Fighting your instincts and finding ways that work - a 101 in building your network when living with social anxiety

You know what really sucks? Social anxiety. You know what's even worse? Working in PR and living with social anxiety. A great part of my job is to attend different work events and "network". Complete nightmare. I don't know exactly how many events I've been to in my life where I've ended up hiding out in the loos, trying to summon up the courage to go out and face people. The great news is, I'm not alone. Studies show that up to 7% of the populace suffers from some form of social phobia, and that doesn't even include people who think the idea of "networking" is a bit wanky (which I think is most people).

My own experience of social anxiety worsened significantly when I moved to Sweden. I have a couple of different theories on why this is - the dominating one being that Swedes are a lot more anxious and stiff in social gatherings than Brits are (also there tends to be a lot less booze involved), which, in turn, makes me anxious. Interestingly, I never get socially anxious when I go on solo work trips abroad - I went to London, New York and Austin for work last year and had a phenomenal time, no anxiety in sight. But there's no way around it - I live in Sweden, and in the field of work I'm in I need to be out there to meet and talk to new people. In other words, I've had to find ways to deal with my increasing social anxiety. What I found was that developing coping mechanisms that put you in charge of your anxiety allows you not only to circumvent the situation but actually rise above it, and it might even give you a comparative advantage vis-a-vis the suckers who don't suffer from social anxiety.

Here's how.

Know thyself
You know what I'm really great at? One-on-ones. Well-structured meetings. Taking lead, or being led. I love clear mandates and instructions, even if that instruction is "there are no instructions, just do whatever you see fit" (hint: that is an instruction). I'm rubbish at loose social settings such as mingles, unless I have a specific mission to focus on. Once I figured this out, things became a lot easier. That's when I started saying yes to being on panels, as it would give me a task at hand as opposed to having to figure out how to strike up conversations with strangers. Once you know what frightens you, the easier it gets to figure out how to master it. For me, it's finding a task.

  On a panel, at a mingle. Gesturing and all.

On a panel, at a mingle. Gesturing and all.

Find what works...
So I know that I don't work very well in formally informal gatherings, such as mingles. But I can't really force myself onto every single panel of every single event I probably should go to, and I still have to get out there and meet people. As a result, I started developing and iterating different formats and concepts to see what might work. Instead of going to events, I started hosting or co-hosting them. Curating guest lists gave me a great excuse to get in touch with some amazing people. I also made a concerted effort to never invite two people that were close friends or colleagues, as I wanted everyone to be equally vulnerable (I know, I'm cruel) and have to let each other in. Hosting or co-hosting also gave me the task of doing exactly that - hosting - which comes with clear instructions. I've invited people over food, to discuss literature, or just to hang out at mine over some cava, discussing all things biz. Other ways could be to host podcasts or do a blog series of and with interesting people. This obviously requires more effort than just going to an event, but it means that your networking starts not when you go to the event, but when you initiate contact with the people of interest. Basically, ROI goes through the roof.

  When I invited some of Malmö's most amazing women to my flat for cava and biz, most of whom I'd previously met once or nonce.

When I invited some of Malmö's most amazing women to my flat for cava and biz, most of whom I'd previously met once or nonce.

...and skip what doesn't
I now do my best to avoid events I know will likely make me feel like shit. No more launches of this or that, no more corporate anniversary or Christmas mingles, no more networking events. The irony is that once I committed to this and made this my default mode, I started going to events that made sense and felt organic for me to go to. So yes, I still go to events that I neither speak at nor host. The difference now is that I've stopped signing up to them way in advance, so if I go it will be very spontaneous and I only go if it truly makes sense, e.g. if a friend asks me to go with them. Otherwise, I still find that events drain a lot more energy than they give.

  Hiding out in loos with my ginger ale. A scene long gone. And by long I mean approximately three months.

Hiding out in loos with my ginger ale. A scene long gone. And by long I mean approximately three months.

I still live with social anxiety. More in Sweden than anywhere else it seems, but finding ways to live and flourish with it has somewhat ironically enriched my life. It allows me to cut the bullshit, critically look at what it is I need and come up with creative ways of getting it.

And one final note - if you suffer from social anxiety, try to talk about it. You'll be surprised by how many others are in the same boat.

From drugs and sexism to the United Nations and Sex and the City - the rise, fall and resurrection of my career as a t-shirt designer

Most of you probably don't know this, but a long, long time ago, way before I'd heard the term startup or PR, I stumbled into a brief and intense career as a t-shirt designer. Completely accidental of course - back then my main calling in life seemed to be to provoke and outrage, and fashion was a great way to go about it. At the time my best friend and I lived and worked at a fashion/furniture/bicycle shop called Sick in London's East End. Sick was a very apt name for the shop - I've written more about living at Sick in this blog post. Our boss was a former punk who'd come out with pretty outrageous stuff every now and again. I remember him calling us "useless fucking females" whenever we'd done something wrong, which was all the time - pretty unsurprising considering we were two 18-year-olds, put in charge of a shop in spite of never having worked in retail before. Now, ten years later, I find it pretty horrifying, but at the time we thought it was nothing but hilarious. We never took it to heart but rather reclaimed and owned it in ways that our boss, ironically, loved. Part of that process was turning it into fashion.

  One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

It started as a provocative joke but pretty soon blog readers started asking how they could get their hands on one. My blog then was much bigger than it is now, with thousands of daily readers at its peak, and it wasn't long before I made way more money on the shirts than I did at Sick. After Vice Magazine included some of the shirts in a shoot, a distributor doing punk fashion got in touch and placed a bulk order (see guys, PR works!). I should've seen this was a business in the making, but I was young and I just wanted to have a bit of fun.

Coke built this body - inspired by my grandfather's t-shirt that said "beer built this body"

  Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

I'd hate me too - inspired by all the trolling I received on my blog
 

I fucked Franz Kafka - really not sure where the inspiration came for this one...

Other people definitely saw the potential, though. The French fashion label Vetements presumably nicked one of my designs for one of their t-shirts, which was then sold for $980 and worn by the likes of Rihanna. Oh well.

You Fuckin Asshole, by me, 2009

You Fuck'n Asshole, by Vetements, 2016

Anyway - a year later I'd abandoned my career as an East London Klub Kid to move to South Africa. I didn't know it at the time, but this was basically the beginning of what I'd now call my political awakening. I worked at a Cape Town shelter for homeless women and children, and spent most evenings reading about some of the most prominent socio-economic issues faced by South Africa. HIV/AIDS is one of them, and as a result I decided to do a fashion campaign highlighting World AIDS Day. I designed, printed, modelled and sold several different designs, all focusing on the huge problem of people around the world not knowing their HIV status. All proceeds were donated to UN's Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. At that point the blog was much smaller, but I still managed to raise and donate some £500.

Know Your Status - One of the biggest issues in battling HIV/AIDS is that people don't know that they carry the virus

Fuck Responsibly - Clue's in the copy

  HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

That was in 2010 and since then I haven't printed anything - up until last night, when I printed my very own We Should All Be Mirandas t-shirt. It’s an excellent parody on Dior's terribly ironic $700 We Should All Be Feminists shirt - as the designers say themselves, “It’s hard being a Miranda in the age of Trump and $700 feminist slogan tees. But if Mirandas ruled the world, the world would be a considerably less fucked up place. We should all be Mirandas: smart, pragmatic, ambitious and unafraid to eat cake out of the garbage“. I first spotted the shirt on Instagram in October and have tried to get my hands on the original since then. Alas, I've been unsuccessful, but with some spare time on my hands over the holiday season I bought the same printing gear I used at Sick all those years ago, to print my very first shirt in over seven years.

It felt great.

  We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

The stillness of moving and shaking - a not-so-brief look at 2017

I say the same thing every year - "this has been a big year for me" - but somehow I look at each year and go, yeah, that was a big year for me. I consider myself very lucky to get to lead that life. Yet, this year has been different. For the first time ever (and yes, I do mean ever) I've explored stability, routines and traditions, and the wonders of being in the same place for a longer period of time than just a year.

Work stuff

  • My biggest restraint in 2017 has been time and not being able to see a way to scale myself. I've had to turn down a lot of stuff and put really exciting projects on hold due to a lack of time. At one point I considered hiring a freelancing student but realised quickly that that, too, would take a lot of time. I'm still figuring out how to structure my life - perhaps 2018 will make things clearer.
     
  • Being included in #Nordic100 as one of only two PRs is a highlight I'll remember for a long time coming - I'm neither senior nor blasé enough to say that those things don't matter. On the contrary, I'm still early on in my career and it often feels like I make stuff up as I go along, so having my work recognised by thought leaders like Slush and The Nordic Web is for me pretty major.
     
  • I've realised that the vast majority really don’t understand what PR is, how it works, and how it can help way beyond the odd placement. I've always thought I've known this (it was one of the first things my mentor instilled in me when we started working together) but this realisation has reached new heights in 2017. I'm hoping to spread the word about the wonders of PR in 2018.
  Giving a talk at Sony on all things startup comms, December 2017.

Giving a talk at Sony on all things startup comms, December 2017.

Social life and relationships

  • Breaking up with my ex, and subsequently feeling very strongly and on a fundamental level that I never again want to be in a so-called romantic relationship, presented a huge buffet of learnings. I'm grateful for them all.
     
  • I've discovered the joys of conceptualising my life. I know some people think it's a bit odd to brand everything you do, but I find that it really helps, particularly in my social life. This year I've engaged in Kallisklubben, Frukostklubben, Skaparklubben and Bokklubben. They all provide format where we show up with an agenda, a reason and a format to discuss things that aren't work related (or, as one friend out it, baby and/or wedding related).
     
  • I feel like I've travelled a lot less this year than previous years, which says quite a lot. I've squeezed in trips to London, Texas, Palestine, Israel, Istanbul, Stockholm, Greece, Portugal, NYC, and I'm soon off to a secret location to finish off 2017 with one of my best friends. The majority of trips involved a lot of work, with might explain why they didn't exactly feel like holidays - because they weren't. Still, they've brought a huge source of inspiration. There's no way around it - travelling and meeting new people from around the world brings me a lot of energy.
     
  • I found that spending time with children teaches you a lot about yourself and how you think about life. Especially if said children happen to be those of the person you’re dating.
     
  • I lived up to the promise I made myself of never not doing stuff just because I'd have no one to do them with. Consequently I went to Israel and Palestine on my own and met fascinating people I otherwise wouldn't. I'd do it again in an instant. And I sort of am - I'm going to Bali on my own for a DIY surf and yoga retreat in just a couple of weeks.
     
  • I've discovered that in a time where everyone around me seems to get pregnant, engaged, married and all the rest of it, I'm so happy and content in my little one bedroom flat with Katten. Perhaps ironically, the thought of settling down has never seemed further away. 
  Kallis, aka The Sanctuary.

Kallis, aka The Sanctuary.

Looking after myself

  • I ran two half maras, and only through grit and perseverance. I didn't enjoy it very much, and remember thinking when setting out on my second half mara that "well, now you're going to be running for-e-ver". That's what it felt like as well. Yet somehow, I think I'll do more in the future.
     
  • I saw a distinct pattern in my annual workout routine - I tend to be up and going in January, having started out strong already in December as to not feel like I'm part of the January New Year's Resolution crew. I usually manage to stick to it until summer, where it escalates - this summer I exercised 2-3 times a day (run, gym, tennis) and loved every bit of it. Once September hits and work starts picking up, I'm out. Next year I might start working with a PT as to not have to start from square one next Christmas (the way I have to this year).
     
  • I made a concerted and committed effort to take up therapy, and have for the better part of the year gone to weekly psychodynamic psychotherapy sessions. It hasn't turned out the way I thought it would, and probably for the better. I think I thought it'd be a means to an end, that it could help me fix me. But life isn't static, and I'm probably as fixed as can be. That said, my weekly sessions help me understand myself, in relation to myself and others - the good, the bad and the ugly. Like all rewarding processes, it's hard.
     
  • I've found that while I'm yet to meditate on a daily basis (or weekly, or monthly), I practice gratitude several times a week. Not necessarily intentionally - gratitude comes to me when I handpick avos at the grocery store, while at the gym, while walking along the bridge to Kallis, feeling the Malmö breeze across my face. It really is the seemingly small things that make me well up of gratitude. I try to actively recognise these feelings, and be grateful for them. Very meta, I know.
  18 kilometres into my second ever half marathon. Feeling like death.

18 kilometres into my second ever half marathon. Feeling like death.

My biggest learnings

  • This was also the year of my feminist awakening. I've always called myself a feminist, but this year I became aware of patriarchal structures to a significantly greater extent, how they modify my own behaviour and my own expectations of other people depending on their gender. As a result, I try to apologise for less, speak up for more and encourage more women to claim more space. I credit people in my surroundings for this - Mina, Joel, Streetgäris, Jeanette, and, of course, all of us through #MeToo.
     
  • I've learnt about the wonders of time. I've seen friends go in and out of depression, burnouts and general shit times, and I'm very grateful to have seen firsthand that neither shit times nor good last forever. But again, life isn't static. Setbacks aren't permanent, neither is success. It sounds obvious and I've thought that I've known this, but I haven't.
     
  • This was also the year when I worked hard to stop giving a fuck, in order to care more about shit that really matters (yes, as ever, I'm paraphrasing Mark Manson). I've taken a long, hard look at the way my thoughts structure themselves and decided that I want to try and control them as opposed to having them control me. It's hard, and I think it will be a lifelong process. Spending time with people who have already mastered it helps.
     
  • I also discovered what it's like to forget to look at your phone for days on end - wonderful is what it is.
  Not a phone in sight.

Not a phone in sight.

And finally... My best reads

  • A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
    This is by far the best and most traumatising read I've ever experienced. It kept me up at night for weeks on end, and when I finally fell asleep I dreamt about the characters. I'll want to read it again at some point, but it will have to wait until a lot later in life - it's a demanding read, in time, energy, and thinking power. Highly recommend it, but not if you're in a fragile state.
     
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson
    I've struggled with giving too much of a fuck all my life and I feel like I'm finally getting a handle on why. Obviously not just because of this book, it's been an ongoing process that has included many hours in therapy and even more discussions with friends and lovers, but I still think this book hits the nail on the head. What's more, it offers practical tools to help you check yourself when you give fucks that you probably shouldn't. It's a great book, and an easy read at that - really can't recommend it enough.
  Not giving a fuck since 2017.

Not giving a fuck since 2017.

2017, you were great. You feel a little like a watershed year, or at least like you laid some sort of foundation for great things to come. 2018, bring it on.

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Optimising life out of life - a couple of life hacks that have completely and utterly failed me

Few things make me purr as much as a seeing a plan come together, but one thing that does is coming up with new ways to optimise and iterate old habits and routines. Whether finding a quicker route to work or squeezing in errands while waiting for the train, I love the sensation of being efficient. It can definitely become counterproductive though, or - as one friend put it - sometimes you run the risk of optimising life out of life. Below are a few useless life hacks that haven’t just failed, but actually left me worse off.

The taxi frenzy
Every other week or so I do a big grocery shop, because I'm an adult like that. Unfortunately I'm also a millennial aka a faux adult, so I don't have a car, meaning I take a taxi back with the groceries once I'm done shopping. I've done this for over a year now, and every single time as I pack up the groceries in a zillion bags I also attempt to book a taxi as to make sure I don't have to wait the full five(!) minutes it takes before it gets there. I want the taxi to arrive the exact second I've packed the groceries, paid, and left the store. As you can imagine, it never ends well. Instead, it ends up with me being on the phone while trying to figure out the pin to whatever card I'm using while also packing my bags and apologising to the customers behind for being a complete mess. All to win five minutes. That ends right here, right now.

  Ah yes, let me bring my phone with me to the loo because, well, no one knows why

Ah yes, let me bring my phone with me to the loo because, well, no one knows why

The unproductive loo and coffee runs
You realise how fucked as a collective we are when we bring our phones even to the toilet. Stats from earlier this year show that 75% of Americans bring their phones to the loo, and I do too. I also bring my phone with me when I pop to the coffee machine because after all, it takes 45 seconds for the coffee to come through (more if there's a queue obviously) and during that time I can check all my channels at least once. Taking a step back and looking at it soberly is pretty terrifying. Coffee and loo runs are great for clearing your mind, even if just for a few minutes, but that obviously doesn't happen if you're constantly staring at your phone. That said, it's not very strange that most of us do - the engineers behind the social media giants have purposefully designed and built the user interface to make it addictive. Though not a social media company, Netflix lists "sleep" as one of its main competitors for their users' attention, so that should give you an idea of where we're currently at in what's called the attention economy. Basically, we're all screwed.

And while we're on Netflix... 
Cancelling it turned out to be a poor life hack. I actually blogged about this when I did it a couple of months ago - it all started with me setting out on Q4 of 2017, adamant to be as efficient as humanly possible. "I have too much stuff to do", the reasoning went, "I can't spend my time on Netflix". Fair enough. What happened when I stopped watching an hour of Netflix a day was that I started racking up out of office work hours. Not as an exception when I had a big deadline coming up, but as a standard - even when I didn't have any big side projects. An eight hour work day turned into ten hours and then twelve and all of a sudden you're hovering around fourteen. What happens when you do that is that you start holding yourself to a standard that isn't productive or very good for you in the long run. It's also meant that I've gone all of Q4 without cuddling my cat. Only having one set of hands means you can't cuddle your cat when you're working, and before you know it your cat hates you. The cancelling of Netflix would've been fine had I pursued other means of winding down, i.e. reading or cuddling the cat or meditating. As for now, Netflix is back. As is the cat cuddling.

  Selected snaps of me cuddling my cat. As you can see, he loves it.

Selected snaps of me cuddling my cat. As you can see, he loves it.

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There are probably more rubbish life hacks I engage in. Having lunch in front of my laptop is another one, but more on that in another post...

Stuff I initiated in 2017 (and hope to keep up in 2018)

There are still four weeks left to the holidays, but I've already started thinking about 2017, all the curveballs it's thrown and all the greatness it's brought. I do feel like every year is sort of monumental in the things they offer (last year - was made redundant twice, Brexit, moved to Sweden after eight years abroad.. etc), but looking back at this year I can see three distinct changes I have pursued as part of my every-day life that have made my life disproportionately better.

Here's what.

Digital purge
I unfollowed more than 800 influencers, acquaintances and even friends on Instagram. I stopped reading the lifestyle blogs I’d been following for years. I deactivated notifications on Facebook. I bought an alarm clock and kicked my phone out of the bedroom (until I started using Natural Cycles and had to bring it back in again...).

The intended goal was to make my world bigger, by making it smaller. To see and appreciate what’s in front of me, as opposed to on a screen. That’s partly succeeded, but what’s also happened is that I’ve started working a lot more. The time I used to spend on the internet I now spend working, so if I hoped to relax more - and I’m not sure I did - that certainly didn’t happen.

I do, however, think more about what I have and how I can improve, instead of thinking of what I don’t have, which is what I did when I was constantly bombarded with other people’s seemingly perfect lives. I’ve slashed my time on Facebook by about 70%, only from deactivating notifications. And I think a lot less about conspicuous spending now that I don’t read blogs. This, in turn, means that I spend a lot less money overall - both because I work more so I simply don’t have the time to spend, and because I’m not exposed to content on blogs and social media that encourages me to spend.


Public speaking
I never really thought public speaking was for me - it hadn’t even crossed my mind until I was asked to do a talk earlier this year. Public speaking always seemed fun but I don’t think I thought I’d have anything to say. Pretty strange coming from a PR, I know, but my job is to train other people on what to say - not to get up on the soap box myself. Coaching others is very different from coaching yourself, so I started watching a lot of talks - both online and offline - to see exactly what a good talk is, how they’re structured, what works and what doesn’t.

My first public talk was at Media Evolution with some 60 people in the audience. Titled “Cowboys and KPIs - confessions of a PR”, it covered my trip to SXSW and how PRs can navigate around the difficulties of establishing KPIs when it comes to a place like SXSW. Since then I’ve done panel discussions at Gothenburg Tech Week, Think Accelerate and Fast Track Malmö, I’ve participated in a podcast on startup PR, I’ve hosted workshops at Fast Track Malmö, and I’m doing two talks in December, one at Sony Mobile on what corporates can learn from startup PR, and one at Minc on what startups can do in terms of PR during their first two years as a business. I also recently secured my first ever paid (!) talk, which is both exciting and encouraging - not for the money itself, but for the fact that in less than a year I’ve gone from never having done a talk, to my talks having an actual market value (!).

I hope to do a lot more public speaking in 2018. Since I usually talk about my work in startup PR, doing public talks forces me to take a step back and challenge myself, how I communicate and how I work with PR. It’s a win-win for me, my employer, my clients, and - hopefully - the people attending the talk.

  Me being eloquent as ever, at GBGTechWeek

Me being eloquent as ever, at GBGTechWeek

Side projects
I went to a conference in August this year where one of the speakers said that “the Mona-Lisa was a side project, what will be yours?” and all I could think at the time was FU, I’m stressed as is? It did, however, plant a seed, and since then I’ve MVP’d (ish, I never took it to market) one project and I’m currently tinkering with another. I’ve also stepped up freelancing, set up my own consultancy and worked on two big freelance PR announcements, one of which was international. They’re, by far, the biggest announcements I’ve done as a one-man band and I’m still a bit flabbergasted by the phenomenal results (though I did have my mentor on speed dial, for which I am forever grateful).

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that the more idle time I have, the more time I have to wallow. It's borderline destructive and definitely distracting, and more than anything, it serves zero purpose. Side projects to the rescue - it doesn't have to be setting up a new business or launching something huge, just doing something like tennis once a week - and actually committing to it - is enough to keep your mind occupied.

  Tennis Thursdays - new tradition as of August 2017

Tennis Thursdays - new tradition as of August 2017

2017 has been my best year to date, for plenty of reasons. I'm slightly concerned I'll want to scale up even more and add on just as much more in 2018, which - simply put - won't be possible. That said, doing more forces you to sharpen the way you think, act, even speak. It's a never-ending learning curve, and I love it.