Social Anxiety and the Software Developer

A brief little diversionary piece that I hope will prove useful for someone out there, either in identifying their own situation, or in understanding it in others. This is a very selfish piece — me me me — but I hope the intent can be seen in a good light. I suspect that the software development field draws in a lot suffering social anxiety.

This piece is in the spirit of talking openly and honestly about mental health, which is something that we as a community and a society don’t do enough.

A couple of months ago I endured (and caused others to endure) a high stress event. I certainly haven’t tried to strike it from memory (the internet never forgets), and in many ways a lot of positives have come from it and it has been a profound period of personal growth since.

One positive is that I finally faced a lifelong burden of social anxiety, both pharmacologically and behaviorally, a big part being simply realizing that it was a significant problem. I know from emails to my previous mention of enduring this that it struck some readers as perplexing: I’ve worked in executive, lead, and senior positions at a number of organizations. I have a domain under my own name and put myself out there all the time1. I’m seemingly very self-confident, if not approaching arrogance at times.

That isn’t just a facade: I am very confident in my ability to face an intellectual or technical challenge and defeat it. In the right situation I am forceful with my perspective (not because it’s an opinion strongly held, but because I think it’s right, but will effortlessly abandon it when convinced otherwise).

Confidence isn’t a solution to social anxiety, however. It’s possible if not probable for them to live in excess alongside each other. In many ways I think an bloated ego is a prerequisite.

Many choices — as trivial as walking the dog — were made under the umbrella of avoiding interactions. Jobs were avoided if they had a multi-step recruitment process. Investments were shunned if they weren’t a singular solution to everything, and even then I would avoid the interactions necessary to get to a resolution.

I succeeded in career and personally entirely in spite of these handicaps, purely on the back of lucking into a skillset at a perfect time in history. I am utterly convinced that at any other time in history this would have been devastating to any success. Be good at something and people overlook a lot.

And it was normalized. One of the things about this reflective period is that suddenly many of the people who I know and love realized “Hey, that was pretty strange…” It seemed like a quirk or like being shy (which we often treat as a desirable trait), but in reality it was debilitating, and had been from my formative years.

There are treatments for it. I’m two months into this new perspective and I can say that the results are overwhelming. I will never be a gregarious extrovert, but life is so much less stressful just living without dreading encountering a neighbour, or getting a phone call, etc.

1 – The online existence is almost abstract to me, and I’ve always kept it that way. I have always dreaded people who I know in “real life” visiting this blog (sometimes family or coworkers have mentioned a piece and it has made me go silent for months, hoping to lose their interest), reading any article I’ve written or anything written about me, etc. That is too real, and was deeply uncomfortable to me. Nonetheless there have been times I’ve realized I said something in error and a cold sweat overcomes me, changing all plans to get to a workstation and fix the error.

Questions or comments? Email me at me@dennisforbes.ca. Thanks for reading!