Surprisingly, a lot of reporters have social anxiety. Although it’s actually not all that surprising when you consider how nerdy and awkward all the kids were at your high school newspaper. And how those who didn’t blossom then spent nights editing college papers. And how those who didn’t gain confidence are now professionals high-fiving each other every time an actor or a politician agrees to talk to them.
My social anxiety manifests in having trouble asking other people for things, which is a problem because I really like when people give me things. I have asked only one woman out on a date in my entire life, and it was with the less-than-perfect pickup line, “Do you go on dates?” When I need to get a quote from someone in a crowd, I will stand there for hours, waving a special brand of notebook I buy online that says Reporter’s Notebook on the cover, hoping that a potential interview subject will approach to tell me to stop waving the notebook.
Then I found out about the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, a test that I put off taking for two months because I was scared. When I finally answered the questions, however, I quickly became reassured that I’m normal. One question asked if I’m afraid of “urinating in a public bathroom.” Another asked if I was afraid of taking tests, a question that also appears on the Liebowitz Irony Scale. After breezing through those questions, I was pretty surprised when I indeed scored a solid “moderate social phobia.” This was clearly limiting my social and professional life, so I went to see Greg Cason, a Beverly Hills psychologist who specializes in anxiety treatments and was on Bravo’s L.A. Shrinks.
At our session, Cason said that I indeed practiced avoidance, often “giving a message that’s more of a hint than an actual message,” a tactic that non-Americans call “politeness.” Before I left, he said he was giving me an assignment. I panicked, thinking he was going to ask me to run for public office, haggle with a used-car salesperson or watch L.A. Shrinks. But all he wanted me to do was compliment six strangers over the next six weeks. This seemed ridiculously easy. “I tell lots of women that I like their shoes,” I said. “Though I figure that that implies I’m gay, so it doesn’t seem like confrontation. And then I mention my wife, so they know I’m not hitting on them.” Cason sighed deeply and told me to approach three men and three women, to not mention my wife and to live with the discomfort of not knowing whether people think I’m a shoe fetishist.
Even with those restrictions, I knew I’d knock off all six people that day. Unfortunately, six weeks went by without a single opportunity. The day of the deadline, I circled the inside of a coffee shop until a guy near me complimented a woman on her shoes, which she appreciated. I left the café, returned a few minutes later and walked up to the same woman and gave her the exact same shoe compliment while playing with my wedding ring, which went well. Flooded with confidence, I spent two hours walking around until I found four people with hats I could compliment, since people who wear hats are the kind of people who seem to be begging for attention.
For a second assignment, Cason wanted me to initiate sex with my wife, which is something I leave to her, since she has a 100% success rate. More difficult, he also asked me to confront my father, who I felt could improve as a grandfather. I waited until I was alone in the house and paced my hallway as I asked my dad over the phone to send my son Laszlo gifts and cards. My dad said this was a great idea. When I called Cason to tell him about my incredible hat compliments and grandpa shaming, he was impressed. When I pressed him for a specific numerical evaluation, he said I’m a 7 out of 10 in social anxiety but that I’d developed an effective coping mechanism.
That coping mechanism, of course, is typing. While others get into journalism for reasons such as holding the powerful accountable, I just wanted to hide behind a keyboard while being safely employed in a stable industry, because journalists know nothing about business. I stayed in because waving a notebook in the air is indeed a great way to get people to talk to you. And putting your photo in the corner of your articles is a great way to increase the odds of people walking up to you at parties instead of having to walk up to them. Otherwise, I spend the whole time looking down at people’s shoes.
This appears in the November 06, 2017 issue of TIME.