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Last weekend, I was at my parent's home and my aunt, uncle and a family friend were also invited.

I have some anxiety issue which means that, when there is too many people, or just people that I'm not used living with, I can get very anxious. Usually people don't notice (because I hide it), however, this time, my aunt did notice that something was off with me.

She asked me if there was something wrong, I tried to shrug it off but she insisted so I told her that I was experiencing anxiety. When she asked me why I was anxious, I didn't know what to respond because I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying "it's because you are here".

Instead, I said nothing and when my dad suggested that I might not know why, I acted like this was true.

The thing is that I hate lying and I'm not really satisfied with the fact that I had to do that.

What I'm wondering is:

How could I have tactfully explained to my aunt that the presence of guests always makes me anxious and thus, that my anxiety was due to her presence?

My aunt is very sensitive with low self-confidence, so the more tactful the solution is, the better.

Notes and clarifications

  • The discussion take place at the lunch table when everyone was listening.

  • My aunt particularly makes me anxious, but I believe that I would have still been anxious if she weren't there but the two other guests were.

  • I have considered just saying "I'm anxious when there is a lot of people around" but I believe it would have been weird since we were only 7 (including me).

  • You say your dad suggested a way out for you, can/are you willing to you ask him to be honest and explain if there's a next time? – Tinkeringbell Jun 24 at 12:43
  • @Tinkeringbell I didn't think about that, but it could be a solution indeed (especially since my aunt is his sister). – Ælis Jun 24 at 12:45
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I recommend acknowledging the situation, de-personalizing the issue, and deflecting with an observable effect which I present as trivial.

I have OCD, and am compelled to carry out some bizarre-seeming behaviors or else face rapidly increasing anxiety. If someone notices that I seem tense or anxious, and that's the reason, I often don't really want to get into a full description that it's because I can't engage in some arbitrary behavior. Instead, I go through some variety of the following:

  1. Acknowledge:

Acknowledge that the other person has indeed noticed something real. They've perceived my anxiety, and telling them that they are mistaken changes the focus from my affect to the other person's perceptiveness while also making me seem furtive.

  1. De-personalize:

Make explicit that the anxiety primarily comes from and is about me, not them. If not for my OCD, these issues would not arise. Regardless of the specific context, the anxieties spring from my psychology and not (meaningfully) from my environment-- if someone does something that my OCD demands I respond to in some way, it's not that the other person has done something wrong. It's just that I have a non-rational compulsion to respond.

Especially with things that can seem like personal affronts (like making someone feel anxious), it's easy to feel blamed in some way by the situation. And since that blame is inappropriate in these situations, the soul of tact here is to relieve the other person of any sense of responsibility or blame. Even when other people can do things to ease your distress, and may be willing to do so, they aren't really the cause of anything, and so there's nothing they should feel bad about.

This was the case with your Aunt's presence: even if she makes you particularly anxious, the description in the OP didn't make it sound like the anxiety was because she was there so much as because an large enough, unfamiliar enough group was there. Perhaps saying "because you are here" to answer your Aunt's question wouldn't have been a lie, exactly, but it wouldn't have been all that accurate, either.

  1. Deflect:

If the goal is to get the conversation to move on and stop the other person from devoting a lot of attention to something they can't influence much, I like to give them something readily understandable/observable and then clear permission to not worry about it. I believe that this helps to mark out a noticeable piece of my affect, links it in the other person's mind to the arbitrary issue coming from me and me alone, and then links that to an express indication that it's not a cause for concern.

  1. Optional Step: Thank the other person for their attention and concern.

This can do a lot to defuse any lingering tension or bad feeling in the other person. It acknowledges their attentiveness to you (that's how they noticed something was off), validates their observation again, and shows that you appreciate that attention and that they care enough to want to understand why you're distressed and help you feel better.


Putting it all together, here is a sample exchange demonstrating how I might try to accomplish each of these in a situation like the one described in the OP:

Aunt: You seem tense. Is something wrong?

Me: Oh no, nothing is wrong. But you're right, I am a bit tense [acknowledgement]. I don't really know why, but sometimes being with a group of people in a social setting makes me kind of anxious [de-personalization]. It can be noticeable when my anxiety flares up like that (clearly, since you noticed!), but it's not a huge deal [highlight the anxiety, then minimize its importance to help deflect]. Thank you for noticing and asking after me, but it's not worth derailing our conversation or using up our limited time together [thank the other person].

And then, if you're able, redirecting the conversation to another topic can help transition into not focusing on your anxiety any more.

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It seems to me that the underlying issue making this a problem is that, as you state, you hate lying. Saying to your aunt that you "don't know" why you are anxious feels to you like a lie, and so saying it probably makes you more anxious than you already are around her.

The fact is though, that in the pursuit of any truth, one question leads to another. You might have identified why you were anxious that day - because of the presence of your aunt, but it leads to the question why are you not comfortable around your aunt? The answer can't simply be "because I have anxiety issues", because that is just a circular argument. You may answer that, even though she is a relative, it is because you are not as familiar with your aunt as you are with your own parents - but this also leads to yet another question of why your anxiety has made this distinction when other people's anxiety may draw the line somewhere else.

My point is that ultimately, there is a question you probably cannot answer around your anxiety and if you acknowledge that then it isn't really lying when you say "I don't know". Anxiety disorder in adults is not fully understood, but as well as external factors that may contribute to it, it is believed that an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline plays a role, and this is something out of your control and really beyond explanation.

So this is something of a frame challenge - I think that if you reason on the above, you might feel more comfortable saying to your aunt that you just don't know why you are anxious and that this may actually be a simple - and truthful - answer. On the other hand, any kind of explanation, no matter how well-worded, that ultimately says you are anxious around your aunt may upset her and make it more difficult for you to overcome your discomfort around her. Even if she isn't offended, you may begin to worry that you have offended her and this, in turn, could further add to your anxiety around her. Confiding in her that you have a problem that you cannot fully root-out may actually draw you closer together, as she may be able to compensate for your behaviour around her.

  • 1
    Can you tell us more about where you read about or used this concept? What was the situation and if you used it yourself, what was the response you got? Thanks! – ElizB Jun 24 at 19:41

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