I’ve always felt like an outsider. As a shy introvert who grew up living with social anxiety, I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable interacting with other people. At school, I’d never put my hand up to answer a question for fear of getting it wrong in front of my peers. That fear of judgement and the shame associated with it has haunted me ever since, even throughout my professional career.
Despite being fairly well educated (I have a master’s degree in editing and publishing), I’ve always struggled with being called ‘the expert’ at something. Not that I’ve ever given myself that title, but when you’re the only one in your team to have studied editing and are therefore everyone’s go-to on matters of spelling, language and grammar, it’s a difficult title to shake off. On the one hand, I had worked hard to complete my degree, was passionate about editing, and when a friend would tag me in a grammar-related meme on Facebook, I felt proud that they recognised that passion and skill in me. On the other hand, the reason I felt so uncomfortable with this title was that I feared I could never live up to it. I’m always afraid that someone else will call me out as a fraud and publicly shame me for being wrong or for making a mistake.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend the past three Australian national conferences: the past two IPEd conferences in Brisbane and Melbourne as well as the last conference before the transition to IPEd as centralised, national body.
However, I almost didn’t make it to the conference welcome drinks in Melbourne. I had flown in from Brisbane earlier that afternoon and was staying by myself in a nearby hotel. I’d managed to get dressed without thinking too much about what the evening would entail (every introvert’s nightmare: networking) and was about to leave when waves of insecurity pulled me down into a vortex of anxious worries.
What if nobody speaks to me all night?
What if I try to talk to someone and they ‘blank’ me?
What if I say the wrong thing, or spill a drink on myself, or trip and fall down, and everyone stares and laughs at me?
Aside from these generic concerns, I’ve also always worried when attending editing industry events such as the IPEd conferences about being judged by those who, for lack of a more PC term, could be deemed grammar Nazis – the gatekeepers of the English language who are sticklers for the grammar rules I never learnt at school. From attending previous conferences, it had always seemed as though the presenters and other attendees either worked as freelancers or within publishing houses. Working in social media and marketing, as I did, meant the rules of grammar and correct style were often broken in favour of concepts of readability, user experience and engagement.
So on that night of the conference welcome drinks, all of these thoughts, partnered with my social anxiety and imposter syndrome, compounded in a tight ball of panic in my chest and a voice in my head that told me I’d much safer if I just stayed put.
To be honest, the only reason I ended up leaving my hotel room that night was because I couldn’t remember the password to any of the entertainment streaming apps I’d downloaded on my iPad before leaving home. I could either sit alone in my hotel room, bored, with nothing to do except feel guilty (the guilt always and shame always caught up with me eventually if I let the anxiety win) or suck it up and give this networking thing a shot.
Once I arrived at the event, it wasn’t too long before I had sidled up to someone else standing on the edge of the room and said hello. I don’t know whether it was my nerves or the glass of champagne I had in-hand, but I ended up blurting out my list of insecurities to her. I’ll always be grateful for what she said in response. She said, ‘I didn’t learn those grammar rules at school either, and I don’t have a degree behind me on the topic, while you do’.
Why was this seemingly insignificant comment so powerful?
I realised I was so caught up in feeling like an imposter amongst professional peers I respected, filled with self-doubt and assuming everyone else would look down on my skills, knowledge and experience, that I hadn’t even considered that other people could possibly feel the same way about me.
During the two-day conference, I heard time and time again from others in attendance that they felt like they had finally ‘found their tribe’. And that’s how I felt too. So what if I didn’t always get the grammar-related jokes it seemed everyone else did. These were people who were interested in and passionate about the same things I was, the use of language to reach and connect with an audience and how editorial intervention could make a difference.
This experience has taught me that it’s ok to feel anxious before and during these types of events and that it’s worth pushing myself out of my comfort zone. But I’m not naïve. I know the next time I go to attend an editing industry event I will probably feel those same, familiar pangs of anxiety that tell me to give up, that I’ll be safer if I just stay home and don’t try. So, for anyone who can relate, and for my own benefit as well, I’ve collated the three most important things we should remember the next time we’re faced with such a situation.
When you’re engaging in negative self-talk, it’s all too easy to get caught up in thinking you’re the only one that feels this way, which can be very isolating, and perpetuate the anxious thoughts even further. Try to remember that everyone suffers from self-doubt, imposter syndrome and anxiety from time to time. Be comforted by that fact that you’re not the only one.
We introverts might not be the most socially outgoing people. We may not thrive on networking events or enjoy making small talk, but what we typically do excel at is making meaningful connections and having real, in-depth conversations. Don’t feel as though you have to beat the extroverts at their game, by working the room and collecting as many business cards as possible. Instead, focus on what you’re good at and, if you’re a typical introvert, what is likely to bring you more value and satisfaction, which is making connections with people you can have a real, honest conversation with.
One of those rules of networking you hear all the time these days is to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. While this is an effective strategy that has helped me work up the courage to enter a room filled with strangers on many occasions, don’t be afraid of shying away from who you are and what you’re feeling. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious before and during networking events, and if you are honest about how you’re feeling with someone you meet, you might just help someone else realise they’re not alone and make yourself feel more comfortable in the process.
After all, we’re all human … even the seemingly scary, perfect grammar-Nazi-like editorial gatekeepers.
I’m beyond excited for the next IPEd conference in Hobart, and not just because I want to settle down in Tasmania one day. I can’t wait to celebrate and learn from professional peers and colleagues about their own interpretations of the conference theme and to connect with others who may also feel like they too are on the edge, of the editorial industry or of society. If ever there was a time for those of us who feel on the edge to be a part of and contribute to the conversation, and to feel as if we’re with our tribe, this is it.
Emma Bell is a socially anxious introvert who is passionate about mental health advocacy and blogs about her experience at The Anxious Empath. She works in the higher education industry and is passionate about writing, editing and sharing ideas and stories that empower and inspire others. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or Twitter.