Introverts Need People Too: A Closer Look At Introversion and Social Anxiety

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.

Definition Conundrums

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.”

Introverts Need People Too: A Closer Look At Introversion and Social Anxiety | LikeAnAnchor.com

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. Read more

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The Difference Between Having Anxiety and Feeling Anxious

Every human being knows what it’s like to feel anxious about something, but that’s not the same thing as having anxiety. There’s a difference between normal anxiety (which is appropriate to the situation) and dealing with an anxiety disorder (which is a mental health condition).

In day-to-day life it’s actually really hard to define the line between normal worry and too much worry (as Dr. Ramani Durvasula says in “Why It’s So Crucial to Understand Anxiety Disorders“). What pushes you into problematic anxiety can vary depending on the individual. It will also vary for an individual depending on other factors in their lives. In addition, anxiety looks different for everyone who struggles with it. That means my personal examples in this article are an accurate reflection of my anxiety, but won’t be equally relatable for everyone with anxiety.

There are plenty of situations where it’s normal to feel anxious. But when anxiety starts to define your life, or keeps you from functioning normally, or generalizes to everyday situations, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with something different than normal human nervousness. Anxiety can also be a clue that something else is going on. If you think your worry might have crossed a line into too much worry, it’s a good idea to talk with a mental health professional.

Disclaimer: I’m not a counselor or therapist and this article can’t be used to diagnose anxiety or as a treatment guide. If you’re struggling with something talk with a mental health professional. They will be much more helpful than me. I also want to say that there’s nothing shameful about seeking answers or asking for help. And if you do get a diagnosis, remember it’s a starting point for treatment, not a sentence or judgement on who you are. You wouldn’t feel ashamed about finding out you have lyme disease or a heart condition, and there shouldn’t be a stigma against mental health problems either. Read more

Anxiety Kitty: The Not-So-Surprising Way Pets Improve Mental Health

Remember that nervous cat I adopted a few months ago who spent all his time hiding under couches and beds or in closets? (click here to read “Lessons From My Nervous Cat”). My plan was to pour as much patience, love, and understanding into his life as I want people to show me when I’m scared. I wanted to show him that he had a safe home now.

Well, it’s working. Flynn is turning into quite the friendly cat, especially with me but also with the rest of the people he sees every day. And he’s even getting better around non-family members. We had several people over for dinner last night for a total of 14 humans around. Flynn hid when they were all in the house together, but after we sat down to dinner (some outside and some in the dining room) he actually wandered around out in the open and let people he didn’t know pet him.

After doing some research, I learned that clicker training is the one thing people have found that helps anxious cats settle down and feel safe. No one knows why teaching a cat to do simple tricks on command combats anxiety, but it does. My theory is that when the cat gets positive reinforcement for certain actions the additional structure helps make them feel secure. Whatever the reason, it’s adorable. It’s mostly about teaching him to do things he was already doing on command (touch my fingers, come when called, jump on and off chairs, and stand on his hind legs). The “stand” command is everyone’s favorite. He’s just so cute!

Anxiety Kitty | marissabaker.wordpress.com

As I’ve helped Flynn with his anxiety, he’s been helping me with mine. Before a lunch date a few weeks ago (the first since my breakup), he spent the whole morning following me around and checking in on me. Every few minutes while I was working at my desk he’d hop out of the window and walk over to “talk” with me and have his head rubbed. And when I walked into a different room he followed. Since then, he’s kept that pattern up most of the days my anxiety has spiked.

I’m honestly shocked how in-tune he is with my emotional state. A few days ago I was working on a guest post sharing my testimony about anxiety (I’ll share a link here when it goes live) and I hit a point in my writings where I just burst into tears sitting at my desk. I went for a walk outside and when I came back Flynn walked around my feet crying until I responded to him. He actually let me pick him up and hold him for a good 30 seconds (he hates being cuddled and usually wiggles as soon as you pick him up). Then a little while later when I was journaling and crying he spotted me, ran into the room, jumped up on the bed with me and stayed there purring until someone else came home. The only other times he sits on my bed with me is late at night, so this was really outside his normal behavior.

We’ve also discovered another shared love: old books. I collect Grosset & Dunlap series books (like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Rick Brant, and others). I found two bags full of books I needed for my collection at a book sale on Friday and they’re in really good shape. Flynn acted like the bags were full of catnip. He dove into the Hardy Boys bag head first and rolled around on the books until I pulled him out and tied the bag shut so he wouldn’t damage them. Then he climbed into the bag that I’d had Rick Brant books in earlier. He looked almost as happy with the books as I am.

Anxiety Kitty | marissabaker.wordpress.com

There’s just something comforting about sharing my home with a fluffy critter. Cats are my choice, but I’m sure other pet owners can relate whether they love dogs, rabbits, gerbils, or even non-fluffy pets. People are happier and healthier around animals. In fact, one survey found that 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, “pets and therapy animals can help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation.” That’s so true for me. Adopting Flynn and starting counseling are the two biggest things that have helped me deal with my anxiety this year, as well as my post-breakup grief. I know pet ownership isn’t for everyone, and would never tell you to get a pet if you’re not sure you could take care of it. But for those of us who can have pets, they can be a huge help when you’re going through something.

You don’t need to have a mental health issue to benefit from caring for an animal. For example, I suggested in my post on developing Sensing as an INFJ or INTJ that pets can help ground these personality types in the real world. INxJ types are normally a bit out-of-touch with the physical world and there’s nothing like knowing some other life form needs you in order to stay alive and happy to get you out of your own head for a while. Whatever your personality type, pets can be a huge blessing.

What about you? Do you have an animal friend who helps you when you’re struggling with something?

Lessons From My Nervous Cat

Meet Flynn. He’s 2 years old, weighs 15 pounds, and lost his previous home (not sure of the exact circumstances). I brought him home from a local humane society a couple weeks ago. I’d asked them if they had a sweet, cuddly cat that would do well in a single-cat home. They recommended Dorito (I’d originally planned to keep his name, but he doesn’t respond to it at all and it just didn’t “feel right” to me. Hence the name change, after Flynn Carsen from The Librarians).

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Flynn Carsen and Flynn the Cat

My new kitty cried for the entire car ride home. Once I released him from the cat carrier he promptly hid under the couch for the next six hours. Poor little thing’s been through a lot. But we’re starting to settle in and get used to each other. And after two weeks together I’ve learned that

  • He loves meat and will beg in the kitchen for beef, poultry, and fish
  • Catnip mice are his favorite thing. He just lays on the floor while hugging and chewing on them
  • My fleece mermaid blanket must have a texture he likes, since he danced around with a look of wonder on his face the first time he touched it. It’s our favorite blanket
  • His purr is furniture-rattling in volume and intensity
  • He likes sleeping with people. Usually he picks my bed and spends the night curled up near my feet or legs

But I’ve also learned some other things:

  • He’s terrified of people in motion. If you stand up or walk into a room his eyes get big and he runs away
  • If you reach out toward him he flinches, like he expects you to hit him. But he’s sweet and affectionate if you’re sitting down and he comes up to you
  • He doesn’t like being picked up
  • The slightest noise is enough to make him startle awake, leap in the air, and/or flee the room
  • He spends most of the day hiding, only coming out to spend time with us in the morning and evenings
Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
hiding under the bed

I don’t know what happened in Flynn’s past as Dorito. Being a storyteller, I have a completely theoretical narrative that goes like this: Dorito’s owner was a sweet, elderly person who was confined to a wheelchair. They fed Dorito in the kitchen, invited him to sleep in the bed, and showered him with love. But this person had a caretaker that came in during the days and wasn’t kind to the cat. So Dorito learned that people walking toward him meant he’d be kicked or grabbed or chased out of the room. And then when their elderly person passed away, Dorito was dumped off at the Humane Society.

Of course I have no idea if that’s anywhere near the truth. What I do know is that I’ve adopted a very nervous cat. He startles at the slightest noise. He flinches if you touch him. He doesn’t do “normal cat” things like lay around all day and nap (at least not out in the open). And he’s taking a very long time to relax around us, especially my 6′ 3″ younger brother.

After a few days of this, someone in my family described Flynn as a “useless cat” because he won’t cuddle. And then someone asked if I could return a defective cat. I was behind the couch at this point trying to convince Flynn to come out and raised my voice just enough to say, “He’s scared and he needs our love and understanding!” After that the (mostly) joking suggestions that Flynn wasn’t the cat we were looking for stopped. He also started becoming more friendly, which helped with that.

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Flynn’s favorite blanket

I don’t know what in Flynn’s past made him so scared. But I know that right now he’s easily startled, worried, and only wants touched on his terms. So I decided to love him where he’s at and work with him. It’s not going to help if I lecture him, saying he’s got it so good now that he should just suck it up and move forward with his life. He needs patience. He needs someone not to push his boundaries because that will only prove we can’t be trusted not to go too far. He needs someone there for him when he does want held and petted.

And then I started thinking, isn’t that what hurting people need too? Love, understanding, acceptance, and someone to be there for them on their terms. But how many times do we meet someone who’s going through something we don’t understand and yet we treat them as if they’re “lesser than” because they’re still showing signs of their past trauma? Why are we so much more willing to extend grace and compassion to a nervous cat than to an anxious, depressed, or hurting human?

Then I had another realization. The way I’m treating my cat is the way I want to be treated when I’m anxious, nervous, or on the edge of panic. I want patience, understanding, and someone who will ask what I need instead of pushing me to just get over it. And it’s also the way I should treat myself (I’ve recently started seeing a counselor to get help working through my anxiety and she was delighted with this realization). We must give ourselves the same compassion, love, and permission to be ourselves that we long for from other people and should extend to others who are going through similar things.

So that’s what I’ve been learning from my nervous cat. I think he’s turning out to be a pretty good teacher.

Lessons From My Nervous Cat | marissabaker.wordpress.com

An Open Letter to Socially Timid Highly Sensitive People

I’m so excited to share with you my first article published on Introvert, Dear. Read an excerpt below, then follow the “Read More” link for the full article.

Dear fellow highly sensitive person,

Like many of you, I didn’t know I was a highly sensitive person (HSP) for a long while. I just knew I was “different.” For me, this was particularly marked in social situations. Other people went shopping together to unwind, but I felt tense in brightly lit malls bombarded by flashing advertisements, milling crowds, and heavy perfumes. My friends didn’t wince at dances when the music was turned up, they danced harder. My classmates in college seemed like they could relax and focus, while I noticed the flickering lights, the quality of air, the spot on the professor’s shirt, the scratch of pencils on paper.

Sound familiar? If you were like me, you were sure this wasn’t normal—but you weren’t sure what to do about it. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to get over my shyness and start acting like other people. I had discovered my Myers-Briggs personality type was INFJ when I was preparing to graduate high school as a homeschooler, but it wasn’t until I was floundering through the social landscape of college that I started really researching it. I began at the library, desperately digging through books, looking for ways to cope with my introversion. …. Read More

Walking by Faith (and next e-book announcement)

I just got back yesterday from an incredible  service-themed Young Adult weekend. It didn’t start out all that well for me, though. The day before I left I started feeling nervous (which is normal for me going into social events) but then by the time I left on Friday I had a shaking-crying-hyperventilating panic attack (which is becoming less and less normal/frequent for me).

I was really caught off-guard by this. I knew several people there — not just as acquaintances, but as friends — and I’d been eagerly looking forward to this event for weeks. I chalked it up to my too-active imagination combined with uncertainty about Friday evening’s schedule, breathed deep, prayed, turned Fallout Boy up, and started driving …

… and hit heavy traffic and rain (my two least favorite things to drive in). That left me running 20 late to met the people I was supposed to be car pooling with to the house I didn’t have an address for. Thankfully, one of the people I was meeting is also one of only 2 out of 100+ people at the weekend with my phone number, and he texted me the address. I proceeded to enter said address in my GPS and it took me to a house with no cars in the driveway.

It is either a testament to my stupidity or my faith that I walked up and rang the doorbell. Turns out, my friend accidentally sent me to another church member’s home (whose name I recognized, though I’d never met them) and they fed me cheese, gave me the correct address, and sent me on my way. Oddly, that’s when I felt a sense of peace for the first time all day. I was late, I was temporarily lost and yet God showed me that these worries coming true weren’t anything He couldn’t handle.

Walking by Faith | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credit: Dan4th Nicholas, CC BY via Flickr

Saturday brought a great round of seminars and an excellent sermon on foot washing and Passover. Nothing to worry about, until game night happened. I’m sure I’m in the minority judging by how many people said they had a wonderful time, but any sort of game that involves doing something in front of other people or in a group or on a team makes me intensely uncomfortable, especially if you add competition. The first two games were mixers where you asked someone a question and their name. I literally remember nothing from meeting people this way (does it even count as a “meeting” then?). Next was that game where you tie a balloon to your ankle and try to keep it from getting popped while popping everyone else’s balloon. I could have kissed whoever it was that popped my balloon the moment the game started.

That’s the last game I “played” (I stepped on my own balloon when they started round two) and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my evening talking with two other people who saw no appeal in participating. Give me a deep conversation with someone over competitive and/or rambunctious games any day. Now that’s how to meet new people. (Side-track back to the topic of social anxiety: game night continued throughout my conversations and there was a Bag of Doom from which they were drawing names to participate in a novelty challenge which you had to do while standing in the center of a room surrounded by 80-something people watching you. Can anyone say “introvert’s worst nightmare”?)

I think one of the biggest lessons I learned this weekend was that my fears were either 1) groundless or 2) didn’t have the power to hold me back. The fact that I had a panic attack before leaving turned into a blessing because it gave me the choice between either canceling my plans or praying through it and trusting God. I chose the later, and I kept encountering situations that could make me feel nervous and which reminded me to stay in prayer all weekend. Every single one of the things I was worried about worked out for the best, and the only part of that I can take credit for is that I took the step to go to the weekend and start a few conversations. The rest was all God.

This brings us in a very round-about way back to the topic of the weekend — service. Specifically, “Unlocking Your Desire To Serve.” As many of you know, I consider this blog a sort of ministry and it’s been growing in ways that amaze me and make me want to do more. One of the big things that holds me back is my own fears, including my fear of panicking when it’s important that I talk with people about my faith. So for me, blending this weekend’s focus on service with a need to rely on God for help working through my anxiety was a powerful experience.

  • If you gave up reading that long rambling post and started scrolling, here’s the e-book announcement:

Something I haven’t shared with many people is that in my local Messianic congregation I’ve been receiving words, prayers, and hints from brethren for the last several months along the lines of “God’s going to do something big in/with your life soon.” I even finally have a hint as to what that might involve after I came back from services a few weeks ago with a title for an e-book in my head which I promptly sat down and outlined. I’ve barely worked on it since, but this weekend was exactly what I needed to reconfirm that God wants me to be sharing my gifts through writing and that He’s more than capable of overcoming deficiencies on my part.

My first step is officially announcing the project here on this blog. The working title is “Rise Up, My Love” and the focus will be on reigniting the church’s passion for God (so, basically this blog in book form). I’m not committing to a release-date quite yet (it would be lovely to have it out by Sukkot/Feast of Tabernacles this fall, but I think a full year might be more realistic judging by how long it took to write The INFJ Handbook). I’ll keep you posted on details.