A Load Off My Shoulders: Removing My Social Armour

I’m tired.  I have been wearing many layers of social armour ever since I can remember, and that armour is heavy.  The biggest positive to come out of my TV panic attack and my subsequent writings on my anxiety experiences has been the space this has opened for me to finally take all that social armour off.  Over the years the armour has provided emotional protection and a means to cope with the swirling uncertainty of a condition I did not properly understand until recently.  Wearing the armour has exacted a heavy emotional and physical toll as an anxiety defence.  Though quietly pleased to have unloaded the burden of my social armour, I am feeling quite exhausted for having laboured under its weight for so long.

In Jam Session: Understanding My Anxiety Through Basketball I explained my anxiety in the following terms:

“My baseline psychological state is a heightened level of situational awareness, a couple of rungs below fight-or-flight but well above what would be considered a normal level of arousal. Because of my heightened baseline anxiety level, I have always felt uneasy in social situations because I am simultaneously intensely tuned in to everything going on around me and processing that sensory information within the rich high-resolution inner world of introvert.”

When I was younger I unconsciously developed a set of behaviours and traits—the social armour—which helped me cope with this anxiety, particularly at specific times in my life where I encountered significant stressful situations.  Each particular element of my wardrobe of social armour materialised as an attempt to reclaim some sense of agency in particular situations where I was made to feel powerless.  These coping mechanisms were never particularly effective but represented the best attempt at reclaiming power my mind unconsciously came up with at the time.

The armour stays on, however, long after the stressful situation is gone and has shaped my thoughts and behaviours in other contexts where those particular coping mechanisms are no longer so helpful.

In this posting I will empty my emotional wardrobe of all its different suits of social armour, reflecting on why they might have evolved as coping mechanisms for my anxiety and depression, and consider the light and dark sides of these coping strategies.  I will then conclude by looking back on my long process of self-discovery which led me to be honest with myself, shed my self-deception and eventually the social armour as well.

Does the social armour you wear really reflect the person underneath?

My Wardrobe of Social Armour: Humour

In Riding the Tiger: My Journey Public Speaking with Anxiety I alluded to my use of humour as social armour:

“The social armour I have developed over the years is fortified with quick humour. There are moments when I am genuinely funny, but hiding behind humour as a social coping strategy can lead me into superficial conversations and stupid comments that often don’t do justice to my depth of thought.”

Indeed a razor-sharp wit has been my Swiss army knife of coping strategies.  I suspect I first developed humour as social armour as a means of deflecting bullying when I was in primary school and refined the art as I moved into high school.  As a highly sensitive kid not prone to physical aggression, returning verbal fire was my version of taking a swing at the person picking on me.  Alternatively, I would use humour in an attempt to laugh off taunts which in reality were cutting me deeply inside.  As an adult I have deployed humour to deflect attention in situations where I am feeling deeply anxious and uncomfortable.

In the Machiavellian teenage world of Mount Gambier in the mid-1990s, firing back at verbal abuse from others with insults of my own was like a quick sugar-hit that satiated my immediate need to reclaim some dignity.  But like a quick sugar-hit, the effect tended to wear off quickly and left me in a worse position.

For example, when I was in early high school there was one guy who teased me mercilessly about my big ears.  My attempts to get stuck into him in return ended up with me getting punched and humiliated in front of a large group of student peers.  Instead of getting my bully to stop, my attempt to give him shit escalated the conflict to a physical confrontation where I was always going to be the loser (as a highly sensitive person, physical violence has never been my forte).

The end result of using humour as social armour in this example was not encouraging: the verbal abuse continued, I was publicly humiliated, I felt even more isolated and ashamed, my anxiety was exacerbated, I slid into ongoing depression, and no-one who may have been in a position to help knew enough about my plight to assist because I never asked for it.

In hindsight, better responses in this situation might have included asking for help from friends, family and teachers, and responding to verbal abuse with an assertive but non-confrontational comment like “what are you trying to achieve here?”  I have come to see that the best way for me to recover power and dignity in a dehumanising situation is to ask for help (and at times that has been a very difficult bridge to cross).  Trying to cope alone has never been a winning strategy.

My Wardrobe of Social Armour: Naughty Trumps Nerd

When I was eleven years old, I made a conscious decision to get into trouble more at school as a means of becoming more popular.  I had discovered prior to this decision that demonstrating intelligence and being nice was not an effective pathway to social acceptance.  Instead, I chose the attention-seeking tactic of attempting to be the bad-ass and doing stupid shit to obtain the social approval I craved, a tactic that initially worked.

That approval was like crack for my vulnerable teenage mind, particularly when alcohol became part of the mix in my mid-teens.  (Even the smartest of) young males are not particularly bright when in groups and become even less so after drinking a skin-full.  We do all kinds of stupid crap when drunk to impress out mates, stuff that we’d never do as sober individuals.  That is the power of the need for social acceptance.

I remember the first time I got drunk, with a group of mates after the end-of-year social in year ten.  I remember the intoxicating feeling of being part of the group (not just the intoxicating feeling of the disgusting potion of cheap whiskey and vodka I was mixing with cola) as we bonded through the process of engaging in something elicit and clandestine…it felt like I was being accepted into some secret society!  The only reason young blokes drink when they are fifteen is for social acceptance.  After all, alcohol at that age tends to taste like Chewbacca’s back sweat so I certainly wasn’t in it for the palette.

By the time I got to university a few years later I was thoroughly committed to wearing attention-seeking + alcohol as my social armour of choice.  Living on campus I engaged in such self-destruction masquerading as social bonding as the Bachelor of Applied Drinking (24 pots in three hours of pub crawl around North Adelaide) and the Bachelor of Applied Eating (consuming the entire McDonalds menu in three hours, with some assistance from the gunja god), day-long sessions playing Golden Eye and Mario Kart on Nintendo 64 with the boys (and the aforementioned gunja god), among other things.

A young Ben studying Self-Destruction 101, using beer as a case study.
A young Ben studying Self-Destruction 101, using beer as a case study.

Just one problem: by the end of a year courting popularity by proving how hardcore I was, I had completely failed my first year of university (what I refer to as my “gap year while enrolled”), acquired a beer belly that has been with me ever since, and carved a yawning gap in my soul which should have been nourished by my authentic self and meaningful relationships.  That year prompted an existential crisis within me that took the next fifteen years to disentangle and spiraled me into further prolonged bouts of depression.  Once again, the short-term sugar hit led to long-term pain.

It is clear to see why alcohol was so seductive for me in my late-teens.  Being drunk dulled my introversion and anxiety symptoms, opening a window for me to step outside of my comfort zone and connect with other people.  This is also what led me to experiment with ecstasy in the rave scene.  Unlike alcohol, which is a depressant drug, ecstasy is a stimulant that promoted feelings of euphoria and overwhelming empathy with other people, along with the ability to engage in the kinetic release of dancing all night to hard music.

Of course the high of being munted on pills—and the powerful experience of connection and release that the high enables—is only a temporary experience that could not make me feel better all the time.  One night of partying on the weekend would conclude with several days of comedown and recovery, building up to reaching for the high again the following weekend.  This quest for connection and release turned into a weekly treadmill that impacted on other important aspects of my life as I wasted days of productive time physically and emotionally cooked recovering from the last party.  What started out as a liberating experience ended up as pure self-indulgence and self-destruction, again leading to the very exacerbation of my anxiety and onset of depression that I was attempting to escape.

As an anxiety palliative, alcohol and ecstasy proved (inevitably) to be dead ends.  My challenge since kicking the party scene to the curb has been to find that same connection and release in the everyday, rather than periodically reach for temporary escapism in the confected environment of the party scene.

My Wardrobe of Social Armour: Helping Others

I like helping other people.  It is why I am an academic and why I am involved in community work.  It is why I am writing these blog articles on my anxiety and depression experiences.  I genuinely enjoy assisting other people to get the most out of themselves and achieve their goals.  However, I have discovered a pattern in my past behaviour in which I have always attempted, unconsciously, to place myself in the position of the helper.  On one hand, making myself useful in this way would appear to be a social acceptance strategy.  On the other, being “the helper” may really be about being in control.

Asking for help involves a degree of vulnerability that I have always found deeply uncomfortable because of my anxiety and introversion, and therefore it appears that I have tried to avoid being in that vulnerable position by cultivating expertise and self-reliance.  This self-reliance and the associated ability to get things done is one of my anxiety superpowers, without which I would not have achieved many of my life successes.  However, as I explained above, not asking for help when you really need it is exceedingly stupid.

When I am “the helper” in a relationship it means I have a degree of control over the situation that reduces the potency of my anxiety in that context.  This in itself is not a bad thing.  What turns this tendency sour is when it morphs into an omnipotence fantasy in which I believe that I can fix any and all problems I encounter, both for myself and for others.  This can then lead to burnout as I take on too many responsibilities and sometimes even end up in toxic co-dependent relationships with other needy people.  It can also lead to anger and despair when my unrealistic expectations of other people and my own abilities collides with reality.  Each of these outcomes inevitably pours fuel on the fire of my anxiety and depression as their inevitable end point.

To nourish my love of helping people in a positive manner, I need to be conscious of my strengths and limitations, be realistic about what I can offer in a given situation, and make considered choices about who to devote my attention to.  I suspect that most teachers, counselors and other “helping” professionals come to arrive at a similar methodology at some stage.  After all, you can help anyone if you grind yourself into the ground.

Looking in the Mirror Without Flinching

These elements of my wardrobe of social armour evolved as my unconscious responses to the combination of my anxiety and stressful stimuli.  It is only now with the benefit of hindsight and much introspection that I can unpack them, reflect on their shortcomings and develop more effective ways of managing my anxiety.

Coming to understand the nature of my social armour has been a long process.  It began by making a lot of life mistake (a couple of which are mentioned above) and starting to listen to the nagging feeling that no matter how hard I tried, something in my life was not quite right.  It came from the ill-defined shame of doing something stupid or interacting with others in an inauthentic way.  When that nagging feeling became depression, it was very clear that something was deeply wrong.  Figuring out what that was would become the obsession of my last two decades.

My first attempts at figuring this out began with poetry, inspired by my year twelve English teacher.  Those writings evolved into rap lyrics when I was an undergrad, which I recorded through some average sound recording software, a microphone and my Dad’s dodgy amp from the 1970s.  In my early twenties I discovered meditation and made great strides in a more conscious self-reflection through this process.

At this stage I also travelled overseas to South Korea, during which time (and every trip since) I kept a journal in which I diarised my thoughts, feeling and experiences.  Being overseas and removed from the immediate context and baggage of home has always provided me with the space to evaluate my life with great clarity and objectivity, helping me to arrive at realisations and make important life decisions.

Nonetheless, no amount of active self-reflection was ever enough to address my periodic bouts of depression and quell that nagging feeling that something was wrong.  I needed professional help.  One of the positive aspects of the university environment is the availability of counseling services, which I made use of for the first time early on during my PhD candidature.  Since that time I have worked with a number of psychologists and counselors in Adelaide, Albury-Wodonga and Melbourne, each of whom has helped me to understand the psychological underpinnings of my life and progressively peel back my layers of social armour.  I would still be painfully lost, writing rap lyrics angry with misdirected disenchantment, had I not mustered the courage to seek counseling.  It is the most important thing I have ever done.

Today I try to learn about myself through observing others.  Interacting with the wonderful young adults I teach at university is like having my past reflected back at me in the present, for all the good and bad that represents.  I am also immensely privileged to work with many wonderful colleagues who are emotionally switched on, willing to talk about mental health issues and most importantly, demonstrably give a damn.

My current self-reflective task is learning to embrace my imperfection and be OK with myself as I am.  A never-ending quest for perfection is profoundly disempowering for someone with anxiety, so if I am to successfully manage my anxiety then I need to re-evaluate my expectations about myself and the world around me and come to a place of acceptance.

How Heavy is Your Social Armour?

This blog is not a how-to guide for coming to terms with your demons, and my experiences are not necessarily generalisable to other people.  However, there might be snippets of my story that are familiar and resonate with you.  If that’s the case, let me send you out a pre-emptive hug and encourage you to persevere with looking in the mirror.

Further Information

You can access my other writings and media engagements on my anxiety and depression experiences via my Mental Health and Anxiety page.


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