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Self-Realization Helped Me Overcome Social Anxiety and My Past Traumas

“Healing just doesn’t come without suffering. When I failed for the first time academically, it hurt. I cried… a lot. And was down for a while until I felt I needed to know myself better. I started meditating and thinking about who I am. What’s my purpose? What am I doing with my life?”

Hello! Who are you?

Hey there, I’m Zain and live in a typical Asian joint-family setting in Pakistan. I think it helps to mention that I am the middle child in my family with two siblings. Not the first, not the favorite….surely that affects mental health, right?

That aside, I majored in electrical engineering but changed career paths a year ago from engineering to blogging, working remotely and I have never been happier! This was such a big life decision that wasn’t possible without the growth I have had regarding my mental health challenges and I hope that someone can benefit from reading this. 🙂

I’m single and will remain so for a few more years until I have built myself more. As for pets, our family has a white Persian cat that’s lovable but doesn’t give a crap about me. 🙁 

Oh well, that’s just cats. For my passion, I love psychology and talking about the cause of things rather than the things themselves. I owe a lot of self-healing and growth to my interest in psychology which lead me to self-realization — to know who I really am.

I consider myself the happiest I have been and I’m very thankful to my body for bearing it all with me, my parents (despite their strictness at times) and God, who gives hope when all’s not well.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

I have experienced social anxiety and trouble talking since childhood, even going to a simple family gathering would become a daunting task. Eventually, I got tagged as the shy, quiet person in the family when I just didn’t like being around people. 

I believe I developed social anxiety due to my parents pampering me too much. I got very little exposure to the outside world at all aside from school which created differences between me and the other kids. And we all know, when you can’t blend into the crowd, you tend to get picked on.

As a kid, I was naturally observant and realized some part of this phenomenon early on from a documentary regarding chicks. 

Back then in 2008, times were quite simple for me as a 10yr old. We had no smartphone to play with, a dead-ass dial-up internet connection that took hours to load a flash game, and I shared TV time slots with 2 siblings…

In the end, I had just toys and my imagination to play with. Back then, raising and taking care of these cute little chicks was a popular activity among kids (where chicks would get donated when they grow up).

zain zaidi picture of chickens

Although this activity is dead now since there are smartphones and other means to spend time on, a random documentary on TV regarding chicks was interesting to watch at the time.

It mentioned some tough realities including the fate of baby chicks with defects. They get pecked on by other baby chicks and…eaten. Why? Because they are different. 

Thankfully, we don’t get subjected to that. But society’s expectations of us and ignorance regarding mental health struggles feels nothing less than that. The physical pain eventually goes away, but the mental pain can linger on and haunt you for years to come…

The truth is, that society isn’t designed to accommodate people like us, the sooner we realize it, the better. It’s us who need to find a place of comfort in it.

As I mentioned, I have a knack for talking about the cause rather than the things alone:

As a kid, I was silent, observant, and extremely naive. I heavily relied on people’s validations and absorbed their likes/dislikes to make sure people liked me. I rarely talked if at all, except with my little sister, parents, teachers, and a few schoolmates. I always wanted to play with my classmates but never asked them if I can join, for fear of rejection. I felt I wasn’t good enough

But why did I grow up like that? Was this social anxiety genetic, maybe?

My parents are both talkative, mom a bit too much that she wouldn’t leave the phone. Same can be said for my grandparents, so instead of genes, I feel the cause was the environment and how I grew up. My dad spent most of the time on his business while my mom raised me as a “too good for this world”, rule-abiding boy which unfortunately made me an easy target for bullying at school.

I was strongly taught about morality. “Do good things, don’t do bad things” with a mix of religion in it. Lying is bad. Hurting others is bad. Violence is bad and so on. While these are good things to be taught about, not everyone in my class cared about them. In short, I was nurtured for the wrong world and didn’t learn the realities without suffering.

At times, I was punished at school for simply speaking the truth about homework or was bullied by classmates because of my naivety and passiveness regarding fighting back (because violence is bad…)

To give you an example of my naiveness, I used to take everything at face value because “lying is bad” so why would anyone lie, right? That was until I asked my cousin about some exorbitant claim he had made and he said was it was “just a lie” without any remorse.

I told him that lying is bad in general and in religion to which he told me he was joking and a joke isn’t a lie…

That should tell you enough of my naivety back then. I’m actually amazed by how clever and smart kids of this era are. This is a low bar but they definitely know much more than what I knew back then in their age.

Although I must say, the bullying at school wasn’t excessive (compared to the Western standards) but just annoying, making fun of me, calling my name wrongly, etc. Still, considering my naivety, you can probably imagine that even this was too much for me at the time.

And it didn’t just happen at school but from my aunts, extended relatives too, and partly from my mom too.

But the reason why my family picked up on me might be shocking to you: It was my brown skin color which is extremely common here…

For some context, the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc.) was freed from the British around 75 years ago, at least physically, but we are still slaves to the colonial mindset (and tea). 

One example of this is colorism — discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. This is also one of the main reason why skin care products for fairer skin are so popular here, these brands portray darker skin as inferior, and unsatisfactory in their advertisements which makes colorism only worse.

In the end, I would say going through such experiences, plus the belittlement from classmates and some relatives, was the cause of my social anxiety. I don’t resent anyone and have simply moved on, but as I said at the start, it’s important to know about the root of the issue before healing.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

I’ve always tried to stay away from the spotlight in social gatherings but when the guns point, it felt nothing less than suffocating, awkward, and made me feel “I just wanna go home”…

I think I felt the worst at my uncle’s marriage at age 12 when hundreds of people visited and I broke down and hid beneath a bed to stay away from people.

Everyone got really worried about my disappearance and started searching. I wanted to say “I’m here” but the thought of how I would confront people just lead me to stay hidden. When I was eventually found, I tried the “I was playing hide and seek” excuse but it didn’t work out. 

I got slapped by my mom followed by a hug and tears for making her worry… Oh well, the slap didn’t hurt, but the anxiety from people around me sure did.

Everyone just categorized me as a shy person rather than a socially anxious one. There was and still is little to no awareness regarding mental health challenges here in South Asia, so I can’t really blame anyone for not picking it up. 

And to be fair, I would always do my best to act “normal”. Until someone interacted with me, they wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m awkward to talk with and not comfortable around people. I would try to stay away from gatherings as much as possible, either find a chore to do or simply look busy so people don’t approach me.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

My school grades were good, but I wasn’t happy with my social anxiety and mental health overall. I always thought that I could do so much more if I could escape this old cycle, at least in school. My wish came true and I finally got the fresh start I needed at the age of 14. 

I had just passed middle school (grade 6-8) and entered a new school with new classmates and no links to my previous bullies. I introduced myself formally to the person sitting beside me on our first day and he went on to become my best friend at the time. I’m thankful to him and for my fate that I met a good person on my first day.

My parents also enrolled me in a separate tuition class which was also a new environment with a different style of teaching compared to school. I would sit in the front seat, and ask questions to teachers freely which started giving me confidence in myself. From here on, I never looked back and gradually improved my communication and got used to people overall. 

At age 16, I entered intermediate (grade 11-12) and received special attention from my English teacher who talked with me about my potential and encouraged me positively. Because of him, I even started speeches (hah, to think a person with social anxiety would do this). During the speeches, I would simply look at people’s heads and slowly started to not care about negativity overall.

If you read above you’re probably thinking I was doing well. But I think this was just me developing a persona that can act like an extrovert to get validation from society. I created an ego that wasn’t me but simply an existence to protect me from the painful memories of the past.

If there was a moment I truly started turning things around, it would be in my university’s 2nd year of engineering at the age of 20. The major turned out to be much harder than I expected and despite challenges in my childhood, I had never once failed an exam. 

Engineering fixed that for me in my 2nd year. For someone who was alien to academic failure, this hit me hard…really hard. I was so disappointed in myself and even had suicidal thoughts for a while. I can still remember the phone call I made to my mom.

Although lying is normal these days in this world, I don’t like it. Unless my truth hurts someone, I would rather not lie. I was and am quite frank with my mom and felt the need to tell her.

My heart was beating hard, I was anxious and unable to talk clearly. Still, I took a deep breath. “I can do this”

I picked up the phone and dialed her number. A few seconds later, the line connects. She probably heard my most defeated voice ever: “Mom?”

This wasn’t my normal voice so she caught on and worryingly asked “Are you okay? What happened? ”

“I can’t do this… I failed my semester”, prompted with tears and difficulty talking the rest of the tale. 

She tried her best to console me but this failure broke the fake ego of a person that had never failed before like this, eventually leading me to a journey of self-realization where I had to discover who I really am.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

You have surely gotten hurt and bandaged before right? Do you remember how we clean the wound before we apply the bandage? The disinfection of wounds comes with pain but it’s a necessary step.

The same principle applies here, healing just doesn’t come without suffering. When I failed for the first time academically, it hurt. I cried… a lot. And was down for a while until I felt I needed to know myself better.

I started meditating and thinking about who I am. What’s my purpose? What am I doing with my life?

While trying to find answers, pain followed as if the deep wounds inside me just opened. I cried after realizing the things I have been through. There’s pain in confronting these wounds and that’s why we tend to stay away from them but if you bear with it, this process will help you realize the real you, like it helped me find the real me.

I also benefited from my faith in God and felt being picked up from the sea of negativity and despair when I was at my lowest low. I came to learn that hopelessness is literally a sin in my religion as it means you feel God isn’t all-merciful and turns away from people. 

I improved a lot during this time (2020-2023) and started being me. 

  • Beating the inferiority complex, I started to love myself, and my body and take better care of it.
  • I started to say no rather than going with the flow or succumbing to peer pressure. 
  • I started constructing boundaries with my friends and family about what I’m comfortable with and what not. 
  • I told my parents about what I had gone through in childhood to take the burden off my heart.

And finally, I never stopped the process of knowing myself 🙂. I feel it won’t stop until I am no more, we grow and learn new things which get absorbed into sub-consciousness, and unearthing them is fun and exciting!

The process of knowing and respecting myself also helped me with my social anxiety. This coupled with my interest in psychology made me realize that people judge and it’s natural to do so. 

But, the point is, why should their judgments and opinions matter to me? Why am I trying to change myself to appease people that I’m probably never gonna meet again? Why am I not being me and happy?

While trying to find answers to these questions, I eventually developed a different mindset of “I don’t give a f*** about what others think of me, I’ll be me”.

With this approach, I have managed to change my social anxiety into “social preference”, meaning that I can now comfortably engage in social settings but I still dislike gatherings. 

I have come to accept my likes, dislikes, and my nature overall, but this doesn’t mean I have stopped growing. I am always trying to learn more about myself and grow from critical feedback. If you try to take the “I don’t give a crap” approach, that’s fine but be sure to make room for critical dissenting opinions and feedback, otherwise this wouldn’t be healthy.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

I have talked about some parts of my struggles with both of my parents and despite them not really understanding much of it initially, I have convinced them that mental health challenges exist and yadaa yadaa. This happened only recently in 2022-23.

Other than this, I haven’t mentioned this to anyone else and have been overcoming my mental health struggles with just me along with my faith in God.

Mental health struggles are simply not understood enough in South Asia to even consider being talked about, you’ll only make it worse if you reveal your struggles to an unempathetic arse. Therapy is also pretty much non-existent here as it’s not very accessible and seen as a waste of money.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Whenever you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself this:

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

Oftentimes the worst outcome is first of all not likely and secondly, not that bad that the world would flip over. So hey, you’ll do fine. 

When you’re alone, do you know who’s with you? It’s you, your “self”. Get to know that person and I promise, you’re all set for a journey of healing and eventually, happiness.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

I wish I could suggest something but I neither looked nor found any help in any books, youtube videos, etc. That isn’t to say that I don’t believe they can work, these types of resources just weren’t for me. Still, I was always open to new perspectives and such resources can definitely help you open up your mind.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

Well, I’m currently trying to create a blog regarding psychology and similar stuff from the perspective of a psychology enthusiast. It’s not really up to mark yet but I plan to slowly build it up!

That’s it from my side, if you have any questions or simply want to contact me, feel free to reach out via my email or my blog’s contact form. Thanks, until next time!

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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