A lot of introvert-themed posts that you see around this time of year are things like “An Introverts Guide To Surviving the Holidays” or “How Not to Run In Terror From Your Extrovert Relatives.” That last one’s not an actual article, but it’s pretty close to some I’ve seen.
Often, writers of articles like this assume introverts don’t like people, that they’re always overwhelmed in social situations, and that they hate parties. But being on-edge in social situations, panicking when you have to interact with people, and going out of your way to avoid places where people gather aren’t actually signs of introversion. Those things are more a part of social anxiety.
Part of the reason for this confusion is that people don’t understand what being an introvert actually means. For example, (despite numerous complaints and petitions) if you Google “introvert definition” the first thing that comes up is “a shy, reticent person.” Only if you expand the Google result to see translations, word origin, and other definitions do you finally get something a little closer to the correct result: “a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.”
Being an introvert doesn’t make you socially awkward. It doesn’t mean you hate people. Being an introvert means that you’re born with a trait that gives you a preference for the internal world. It also means you re-charge better in quiet, low-stimulation environments (usually alone, but not always). Introverts might avoid parties, but if so they do it because they’d rather be somewhere else (like at home reading or hanging our with a small group of friends), not because they’re inherently shy or scared of interacting with others.
“Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.” — from “Revenge of the Introvert” by Laurie Helgoe, Ph. D
Anxiety Is Different Than Introversion
Introversion is a completely different thing from social anxiety, though the two are easily (and often) confused. Social anxiety is the third most common psychological disorder in the United States (depression and alcoholism are the top two). It’s also something that can affect both introverts and extroverts.
“Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.
“If a person usually becomes (irrationally) anxious in social situations, but seems better when they are alone, then “social anxiety” may be the problem.” — from “What is Social Anxiety?” by Thomas A. Richards, Ph. D
Unlike introversion, social anxiety is something that’s learned rather than an inherent trait (mostly — you can inherit tenancies toward developing anxiety). And while social anxiety and introversion can look similar, there’s a big difference between avoiding a party because you know it will drain your energy (introvert) and avoiding a party because you’re terrified of having a panic attack when surrounded by so many people (anxiety). You can learn more about this in my post “The Difference Between Having Anxiety And Feeling Anxious.”
Perhaps one of the worst things that happens when people confuse introversion and social anxiety is that people with social anxiety might read online descriptions of introversion and think what they’re going through is “normal.” In fact, anxiety is a psychological disorder that can have a huge negative impact on your life if left untreated. If you’re struggling with something like this, I encourage you to talk with a mental health professional. Trying to deal with a mental health issue on your own is not a good idea (I speak from experience). Please go get proper help. Click here to access Psychology Today’s directory of mental health professionals and find a therapist or psychiatrist near you.
Isolation Isn’t Good, Even For Introverts
Even though I’m an introvert, I need to be around people because human beings are social creatures. Like other humans, introverts don’t do well in prolonged isolation. We need social interactions, though we typically prefer to interact with small groups and in low-stimulation environments. Even socially anxious people need human interaction, though they’re going to have a harder time finding people who they feel safe around (yet another reason to see a professional counselor — they can help you understand your anxiety and offer treatment options so you can live life the way you want to).
The past couple weeks I’ve been struggling with increased anxiety and depression. I’m working on a novel for NaNoWriMo and between that and work I was writing 5,000 words or more a day on average. I also work from home, so I don’t get as much social interaction as introverts who work with or around people. Plus, I’d stay up late, sleep poorly, and crawl out of bed an hour after my alarm went off still tired (sleep patterns can have a big impact on depression and anxiety).
You’d think that as a stressed, anxious, and depressed introvert, coming up on Thanksgiving would fill me with dread. But quite the opposite. I gave myself permission to take the day off writing and just focus on spending time with other people. I went to visit my sister the day before Thanksgiving and we cooked dinner together, then watched Footloose and Dirty Dancing (both for the first time, but that’s another story). Then we spent Thanksgiving day with a group of about 20 other people.
Was I tired after all that socializing? Yes. But it wasn’t a bad kind of tired. It was normal introvert-style tired, and I recharged that night by watching an episode of BBC’s Sherlock (he’s an INTP, by the way), journaling, and then going to bed a little early. Being around people for a day was actually part of my self-care as an introvert. That’s why I didn’t write an article about how to “survive” Thanksgiving as an introvert — because going to a Thanksgiving party doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even for introverts.
Not All Introverts Are Alike
I also know some introverts spent Thanksgiving alone and were quite happy about it. Maybe they typically work with people all-day and needed time-off from interacting with humans (whereas I work all day alone and need time-off from being in my head). Or maybe they know that spending a holiday with their extended family was going to be way too draining, decided to spend the day alone, and instead scheduled smaller get-togethers with family members who they want to build better relationships with.
The point is that introversion doesn’t look the same for everyone, which means not every introvert is going to need the same things in every situation. And if you are an introvert with social anxiety, that will make your particular experiences with introversion different than an introvert who doesn’t struggle with anxiety as much or in the same way.
In conclusion, being an introvert doesn’t mean you don’t need (or want) to be around other people. It means you’ll run out of social energy faster than most extroverts. It probably means that you’ll prefer smaller groups of people and quieter settings (though not necessarily). And if you are struggling with strong fears and anxiety surrounding interactions with other people, I hope you’ll at least look into whether or not you have anxiety and seek help. Social anxiety is treatable, and there’s no reason that you need to let it control your life as an introvert.
“Introversion is your way. Social anxiety gets in your way.” — from “The 4 Differences Between Introversion and Social Anxiety” by Ellen Hendriksen
Featured image credit: StockSnap via Pixabay