Hello, my name is Arceus, and I have social anxiety.
I know it probably seems like I've been a highly-visible part of the Initiative for a long time, but despite my being present on Distant Fantasies, and even being part of the brainstorming control group that eventually helped birth the Initiative, I haven't really been a big part of this community for as long as it seems. Large communities terrify me, and DF and the Initiative were no exception. This is a really common thing among role-players; the internet is a still-scary-but-much-less-so-than-reality medium to interact with others. If something goes wrong, we can run away and not have to worry about it anymore. A lot of people with anxiety in general role-play, because of the easy escape routes, the anonymity, the lack of face-to-face interaction compounding a sense of duty and commitment, but getting into established games and resource communities can be a really difficult feat.
This guide aims to help those that have social anxiety, or are just really shy, find a way that works for them to get into the fun and start making connections with others. No single method works for everyone, so you may need to try a few different things and see what works for you, but that's okay. Take your time. Someday, you'll know what works, and be able to implement it with every new community you join. This guide also touches on some tips for admins that have a really shy, or anxious, member on their hands.
The Social Shield
Admittedly, this does require you to have a more outgoing, less nerve-y-frazzle-y friend, but if you do, and they are really your friend, they'll be perfectly happy to be the Social Shield for you. What's this role constitute?
Essentially, they are the "front-end" of a two-man operation. They engage the community, get a feel for it where you're too frazzled to, and you essentially watch on the sidelines and observe how the community responds to your Shield. Oftentimes, they're also moral support; helping you work up the courage to post things, and telling you it's okay and nobody'll bite you. I have a Social Shield. I have two, actually, one's a Japanese-Chinese dude with a nonexistent BS tolerance, and the other's a Russian with a thick accent and all the in-yo-face. They are very good at making me feel like I'm safe when they're there. They've got my back, and I know it.
I explain this because this is a good bit of choosing a Social Shield. You want someone that is not afraid to make noise when something's wrong, someone with a decent BS detector, and someone that really cares about you, and has your best interests in mind. I'm not, never, saying they need to be around solely for you; be sure both you and your shield are aware that you're still different beings, and understand your shield's under no obligation to do anything they don't want to, and it's not always a personal slight. Be careful not to become too dependent on them. You are still a separate person, and your relationships and interactions with others will not, cannot, and don't need to be, exactly the same as those of your shield. My shield 1 and shield 2 are dating each other, and they make friends and hit it off with people I don't. Even though we tend to follow one another place to place, we don't cling incessantly to one another, and render one another incapable of operating without the other two, if that makes sense.
Because they are there, though, you can sort of use them as a soundboard, too. If you think something's going terribly, or your mind's doing anxiety-circles in your head and making you think everyone hates you, you can go to your shield and ask them what they think. My shields are like "Lol, Arc, hush bby, it's okay," most of the time, but once in a while, my instincts are not skewed by anxiety, and it's good to have someone that isn't as anxious as you are, or anxious at all, to be able to say, hey, no, that's wild, good call.
My Member Has a Social Shield
Good for them! Good Shields can be kind of difficult to come by. Unfortunately, I realise this is often red-flag behaviour for administrators, and members, that have seen duos or trios come onto a site, and essentially turn it into a drama-fest by pitting everyone against everyone else. This is a reality. Yes, you'll probably be a bit unsure of what to do in situations like this if you're one of those that has been burned by friends, family, or romantic-units that role-play together.
All I can say is, this trio is not that trio. One person is not another. Try not to judge prematurely; trust me, if you've got an anxious individual and their Social Shield(s), they will notice, and you will lose them. End of story. Let them play on their own if that's what they decide to do. Sometimes, the anxious one is going to want to play in the setting with their Shield(s) first, to dip their toes into the community slowly. But really, if they never do branch out, what's that actually hurt you? If they're not holding anyone else up, getting in the way of others having fun, and aren't causing problems, just let it go. It doesn't matter as much as you may think.
If the group don't want to play with others, they'll make that pretty clear. Ergo, they won't. So if they reach out to you, either you the admin, or you the member unrelated to them, encourage that behaviour, by responding well. Try not to clip their wings before they've fully spread them, you know? Prejudicial viewpoints and attitudes, as I mentioned above, will be noticed, and if there's too much going on that's making the anxiety worse, they're going to just leave. Now, it's entirely up to you if you want these kinds of players gone, but to be honest, when an anxious person is comfortable, they can be very great additions to a site. You may really be losing out.
The Help Me Corner
Friends like the shield, in general, are helpful, and places like the Initiative where you can post up experiences and ask for advice (and we do have an anonymous posting feature, so you can hide identifying info if it makes you feel safer!), are invaluable. The more you pull from friends and advice-givers, the more you're able to look at something similar later and go, "Yeah, okay, I know what to do." This builds confidence, and the key to overcoming anxiety in general is confidence and knowing what to do. Logically extrapolating from past experiences is really only helpful if you knew what to do then, anyway. By leaning on friends and decent communities to help handle situations as they come, you're teaching your brain that it does know what to do, and when things like it happen again later, it's not drowning in a puddle of OH MY GOD WHAT THE-
Don't be afraid to turn to trusted friends and communities when you feel like something's off. It may very well be; for every community that's decent and not toxic, there's another that is, and chances are, you will run into a few that aren't good for you before you find one that's cosy. It's okay. It doesn't say anything about you, only about those communities. Further, there may not even be anything that's really off about it; it may just be your anxiety telling you there is, and having someone else more grounded say, "Hey, I think you're overreacting, take a breather," helps ground your mind and centre your thoughts, so you can figure out when there's something actually bothering you about it, even if it isn't as toxic as you thought. Maybe that community just isn't really what you're looking for, but freaking out and having a panic isn't going to help. You need to be able to have someone give you an objective viewpoint, so you can determine if that community isn't for you, or if it's just your anxiety being… well, anxiety.
Again, it is okay to ask for help and advice. Wise men didn't become wise because they ran through life blindly. They learned from other men that had learned before them. It's alright if you're unsure. Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise. As someone I know once said, "There is strength in standing alone, but there is more in recognising when you can't."
The Easy Does It
This is the hardest, and the simplest. In short, if you're interested in a site, register, maybe say hello in the chatbox if you're feeling brave that day, and see what happens. Some have trouble saying hello in real-time chats, like Discord or cbox; that's okay. For those, the best bet will be finding a site that has a decent culture of open threads being answered, or plot threads being used (and actually leading to some posting eventually). You can post one open, or a plotter, and just kind of ride the wave. If you take it slow, it won't be an overwhelming tsunami. Get that one in-character thread going. Maybe post in others' plotters. If you're the type that prefers to PM (some with anxiety hate those, others prefer them, whatever's your jam), read through some character profiles, find someone you like, and PM their player to see if they'd be up for a thread.
You don't have to dive into a site, guns blazing and ready to go. It is okay to take your time and handle things at your own pace. If a community, or its staff, make you feel like taking your time isn't good enough, then that's not the site for you, and that's okay too.
The best advice I can give for anxious or shy players is not to try something too big at first. While you're still getting your bearings on what way works best for you, it's better if you choose a site that has maybe five or six players on it. The constant activity on a very large, or very active site, is more likely to freak you out before you've even started posting. Breathe deep, pick a smaller site, and ease your way into it. The absolute best thing that has ever worked for me, is being with a site since its baby stages, from the day it becomes public. In this way, I can get a feel for the small number (usually two or three, if that) of players that are there already, and with only a few of them it's not as scary. Then, as new members join, I can get familiar with them as they come in, instead of diving into an established community with planning and plotting already done before I showed up, which I then have to navigate amid anxious-freaking-out to figure out where my character(s) and I can fit in.
It's okay if you can't manage the big guns. Maybe someday, you'll be able to. You'll probably find a lot of the baby boards die off in a few months, and yes, that's frustrating, but giving yourself a near constant panic attack trying to join some crazy huge, old site, is also not going to work in your favour, either. Start small. Work your way up. If you never can make it past a certain size, that's okay, too. Take care of you, because if you reach a point where just getting on the site makes your heart leap into your throat and your breathing speed up, and all you can hear is the rush of blood in your ears, you're hurting yourself just to be there, and that is not what this hobby is about. Yes, folks, it's a hobby. Please don't take it so seriously. You should not be freaking yourself out all the time and making yourself uncomfortable for it.
I've Hit That Stage. Do I Flee Now?
No. Well, maybe.
First, I'd highly recommend taking the situation to a trusted friend, or somewhere like the Initiative where you can explain what's going on (as best you can, I know it can be hard), and figure out why. If you can handle doing so, try to focus. Think. Why does your heart jump like that? What are you afraid of? Is it something you can bring to the staff, to talk out? Is it as simple as you're in too many threads, or have too many characters to juggle? Sometimes, we can get excited, especially because it's so hard for us to find a site that works for us, and we can dive in too hard, too fast. It's okay to take a step back. Drop a few characters or threads, take a bit of a step back, and slow down a little. See if that helps.
If there's some Real Toxic Something going on, though, that you're picking up on, it's a good idea to bring these concerns either to the staff, if you feel safe enough to do that, or to a friend or community where you can get advice. Now, understand that ultimately, what you do is up to you. Even if there's a Real Toxic Thing going on, some may still tell you you're freaking out over nothing, especially if you're too frazzled to explain it properly. So it's okay if you disagree with them. If you find that you ask for advice, and something in you hates the response you get, well, there's your answer. You know what to do. And it's okay if you end up doing something different. Sometimes, we just need someone to advise us to do something we know, in our subconscious, isn't what we want, for us to figure out what we do want.
My Member Doesn't Talk
I'm going to say now: do not ever rush someone with social anxiety. Do not ever tell them to "just talk to people." It is a real thing, and it is very difficult to work around. Those of us struggling with it have had our very real fears and difficulties undermined and invalidated our entire lives, and we don't need it from you, too. I'm not implying you need to understand, it's okay if you don't, but don't pretend you know what's right for them and their situation. The same methods do not work for everyone, so it's hard to place a blanket descriptor of what to do when you have a new member that kind of sits there, even for others with anxiety (psh, shoot, maybe none of my methods will work, either). Sometimes they're just being lazy, too, making it even worse.
My advice is, let them do them. When they are ready, they will reach out to you. If they never do, well, sometimes it goes that way. For some people, talking out of character is just not something they can do, or not something they can do right away, and that's fine. As long as they're posting and aren't holding anyone up for inexplicable reasons, it won't hurt. Sure, your site may not be as active in chat as it is on the board, but it's much preferable to the alternative way that can go sour (all chat and no post). You'll get chatty members eventually, just be patient, and don't lash out and blame the players that aren't doing anything wrong.
This Member Joined And All They Do Is Talk; Sometimes Overshares
I'm sure someone will run into someone like this eventually. This can be a symptom of anxiety. When I'm stressed out, I will tend to overshare and vent incessantly. I try to be mindful of how often I do this, but when it feels like the whole world's crashing down on me, it can be difficult to keep it all to myself. I need to let it out, or I'll just go in circles. But I have friends that I can talk to. I have people in my life that will listen to this. Maybe this person you have on your hands isn't able to have an outlet like that; many anxious people have trouble in public, and making friends, and… you get the idea. It is possible that you are the only place/person they can talk to.
That said, you are under no obligation to be so. You can do one of two things: either gently remind them that a role-play site is not a replacement for therapy, or, if you're willing to be their sounding-board, ask them to PM you, instead, and stop sharing personal information in public venues. Well, there's another thing you could do, you could send them a message with general, non-role-play communities that are aimed to being places where people can share things like that (Reddit has several communities that are dedicated to unloading one's thoughts, on a variety of subjects, you could do a quick Google to find one that fits them, or suggest that they do so).
The thing is that many times, these people need friends or a therapist, sometimes both, and cannot find the former, nor afford the latter, and are drawn to the anonymity of the internet. Some of these people aren't even role-players. And that's okay, but it needs to be in an appropriate place, and your site's public discussion sections is not it. Try not to be rude to them, but if they still don't stop, don't be afraid to enforce your rules. Some may threaten you; don't listen to this. You are not obligated to help them. Give them appropriate resources (the suicide hotline for their country is pretty easy to find on Google, they can also chat with them online, if you believe they may be suicidal), and try to let it go. I know that can be much easier said than done, but this is not your problem, nor the outcome your fault. You cannot fix their lives. You can't. All you can do is point in the direction of the light at the end of the tunnel, and hope they walk toward it.
Shy/Anxious Versus Lazy
Unfortunately, there is no real way to tell the difference between these two, at least not easily. Generally speaking, though, those that are just shy or anxious will make some minor effort to get things going for themselves. So, in short, all I can say is, stick to your activity rules/expectations, and if they don't meet those, well, there we are. Even being shy or anxious should not be an excuse for not meeting activity requirements. If they can't handle posting, at the very least, without chatting, maybe they should find a new hobby. I say this even as someone that does have anxiety; I get it. But even I expect to be held to the same activity standards as everyone else. I want to be treated the same, even, and if I can't manage myself well enough to meet any requirements on a site I voluntarily joined, that is my fault.
Final Word for Those Struggling With Anxiety
You have anxiety. Don't let anxiety have you. You can do this.
What's worked for you? Any other tricks and tips to share with others? Let us know!