When people think of stereotyping, they often think first of racial slights, offending bigotry, and uneducated insults meant to critique anyone that appears to be different; however, there are many different types of stereotyping, and for equality to truly be achieved, they all need to be recognized and combated. At first glance, you might think that the stereotypes I have faced are glaringly obvious; I am a woman, and with that comes endless stereotypes; moreover, I am blonde, so surely I have been referred to as a “dumb blonde” at least once in my life, and for all of my life, I have attended different reputable private schools. However, save the snarky comments I occasionally receive at family gatherings about my “snobby school,” I have not felt the negative aspect of any of these qualities. For me, the offences that I face are not directed towards anything you could observe after having only known me for a short period of time. Differences on the inside are stereotyped just as often as differences on the outside, even though they are more subtle in how they are delivered. Mental illnesses are often accompanied by certain stigmas, and the prospect of seeking help and having to admit you have a problem is terrifying, but the ridicule following the behavior they induce is awful in its own way.
For as long as I have been alive, my life has been good. I have a loving family, complete with all of my grandparents, parents, and a sister who helps me deal with any minor hardship I might face. I never grew up knowing what it was to truly want, as my parents always made sure I was provided for and cared for me the best that they could. However, most of my childhood memories are laced with friends I stopped talking to because I was certain they were replacing me with someone else, or the terrifying fear I felt whenever I had to deal with a social situation, whether it was my turn to order at a restaurant, or if I wanted to purchase an item that I did not absolutely need at a store. I can no longer remember a trip to the mall that did not end in my crying, weighed down by such intense guilt that I often had to sell my newest purchase to a family member, in the hopes of feeling better about needlessly spending money, although it was not something I had any real need to worry about.
Like many teenagers, entering high school was a very bad time for me, and the fact that I knew absolutely no one at my new school and had absolutely no skills when it came to acquiring friends did not help. I spent many months friendless, and it was during that time that I started to have regular panic attacks and eventually had to visit a therapist for a stretch of time, where I was told I had social anxiety. Throughout the year, I had attempted to make friends, but was dismissed as too shy and bland. Luckily for me, a very outgoing girl made it her mission to befriend me, and I was able to eventually acclimate into a group of friends, although it took many months before I felt as though I was truly wanted.
Unfortunately, outside of my friend group, people were not nearly as accepting. I have been called boring more times than I can count, and I often am told, to my face, that I do not have a personality in person, and that I really should stick to conveying my feelings online, where I feel much more comfortable talking to people. I won myself the nickname “online Leah,” a true testament to the fact that I was easier to handle when I was engaged electronically. Outside of my inability to hold a normal conversation with anyone that I had known for less than a month, I was made fun of for not eating a lot at lunch, when, in reality, I ate a healthy amount. I just can’t eat in front of people, and I have to time when I eat at points where I know no one will notice. Most of the time, I can’t raise my hand in class, because I am too afraid that a wrong answer or a voice crack will forever mark me in my peers’ minds as an outcast. Oftentimes a minor fight with a friend seems like the end of the world to me, and although logically I know that this is not the case, my reactions rival those of someone who is about to suffer a devastating loss. The worst part for me is that I can always recognize when I am being paranoid, but I cannot stop myself from acting irrationally, and these decisions, which lead to clinginess and more paranoia, often annoy people and turn them away.
This is the case for most people who suffer from social anxiety, and it is very hard to function in day-to-day life when faced with a crippling fear of rejection. I know that, when compared to others with anxiety much heavier than mine, I have gotten off very lucky in life. I have friends; an indulgent, loving family; and I haven’t faced any hardship that has not been created by the design of my own mind. My biggest fear, the number one cause of my inability to function in social situations, is judgment. I live my life in constant fear that something I say will cause someone to decide I am unworthy, that I am unlikable, and because of that I need constant validation for every decision, action, and choice that I make. That is why I chose to join redefy, with the knowledge that this organization is attempting to create a place where judgment is not something I will have to live in fear of.
– Written by Leah Tompkins (redefy outreach team member)