Put Feet in Dusty! Dealing With Social Anxiety Abroad

To put feet in dusty: Poner pies en polvorosa

To run away quickly when confronted with an impending situation that may be embarrassing or uncomfortable or dangerous, kicking up dust in the process. Cuando no deseamos enfrentarnos a una situación que se aproxima y es inminente, escapar tan rápido que sólo queda el polvo revoloteando.

monty python runaway

Fitting scene from one of my all-time faves.

(Can I just say I had a tough time finding a featured cover image for this post? Looking at pictures of bare feet in dust is NOT a recommendable way to have a good time. Puppies running through dust to the rescue!)

This expression first stood out to me because the word polvorosa reminds me of polvorón, a typical Spanish Christmas sweet treat that’s basically a mini-cookie. Polvo means dust, and the cookie sort of turns into dust as soon as you bite into it.

But moving on from holiday food…. the phrase fits really well with an audiobook I just started listening to this weekend, “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety” by Ellen Hendriksen. (Except I’m listening to it on the reading app Scribd which I have a free trial for.) Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist who has studied social anxiety extensively and now helps people overcome it. This book is full of helpful examples, clinical studies, and helpful tips. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but it’s got me reflecting on my own social difficulties both here in Spain and back home.

When I was a kid, I was labeled as “slow to warm up” and “observant” and sometimes “shy” in my report cards. Running up to a group of kids on the playground and asking them to play was terrifying. This may have been based on a negative experience I had in my neighborhood when I was very young – I saw a slightly older brother and sister new to the neighborhood who I really wanted to play with. One day I covertly followed them on my bike until I got up the courage to ask to play with them. When I finally did, the brother was extremely rude and told me to go away, that they didn’t want to play with me. Obviously I was crushed and ran home crying. Looking back, following people on a bike MAY have been considered creepy, but it cemented into my mind that that if I went up and asked for friendship, I’d be rejected.

little girl in a box


Luckily, at school and on summer camping trips with my parents, I always ended up attracting some extroverted and curious kid who wanted to hang out with me, so I didn’t have to think much about it. High school was similar: I fell into a group of friends because of a girl coming up to talk to me at a football game in 9th grade. I never had to worry about sitting alone at lunch, and therefore never thought about social anxiety as long as I got invited to do things. Those were easy years, with the occasional nervousness about speaking in front of a class, but I don’t remember feeling paralyzed with fear.

However, without the crutch of friendly extroverts to float me along in my existence, as an adult I find it harder and harder to put myself out there. Furthermore, I do wonder how floating along in this way may have kept me disconnected on a soul level from those friend groups I had in high school and college.

Reflecting on what I’m learning in this book, my inner voice has always expressed doubt and uncertainty. Someone not writing me back? They most definitely don’t like me anymore. Asking for what I need or express my true feelings? Put feet in dusty!, I’d rather get my legs waxed. Professionally, I’m sure that in the past, this voice contributed to my not becoming a professional photographer – “you’re not actually good enough at this” and “you know you have to market yourself!”

That inner voice also expresses anxious anticipation. Have to make a phone call or visit a store? Rehearse all possible things that might need to be said beforehand. This is especially true here in Spain, where I want to be sure I say the right thing and don’t make any mistakes. I not only rehearse before phone calls, but nearly constantly before saying just about anything – even though I’ve got a C1 level and people are really kind about my Spanish. Being this caught up in my inner translation anxiety leads to missing the conversation flow and not saying anything at all – by the time I’m ready, everyone has moved on.

kristen wiig awkward


Amazingly, I don’t feel terrified in front of a classroom. Working as a language assistant has definitely helped bolster my confidence as far as public speaking. I’ve had enough successful classes to know that I’m not awful at speaking in front of people. Students laugh nicely at my jokes and participate in what I suggest doing. So I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what they’ll think. The one thing I struggle with is if I’m fully in charge of a large group of students, especially being alone with them, they won’t take me seriously. (This has happened a lot, actually. I don’t have that Stern Teacher thing going on.)

No, what’s harder for me is being with my peers – parties, meetings, meetups. Making small talk and talking about What It Is Exactly That I Do can get exhausting, especially when I’m in transition and don’t want to explain what it is I’m doing! I’ve had to meet a lot of new people in the last several years and have joined groups with varying levels of success. Actually signing up for events and getting myself there isn’t the hard part – what’s hard are things like trying to tell a story in an engaging way, telling a joke, talking about what I need, asking for support and connection, or giving my true opinion on certain topics, especially when I disagree. Yeah, it’s true – this leads to a lack of connection with others, which perpetuates the social anxiety further.

One of my favorite ways to escape social difficulties is dancing my heart out – it’s one of the main ways I can connect with people with no talking involved. But Hendriksen suggests that a useful way to deal with our inner critic (for example, my inner critic telling me I’m not interesting and no one wants to hear my thoughts) is by mindfulness – being aware of what it is that’s going through our minds. This is a lot like meditation, without so much focus on breathing. She offers a lot of different ways to be mindful in different situations, explaining that mindfulness brings us back from ruminating or worrying about the future, back into the present moment.

For 2019, I intend to practice mindfulness during at least one moment each day and get out there connecting with new people while doing activities I enjoy. I also intend to put myself in uncomfortable situations to learn how to grow more confident.

“True bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway.”

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