— Chris Jamie
Have you ever overcome something?
Fought and won the impossible battle?
Accomplished the impossible dream?
Fought the unbeatable foe?
Run where the brave dare not go?
If so, you might enjoy this song:
I conquered crippling shyness and social anxiety in my early twenties. Most of my friendships were formed in college and after. Almost none of them knew me as a teenager, and most of them have trouble believing I was ever shy or suffered from extreme social anxiety.
I hear the common, “you seem fine” or “but you’re not shy”. Not now.
It’s like the classic story of the teenage girl who gets a fairy tale makeover and floors everyone because, lo and behold, this frog has become a swan. It’s the ugly duckling tale if the ugly duckling was a story about an internal makeover instead of a physical one.
There are things in this world that no amount of hard work and determination can overcome — Type 1 diabetes, Cystic Fibrosis, ect. They can only be managed; they can’t be conquered.
However, society increasingly adds things to the list of “Impossible To Overcome” that don’t entirely belong there. Things, that are perhaps more in the range of “difficult to near impossible”. Those who suffer from these conditions sometimes have a particular type of guilt not found among those on the 100% “Impossible To Overcome” list.
A gnawing, quiet guilt that whispers in the dark corners of their mind, “Why aren’t you overcoming this?”
And that brings me to the real point of this post: why those who do overcome must be exiled from the club.
This is how I overcame social anxiety and shyness:
I don’t know how it started or why I became so shy. Something in me became unable to make eye contacts with strangers or speak above a whisper. I was chatty to my family, and no one else. Social situations caused panic attacks, sweaty palms, and a racing heart.
I was socially awkward to the extreme. At fifteen, I had acne, bad fashion, and a gawky body. Somehow I never got body issues, but I had social issues. Girl society terrified me. Girls formed cliques, and I never fit in groups.
I sat alone in the school cafeteria.
By the time I was fourteen, I couldn’t take school anymore. I loved studying but not dealing with the social interactions. Thankfully, my parents listened to me and I was allowed to be homeschooled on the promise that I’d study hard and earn an over-the-mail high school degree.
Around 17, I had an diploma and I applied to Junior College. While homeschooling allowed me to leapfrog in my studies over my peers, it did nothing for my social skills.
All the books, TV shows, and movies idealize female friendships as the BFFS. Why, female friends will never betray you, they promised. So why couldn’t I find any friends? Was there something wrong with me?
I remember the night before my first day of Junior College. Sitting on the edge of my bed, I pondered a stark future. A friendless future.
This scene in “Rocky Balboa” resonated with me. That night it felt like I had this conversation with myself.
“You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you your no good. And when things got hard you started looking for something to blame.”
— Rocky Balboa
I didn’t want to let my problems own me and choose my future.
So I said, “No more.”
I did not need a safe space, or for others to spare my feelings. I would put myself out there no matter how painful it was. The next morning, on my first day of classes, rather than slink into the back of the room as I had always done, I sat at the front, near the chatty group.
It was a disaster. Sometimes I wanted to go hide in the bathrooms and never come out. Sometimes I couldn’t go through with it. I won’t go into all that happened.
However, little by little it grew easier and easier. Something began to change.
It took years, but my fashion improved, my way of speaking, and how I interacted with people. I started to learn to understand myself and the others around me. By the time I left my parents’ home for college, I was finding my stride.
After a few years I went to work in Japan. While in Shinjuku with other co-workers, one brought up her struggle with shyness and social anxiety. She talked about “Japanese are a shy people like me.”
I found myself nodding to her words and finally chimed in about how I overcame social anxiety in my youth.
I wanted to show empathy. That I understood.
Rather than be touched at my confession, she reacted in anger. Her expression darkened, her nostrils flared, and her lips pursed.
“No!” she snapped. “You don’t understand. Don’t you think I’ve tried to get better!”
An awkward silence followed. Eventually, the conversation changed. After that evening, we went to our different areas to teach English and never saw each other again.
As her words sunk in, I grew offended and confused.
She lashed out as if I had accused her of something when I all I meant to do was empathize by telling how I overcome my struggle. What was her problem? Why did she take it personal?
A year later, I was on a trip with a large group of English teachers. My friend in that group had been very overweight until she went to college where she transformed herself. She started eating healthy and exercising regularly. No one can recognize her photos before college.
She is dramatically different. While proud of her accomplishment, she still bears the scars of what it was like being overweight. Sometimes she has nightmares of the bullying she went through and she still struggled with body image issues.
Anyhow, a group of three women were complaining about how stick thin Japanese women are and how fat Japan makes them feel. My friend chimed in with agreement and mentioned that she used to be fat.
They looked her up and down, then laughed.
“Like you know. You’re thin and beautiful. You fit in here,” one said.
My friend paled, and looked stunned. She couldn’t manage to stammer out a defense as they continued to dismiss the notion that she was ever fat and that she could know what that was like.
It was in that moment that she realized: she’d been kicked out of the club.
Back home, there is a woman at my aunt’s church who struggled for ten years before finally conceiving twins. She nearly died to give birth. Her pregnancy was high risk the whole way. Now she has two beautiful daughters.
One day at a church group, a woman was weeping about her struggle with IVF and infertility. Seeing a chance to maybe bring hope and show empathy, my family friend mentioned her infertility journey.
The woman looked at her flatly and said, “Don’t you have children?”
“Yes, but for ten years…”
“Yes, yes, but you have children,” the woman interrupted. “I’m actually infertile. I can’t conceive at all. Do you know what that’s like?”
She was stunned and at a loss to respond. She had always thought of herself as infertile despite her miracle daughters. Now someone had told her that not only was her “infertility” card revoked, it never really existed. Her years of pain and struggle had been dismissed.
A few months ago, someone I knew since I first came to Japan passed the JLPT N2 (a test on Japanese fluency) and passed it after years of failure. Language learning had never come easy to her. What some can do in months, took her years and years.
Now she can’t chat fluently. The same thing has happened to her. She is now suddenly in the “languages come easy to you” group. Few believe languages are really, really hard for her because, well, she has learned Japanese and Chinese. Clearly, languages aren’t that hard. She was just being dramatic, they say.
The examples go on and on, but why?
Why are overcomers routinely kicked out of the Affliction Club?
From the Overcomers POV, it seems unfair. We are told to doubt whether our struggle was real. What we feel is a proud accomplishment is downplayed as something that was never that hard or serious. Our attempt at empathy is met by the “Not-yet-overcome” with anger.
They react as if under attack. But then, maybe they are?
Let’s flip the story and look at from the side of the “Not-yet-overcome”.
In my face, I have not overcome infertility. My only infertile friend recently gave birth to a beautiful daughter. I feel sad for myself. I’m happy for her, but it hurts. It hurts that I have not succeeded.
A part of me wants to say “well her journey was not as difficult as mine nor as painful.”
I wonder if I had done this or that, could I have overcome this?
Is it my fault I have not overcome infertility?
The success of others can inspire, but it can also hurt. It can hurt because we so badly want to overcome like they did. I wonder if my story of overcoming social anxiety came off as “neener! Neener! I beat the odds and you didn’t” to that young woman.
I wonder if it hurt her feelings like the pictures of my friend’s newborn both hurts and inspires me. Perhaps, her defensive reaction was because she thought I was accusing her of failure.
I think Overcomers can be both an inspiration and a source of pain to those who have not overcome.
The Overcomer can be…
the friend, no make that ex-friend, who got the guy you crushed on. The dream hunk that should have been out of her league…
the one who aced the test that no one could pass…
the one who landed the job you’ve wanted since you were five…
the one who had the children you couldn’t…
the one who lost the weight you couldn’t…
the one who escaped poverty…
the one who fulfilled the dreams you failed to do…
the one who overcame substance abuse when others coudn’t…
The one who succeeded at what others said could not be done.
We promote Overcomers as heroes in movies and books, but when faced with one in real life their existence can hurt us.
I remember in the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, this scene between Will Smith and his son:
If we acknowledge that the other person’s struggle was just as tough as ours and they succeeded, are we having to acknowledge they are better than us? That we are less than them?
You work the hardest at the office, but then the laziest person there gets the promotion.
You study months for the test, and fail while the person who didn’t bother studying at all sailed through.
You go through 5 rounds of IVF, but fail to get a child. The only thing you get is a mountain of debt. Meanwhile, your friend gets pregnant and gives birth to a child after one round of IVF.
And this brings me to what I feel is the greatest challenge for any human to Overcome:
The doubt and insecurity in our own heart.
It’s easier to downplay and tear down others accomplishment, than admit to pain of them not being our own. To acknowledging that we wanted to so badly what they got.
Whether you are an Overcomer or a Not-Yet-Overcome, we all are on a separate journey. We should not worry about whether others are on the easier path or whether they’ll get their first.
We should keep focused on our own, wherever it might lead.
The Overcomer will face the skepticism of others.
The Not-Yet-Overcome will face a daunting road that may not end in success.
I hope we can all find our way.