When I Realized My Childhood Anxiety was More Than Just Being Shy – And How to Know the Difference

Can you recall a memory from when you were three years old?

I’m not referring to flat recollections lacking colorful emotions of both wonder and trauma. I am referring to recollections of vivid joy and stinging fear.

I can remember the event like it was yesterday. I was three years old, and I was with my family visiting relatives in Montana. My mother oozed with joy as we went into town, and she spotted one of those old-time photo studios on the main street. It was the sort of studio that displayed (as a nudge of encouragement) black and white photos on the wall of families dressed in 1800s attire.

The brilliant marketing sold my mother, but all I saw was stone-cold faces lacking even a crack of a smile in those photos that hung upon the antique stained wallpaper.  Terror immediately struck when I heard my mother say, “Let’s get a family portrait done.”

I wanted to run for the hills, but I knew what I may encounter in a foreign place could be able to frighten me even more. My adolescent mind truly thought we were in a time machine and would not be able to return to the present if we dressed in that dark and gloomy garb.

My mother walked into a room that was filled with racks of clothing that reminded me of the old Jesse James and Annie Oakley westerns on television.

A tall man with an oversized black camera hanging from his neck approached my mother from the back room. He referred to the bleak and unusual clothing as historical fashion.

She held up an enormous dress that appeared to look as if it weighed fifty pounds as she simultaneously modeled various oversized western hats. 

This place gave me the creeps, and I felt as if we were all trapped in an old Frankenstein movie.

My father’s emotions did not mirror the jubilant sentiments of my mother.

“Aw, we don’t need one of those,” he replied.

But Mom was on a roll, and I knew she usually won these battles. She was the master of most arguments.

To be expected, my family began to select their outfits for the 1800s photo shoot. My juvenile thoughts ran wild as my creative mind truly thought they would never return to our present day and time if the photograph was snapped. I was not having any part of it. I like the time zone and the era I lived in.

I recall my mother looking foolish in her fluffy fifty-pound gown that could knock me down with a single nudge. She begged and pleaded with me to be part of this frightening family photo.

My stubborn ways prevailed, and I cried my eyes out, watching the flash of the camera hit these people dressed in sarapes, cowboy boots, plastic guns, belt buckles the size of a football, chaps, vests, batwing leather pants, bolo ties – who were these people I once called family? Would my family ever return to me in this era of the 1970s? Pure fear.

For me, this was a traumatic event that left me fearful of cameras for many years as I intentionally ghosted myself in many family photos. Don’t even mention annual holiday pictures on Santa’s lap. I would rather admit I was naughty and forget the entire distressing event.

I eventually outgrew my fear of the evil camera flash.

My parents labeled my behavior as childhood shyness. But was it?

The events of “shyness” continued.

Any team or group event was pure torture as I would rather stick a needle in my eye than play softball, run track, or attend dance lessons. There was a deep-rooted fear of others watching me and being the center of attention. I was perfectly happy spending my days splashing my bare feet in the creek behind my home, relying on creek frogs for my happiness.

I questioned if this was normal behavior for a person born under the Leo sign as I always read that Leos craved to be in the spotlight. Did the horoscope chart have it all wrong, or was something wrong with me?

Looking back, I praise Mom for never forcing me to continue a sports team or group event if I didn’t enjoy the experience, but my parents and I made a pack that I must try and not quit too soon.   

The year was 1975, and my mom was heavily involved with volunteering for the Children’s Home Society (CHS). CHS is a non-profit organization that was established in 1891, and governed by a Board of Directors made up of dedicated volunteers.

CHS was sponsoring book events at local schools with the hopes of encouraging children to read. She volunteered at this event and encouraged me to join her if I agreed to dress up like Becky Thatcher.  

I had no clue who Ms. Thatcher was but based on the duds my mom dressed me in; I resembled a walking Holly Hobbie doll – long braids, oversized bonnet and a long prairie dress that was overdone in frivolous ruffles.

The moment had arrived. I was practically glued to my mom’s hip as I followed her to the front of the packed classroom.  All eyes in the room penetrated through me like an x-ray machine on steroids. It was in that moment my tiny feet raced back to the classroom door as tears ran just as fast as my tootsies.

There were several more events throughout my life that left me frozen in fear, affecting my quality of life. I realize now, looking back and learning that shyness is a feeling that can be common. When a person feels shy, they can usually be motivated to perform through an uncomfortable situation. There is hope.

Social Anxiety is not as common as shyness. An individual suffering from social anxiety exhibits a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms that can either deliver mild distress or leave one feeling momentarily debilitated.

Shyness: Being quiet around others, hesitant to try something new, avoiding eye contact, feeling insecure around others, and displaying nervous behaviors like twirling your hair or touching your face.

Social Anxiety: Avoiding situations where you feel you may be judged, expecting to fail, excessively analyzing your presentation after a social interaction, and avoiding situations where you worry you may be the center of attention.

It’s never too late to know the difference and make changes in our lives. If powerful negative thoughts are controlling your life, get help and talk with a professional or confidant.

We have one life. Don’t let years pass by without being the best version of you.

Lori Armstrong

Lori began her career in the legal field, leaving that position to pursue full-time writing endeavors. Being a criminal court reporter for the Record-Bee, she balances the chaos in her brain by writing children's books and reflective pieces. When time allows, she publishes books for Amazon.

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