaviour – acknowledging that all the behaviour belongs to oneself. Instead focus could be placed on the sense of fear itself and on building capacity to reduce the sense of vulnerability that is giving rise to the debilitating fear. For someone with a quiet voice, this might involve increasing their capacity to vocalise. Or, someone who feels physically vulnerable may choose to develop their muscles through exercise. For an individual with a lot of alienation from their identity, this too might be rejected as artificial. However, the benefit of this approach is to avoid over-analysis of the complexities and vagaries of ideas of self and personhood. If capacity can be built and tested, safety behaviours may become automatically unnecessary.