We’re not overreacting. The feelings that come with social anxiety are real, no matter how irrational they seem to others.
It’s Friday night, and you’re curled up on the couch with your favorite book. You’re so engrossed in the storyline that you almost don’t hear your phone buzzing on the table next to you. You see your screen light up — someone you’d consider an acquaintance is calling. Suddenly, your palms start to sweat and your heart begins to race. You watch the caller’s name dance around your screen and stay as silent as possible, as though they may somehow hear you. They may be calling to invite you out … or they may simply want to chat. Either way, the idea of answering the phone makes your stomach tighten.
Another time, you hesitantly agree to go to a house-warming party with your boyfriend. He knows you well and respects your boundaries, and insists that it’ll be low-key. After several failed attempts to keep the small talk going with acquaintances at the party, you’re on the verge of tears. You feel unbearably uncomfortable, you get lightheaded, and your heart feels as though it’s going to explode out of your chest. You finally hide on the front porch, embarrassed and overwhelmed as the tears flow down your cheeks (despite finally being alone).
These are just two examples of how social anxiety can present itself.
Social Anxiety vs. Being an Introvert
While introverts may suffer from social anxiety, social anxiety and being an introvert are not the same. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social anxiety is defined as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” There are different levels of social anxiety — and when or where social anxiety rears its ugly head can depend on the individual and the situation.
On the other hand, introversion is a personality trait that is characterized by needing quiet, minimally stimulating environments to recharge (vs. the outside world that extroverts need). Being an introvert is not something that needs to be managed or overcome: It’s completely healthy, and an intrinsic part of your being.
(Here’s the science behind why you can’t stop being an introvert.)
Because we introverts get drained by socializing and gain energy from spending time alone, introversion and social anxiety often become confused as interchangeable terms. However, not all introverts have social anxiety. In fact, there are extroverts prone to social anxiety, as well.
Regardless, social anxiety can be incredibly painful to live with. It can leave us introverts who are socially anxious feeling completely misunderstood. Here are some things we’d like you to know.
10 Things Socially Anxious Introverts Would Like You to Know
1. Social anxiety is about more than being shy.
Shyness is when someone feels awkward and uncomfortable in new situations and around new people. Those of us who are shy tend to gain confidence as we get to know these people and situations better.
But just because someone is shy doesn’t mean they are socially anxious. Social anxiety is a mental health condition and usually doesn’t dissipate in familiar situations. People who suffer from it may seek out help from a therapist and take medication, as well.
2. If we’re off to the side instead of participating in small talk, we’re not trying to be rude. It’s just a defense mechanism.
Social anxiety can be a beast to deal with. Because of this, we may ignore familiar faces we spot in public, stand by ourselves instead of participating in small talk, or avoid making eye contact. These are merely defense mechanisms, but they can sometimes give others the wrong impression.
Though many of us socially anxious introverts can seem rude because of this, it’s not our intention. Knowing that we may be potentially giving this false impression to those around us actually adds to our anxiety levels, too. In situations like this, introvert guilt can also increase unpleasant feelings. As much as we may want to see you, sometimes we just can’t endure socializing.
3. We’re not overreacting — the feelings that come with social anxiety are real, no matter how irrational they may seem to others.
Please know that we’re not trying to be dramatic. Social anxiety is real, and so are the feelings that come with it, no matter how irrational they may seem to others. Yes, the phone ringing makes me anxious whereas it may not affect someone who doesn’t have social anxiety.
If you’re unfamiliar with social anxiety or can’t sympathize (or empathize) with us, we appreciate and deserve your respect anyway. It’s more common than you may realize; in fact, 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety every year. Listening to those of us with social anxiety explain how it feels is an accessible way to learn about it.
4. Logic doesn’t matter, but practicing positive self-talk can help.
One coping mechanism can be practicing positive self-talk, like “I’m lovable just the way I am” or “Meeting new people is daunting, but I have a lot to offer.” You can even make a list of your strengths that you can refer to when needed. My list would include that I’m kind, empathetic, and a good listener.
But it’s a process. There are times when I haven’t socialized for a while, and I try to prepare myself for my next interaction. I’ll remind myself that I’m overthinking, that most people aren’t even paying attention to me when I think they are, and that I’m way too hard on myself.
This works sometimes, but it’s not foolproof. Even if it made sense earlier, social anxiety tends to eradicate all logic.
5. It’s not that we don’t like you — we’re just not as comfortable in social situations.
It truly isn’t. Socially anxiety can show up in any situation, even when we’re with loved ones. Some of our loved ones may be more outgoing or extroverted than we are. This can lead to invitations to places and situations that make us uncomfortable.
For example, one night, I went out with my family — they had a blast singing karaoke and dancing happily. I felt like a fool sitting alone watching them, too paralyzed with anxiety to join them. But I didn’t want to be a “buzzkill” and disclose how anxious I was. Despite being comfortable around loved ones, sometimes it can be more difficult to feel as though I’m disappointing them by not going with them or leaving early than it does with an acquaintance.
6. Just because we’re not talking doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say.
Introverts tend to prefer watching from the sidelines, and when you add social anxiety into the mix, this becomes even more true. Having social anxiety can make speaking out feel close to impossible. Just the thought of saying something can lead to sweaty palms, heart palpitations, and dizziness.
However, this doesn’t mean that socially anxious introverts don’t have something to say and that we aren’t paying attention.
For example, I’ll be listening closely to the conversation while mustering up the courage to contribute. But, once I do, the moment has usually passed, and the conversation has naturally evolved to a different topic, so the process begins again.
7. Telling us, “don’t worry!” doesn’t help.
It might seem like telling a socially anxious introvert to “relax” and “stop worrying” and that “everything is OK” could be helpful. But, honestly, this only makes things worse.
Of course, we wish it was this easy to calm our anxious minds, but it’s not as simple as that. Additionally, saying things like this can make us feel invalidated, whether that’s your intention or not.
Instead, I’d love for someone to acknowledge that my feelings — like fear of the unknown — are valid, and let me do what I need to do to feel safe.
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8. Calling us out doesn’t help, either, even if it’s playful.
Nothing feels worse in an uncomfortable situation than being called out. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, and it stings every time. One memory stands out more often than others, though.
When I was a teacher (which ended up not being the best job for my introvert self), I was speaking with a couple of classroom parents at the end of the day. I fumbled over my words a bit, but I felt like I was handling the situation relatively well. Next to me, my co-teacher teased me and chuckled as she said, “Oh, wow. You’re so awkward!” I felt myself blush and my hands began to shake.
Situations like this might seem lighthearted and funny to most people. Still, it can be detrimental to a socially anxious introvert and make us even more anxious about future social interactions like the above.
9. Patience and understanding make a huge difference.
Similarly, as nothing feels worse than being called out and told not to worry, nothing feels better than being around people who are patient and understanding when we’re feeling anxious. Having anxiety — especially around others in a public place — can be incredibly isolating and can lead to feelings of shame.
Let’s say I tell someone I’m anxious about hanging out with my friend’s friends that I haven’t met yet. Sometimes, something as simple as letting us know that you’re here for us makes a huge difference, like saying, “There’s nothing wrong with you, and I’ll help you in any way you need.”
10. Social anxiety is not limited to in-person interactions.
Often, having a conversation with a coworker, asking questions in class, going to the grocery store, or going to a social event can trigger social anxiety. However, social anxiety is not limited to in-person interactions like these.
Online interactions — such as Zoom calls, phone calls, and even text messaging — can become catastrophic to a socially anxious introvert. For instance, we worry about awkward silences or that we are bothering you when we feel comfortable enough to open up a bit, like we’ve overshared or overstayed our welcome.
These situations potentially open us up to overthinking, feelings of self-doubt, and embarrassment as much as in-person ones do.
Just remember: If you’re a socially anxious introvert, you are not alone. And if you know a socially anxious introvert, please understand that many of us are doing the best we can, and your support means everything.
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