For introverts like me, learning about your personality is often a huge relief. We read books like Susan Cain’s Quiet, Marti Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage, or Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power and we marvel that there are other people like us. We’re not alone anymore. All our weirdness finally makes sense.
Except, introversion didn’t explain everything about my personality. Those writing about introversion were careful to point out that it isn’t the same thing as shyness. I was shy, though, so how did I fit in? Learning from Elaine Aron’s books that I’m a highly sensitive person helped explain why certain environments and situations feel overwhelming, but it didn’t explain the racing heart, sweaty palms, and anxious thoughts that followed me into interactions with people.
I had my first panic attack in a Blockbuster when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That was when I realized there was something going on other than just shyness. Another 15 years later and I now know that I struggle with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and depression. I won’t get into all that here but if you’re curious you can click to read “My Anxiety Story.”
One of the good things that has come out of all this is that I can write about introversion, social anxiety, and what it means to have both. I can’t speak for everyone, though. Our personalities and anxieties are highly individual and if you’re socially anxious it’s going to be a different experience for you than it is for me. There are commonalities, however, and I think there’s a good chance you’ll identify with some of my confessions as a socially anxious introvert.
If you want to get copies of those books I just mentioned you can follow the links below. Please note that these are affiliate links, which means that (at no extra cost to you) I’ll get a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney
- Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie Helgoe
- The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron
A note on anxiety and introversion
It is important to note that introversion and social anxiety are not the same thing. The introvert/extrovert preference has to do with which world is more “real” to us. For introverts, the inner world is where we start when defining reality. It is also where we recharge, which is why Introvert, Dear defines “introvert” as “someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments.”
Social anxiety, on the other hand, “is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” When you’re socially anxious, you “may worry about acting or appearing visibly anxious (e.g., blushing, stumbling over words), or being viewed as stupid, awkward, or boring.” This often results in avoiding anxiety-producing social situations. It can also cause “strong physical symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate, nausea, and sweating” as well as full-blown panic attacks (definitions from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
Both introverts and extroverts can struggle with social anxiety and the closely related issue of shyness. It’s the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder and affects about 15 million American adults. For today’s post, though, we’ll be focusing on my experiences as a socially anxious introvert.
1) It makes me angry
I’ve come a long way in learning to embrace my introversion and love my personality quirks. I can celebrate my sensitivity, practice mindful self-care, and happily make introvert-friendly plans. I don’t think of introversion or sensitivity as something that holds me back. But I do get angry at my social anxiety. It’s frustrating when I want to share something important with a group of people and my heart races, palms sweat, and my voice shakes. It makes me mad that my brain tells me people will think I’m stupid and boring if I share my real self. It’s okay to feel this anger, though. As my counselor said, sometimes your brain is a dirty rotten liar and you’re allowed to be mad about that.
2) It’s hard not to isolate myself
One of the things people with social anxiety often tell ourselves is that no one really wants to be around me. I might want to reach out to someone but I think I shouldn’t bother them. Or maybe I’ll turn down an invitation because I feel like I wouldn’t be adding much to the group. I’d just be so anxious and overwhelmed that they’ll label me a “party pooper,” so why bother going? Introverts tend to have smaller friend circles anyway, but we do still need people because loneliness affects mental and physical health in an alarming number of negative ways. In the past, I felt guilty about this isolation because I knew it wasn’t healthy. Now I make a conscious effort to find or create small groups that I’m comfortable spending time with and commit to meeting with them regularly even when it’s hard.
3) I’m always prepared
One of the ways certain people with anxiety try to cope is by always being prepared. The more I can prepare for all the things that might happen the less worried I feel about all of them. Some of my friends joke that I have a “mom purse” because if anyone needs a band-aid, nail clippers, safety pins, pen, piece of paper, etc. I usually have it with me. I also over-pack for trips, write out what I want to say before making a phone call, and take several pages of notes (about twice as many as I’ll need) with me when leading book club. This sort of preparation is often useful but it is tied to my anxiety.
4) I see more threats
Socially anxious people have different triggers that might spark an anxious response. One of my big ones is raised voices. Even if someone isn’t shouting at me loud voices typically make me feel threatened. There’s actually a scientific reason for this, since anxious people have a harder time than others distinguishing between safe and threatening stimuli. My default reaction to something new or loud is to assume it’s a threat, startle, investigate it, and then try to talk myself down if it’s not a threat. This often leads to people seeing me a “jumpy” and it can make social situations even harder to relax in.
5) I feel anxiety in my body
One thing I didn’t really understand about anxiety until I started seeing a counselor is how much of a physical effect it can have. Anxiety can show up in your body as tense muscles, digestive distress, weakened immune system, and exhaustion. I often feel anxiety in my gut before I have other symptoms like racing heartbeat or shaking hands. I also feel tired even when I get enough sleep because my nervous system spends so much time in a heightened state of awareness that it drains my energy. I’m guessing this exhaustion is most noticeable for socially anxious introverts, since outer-world activities drain our energy even without anxiety.
6) I don’t mean to look aloof
Or stuck-up, or bored, or irritated, or however else people choose to misinterpret my anxiety. Trying to manage how people perceive me is one of the weirder things about anxiety (at least for me). Either I let them see how much I’m freaking out (and that never seems like a good option in public), or I try to hide it. Unfortunately, trying to hide my nervousness can make me seem irritated (if I’m already freaking out about something) or detached because I’m not fully engaging with the social group. Even if I’m not all that nervous I often spend time near the edge of groups watching instead of joining in, and I’ve had people ask if I’m “too good for them” or why I’m not enjoying myself. Those questions only make social anxiety worse.
7) I don’t know how people see me
Social anxiety tends to tell you things are worse than they usually are, especially when it comes to social situations and how people perceive you. I was shocked to receive feedback from people I worked with in an art gallery that they saw me as a “calming pretense.” Perhaps even more shocking was people who said “you didn’t seem that nervous” after I did some public speaking. My personality type is INFJ, which is supposed to be really good at reading other people. My social anxiety blocks part of this trait, though, because it’s hard to read people when your brain is imagining worst-case scenarios related to how they perceive you.
8) I didn’t want to talk about it
There’s been so much stigma against speaking about mental health issues that admitting I had social anxiety was a real struggle. I didn’t even want to admit it to myself and was scared to ask whether I was just occasionally shy or actually had an anxiety disorder. I think a lot of people with mental health struggles (not just anxiety) can relate to this confession. Even when you see others fighting to end the stigma against mental illness and you know it’s no worse to ask for help with your depression (or whatever it is) than for help with cancer, it can still be difficult to share your struggle with others or to seek help.
9) I have to talk about it
In the last few years, I’ve learned that I have to talk about my social anxiety if I want to stop it. At first, that meant sharing with a few trusted friends that I’m nervous and might have a panic attack. Knowing that they knew made me less fearful about what would happen if I actually did panic. After I started seeing a counselor, I also began sharing here on this blog and with a wider circle of friends that I struggle with anxiety. Getting it out in the open seemed to strip away much of the power my fears had. Pretending I didn’t have anxiety only made me plan my life around avoiding anxiety triggers so I didn’t have to deal with the fact that everything wasn’t okay. Once I started talking about it I finally started healing. It also opened up opportunities to connect with others struggling in similar ways.
10) It took me a long time to ask for help
As I mentioned earlier, well over 10 years passed between my first panic attack and my first meeting with a counselor. This isn’t unusual. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “fewer than 5% of people of with social anxiety disorder seek treatment in the year following initial onset and more than a third of people report symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.”
I’m a big fan of cognitive behavioral therapy and I’m so thankful that my first counselor and I connected so well. My year of working with her through schema therapy and other methods for retraining my mind to cope with anxiety was life-changing. If you’re struggling with social anxiety (or any other mental health disorder), I encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional. Click here to search for therapists in your local area.
Featured image credit: Rawpizel via Pexels