Social anxiety isn’t just feeling timid in front of a crowd. It makes almost every social interaction ― from work dinners to small talk in an elevator to holiday parties ― a debilitating experience filled with discomfort and fear.
Monica Lazăr, a Bucharest-based portrait photographer, understands these particular challenges all too well. She started experiencing symptoms of social anxiety ― also called social phobia ― at a young age. This meant dealing with crippling self-doubt and stress as early as middle school, she said.
An estimated 17 million children in the U.S. have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder like social anxiety, according to data.
“I remember avoiding others since childhood,” Lazăr, 31, told HuffPost. “As a kid, I chose to play alone rather than spend time with other children. I was always very self-conscious, permanently asking myself what others think about me.”
Lazăr channeled her experience into photography as an adult. Her art became an outlet and an escape from the symptoms she dealt with daily. Then, it unexpectedly turned into a tool that helped her manage her condition.
“Self-portraiture is a form of exposing myself to what I fear the most, interacting with people. ... Many people started to interact with me, to ask questions about my work, or simply to communicate their kind and beautiful thoughts,” she said. “This was a constant exercise of overcoming my fear.”
Social anxiety, which affects an estimated 15 million American adults, causes a severe fear of being judged or humiliated. People living with the condition often feel inadequate or inferior around others, and they’re at an increased risk for other mental health issues like depression. All of this can make someone with social anxiety appear aloof to those who may not understand the disorder.
“This is why, at first sight, people think about me being arrogant and self-sufficient,” Lazăr said. Some have a difficult time understanding how she can speak calmly in public but still be petrified to start a one-on-one conversation, she added.
Lazăr hopes her story and her photography encourages others to see people living with social anxiety as something more than their diagnosis.
“I want my work to speak about courage. The courage to make something beautiful out of something painful,” she said.
She also wants the photos to remind others “that we can never know for sure what’s behind what we see.”
“This is exactly why we should be kind and compassionate,” she said.
That’s certainly a message we can all take to heart. Take a look at Lazăr’s other self-portraits below:
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Lazăr was based in Budapest.