I feel like I spend most of my time worried about what other people think of me. I suppose, more accurately, I spend most of my time predicting what people might be thinking of me. My therapist calls this “projection.” It’s a hot topic in our sessions these days. It’s why I have a very hard time in large groups of people, especially strangers (or really anyone other than my best friends), and even more especially when I feel that all the focus is on me.

The worst part is that a lot of times, I don’t even know that I’m doing it.

Let me give you an example: I recently moved out of New York City to the Philadelphia area and had a going away party. I was very excited…until the day of. That Wednesday morning rolled around and the cogs of anxiety started turning in my brain. I began to worry about the conversations I was going to have with these people, some of which I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I would have to explain that I, a 28-year-old ex-actor, was moving back in with my parents with no job and a vague, still nascent plan for my future. How pathetic. I mean, I certainly didn’t feel that way, but I had somehow convinced myself that everyone would see me as a huge failure, even though there was absolutely no evidence confirming this. In fact, there was actually a decent amount of evidence to the contrary. But the evidence didn’t matter, and I became so worried about the judgment I would face that I started dreading the party altogether.

The funny thing about social anxiety is that it has this incredible ability to block out the good and focus on only the bad.

Part of what is so frustrating about this mental rut I consistently get trapped on is that I already hold myself to sometimes impossible and often improbable standards. But I always liked a challenge, and so apparently I also have to fight against the self-fabricated standards of my peers.

It’s making life difficult, and it’s ruining a lot of social events for me. Just this weekend, I was visiting family friends of my boyfriend at their home. I kept myself from taking some much-needed “alone time” because I was too afraid that these family friends, who were so incredibly kind and wonderful, would then label me as “that girl who keeps to herself and is no fun.” Cue the complete and total breakdown halfway through the second day from anxiety and mental exhaustion. I would have saved myself a lot of stress had I not had the nagging fear of being seen negatively.

And I wonder: When did it stop being okay being unapologetically myself? My guess is somewhere in my college years—those tender years when you somehow have to both pave the way for your future and also “make friends that will last you a lifetime.”

Talk about pressure.

But I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the self-fulfilling prophecy of fear of being bad at small talk. I’m sick of being emotionally burnt out from being “on” all the time. I need to stop projecting others’ made-up opinions onto myself. Because unless I became telepathic recently, I really have no idea what anyone is really thinking of me. Besides, does it really matter? I mean, really?

I’d imagine that journey starts with self-acceptance. I’m not quite there yet, but it’s a path I’ve been slowly clearing in the dense forest of my brain for the last six years with the help of my therapist. Slow and steady wins the race, I’m told.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way, and if you are one of these people, I wish I could give you some advice. But maybe it will help to know that you aren’t alone. I often find solace in the knowledge that someone feels similarly to me. It makes me feel less crazy.

Until we figure it out, maybe we can just take some deep breaths, close our eyes, count to ten, and remind ourselves that it is all in our heads and we are just fine. Really.

Kristy Cloetingh is a Philadelphia native who is currently trying to figure out her place in the world. Her passions include reading, singing, dancing, nature, yoga, chicken fingers, and puppies. An anorexia survivor and mental health warrior, Kristy has made it her life’s mission to remind every single person that their bodies and minds are worthy of unconditional love and respect, regardless of size, shape, or whatever “normal” is.

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