Although not all introverts have social anxiety, I am one who does — and it’s an incredible battle I face almost every day.
Many people confuse introversion for social anxiety. However, they are not the same thing. Introverts tend to be quiet, observant, and need plenty of time alone to recharge their energy. By definition, they simply prefer calmer environments where there’s less activity going on.
On the other hand, social anxiety involves symptoms such as sweaty palms and racing, negative thoughts that can be triggered by social experiences, such as attending a party or making small talk with a stranger. Although not all introverts are socially anxious, it’s not uncommon for them to experience some level of either general anxiety or social anxiety.
I am one of those socially anxious introverts, and here are 13 struggles I face on a regular basis. Although these struggles have changed somewhat under the Covid-19 pandemic — for example, I don’t get many party invites anymore — I know eventually we’ll return to a time when these are the norm. So, if you can relate, you’re not alone!
Struggles of a Socially Anxious Introvert
1. Attending a party where I only know one person
Parties in themselves cause the typical anxiety symptoms for me like nausea, a racing heartbeat, and excess sweating. Often I end up sticking close like a lost puppy to the one person I know, which I recognize can get annoying for both parties. For this reason, I usually skip parties altogether, or if I do go, stand off to the side and try to fake like I’m enjoying myself. However, as much as parties make me incredibly anxious, sometimes I challenge myself to attend them, because I have a limited number of friends and don’t want them to think I’m flaking on them.
2. Big crowded spaces like malls or conferences
I hate places that hold huge crowds, such as shopping malls, concerts, or conference halls. It feels like the more people there are, the more eyes there are to watch me. If the event involves seating, I sit on the end of the aisle and in the back so I can leave quietly if needed. I’m always thinking, “What if I have to stand up to leave? Will everyone stare?” Sometimes I don’t get up to go to the bathroom, even though my bladder is about to burst! Just the thought of all that attention on me becomes overwhelming, making me feel those dreaded anxiety symptoms once again. I get cold sweats, my eyes narrow, my face gets hot, and panic rises in my mind. If I can duck out easily, it helps alleviate those symptoms.
3. Literally anything that involves public speaking
It may seem strange that I experience such intense social anxiety and am also a teacher who stands in front of a classroom of 30 humans every day. Yet I feel fine in front of my kindergarten and first grade students — they’re so understanding, and if I mess up, they’re too young to really judge me.
But my job frequently requires me to speak at school-wide assemblies and hold conferences with parents. That’s when my social anxiety kicks in, because being the center of attention is a huge no for me. To have to perform in front of a group of people — both strangers and colleagues — is terrifying. I start thinking, “What if I mess up? What if I stutter or the audience sees me sweating? I think I’m going to throw up!” I try to cope with my anxiety by giving myself plenty of time to practice (as much as I hate it). I’m trying to get over my anxiety for my students, but it’s not easy.
4. The possibility that people might see evidence of my anxiety
If you also experience social anxiety (or another “invisible” mental or physical condition), it can feel terrible knowing that other people overlook and misunderstand one of your life’s greatest challenges. However, on the flip side, when there’s a possibility that people will see me panicking, it can make it worse. Dark shirts are a must in my wardrobe so if I do sweat, it’s harder to see. Tums or other antacids in my purse help curb the symptoms of nausea. For stuttering and shaking, I keep my hands down and try to talk slowly.
5. When nosy people corner me for information at family gatherings
I really just want to float unnoticed at family gatherings, but some people are nosy and pushy, and ask questions. “Have you gotten a new job yet? When are you going to get pregnant again? It’s taking forever!” These rude and invasive questions put me on overload as I try to answer and not stutter. Having so many people close to me and in my business all at once overwhelms me, because I really just want to be the introverted wallflower that I am. I try to mentally (and sometimes physically) separate myself a little, then answer their questions one at a time.
6. Anything that requires me to be the center of attention
Talk about a recipe for blushing, stuttering, and feeling like I acted dumb! Introverts don’t want to be the center of attention to begin with, but when they also experience social anxiety, it can cause them to shut down. One prime example is our annual “Back to School Night” at my job. I’m the center of attention all night and have to answer lots of questions from eager parents, ready to kick off a new school year. When it’s all over, I worry that my responses were inarticulate and jumbled. I’ve been teaching for ten years, so I know I have both the experience and the chops, but I still worry about stumbling over my answers — which, ironically, leads to me doing just that.
7. When I have to open a gift in front of everyone
At both my bridal and baby showers, my family placed me in a chair at the front of the room, and I had to open gifts one-by-one in front of all my guests. Of course, I was thankful for the presents, but while I opened them, the stress of making sure I showed enough happiness for each one took away nearly all my energy. To try to do this with a bunch of family and friends was exhausting. I worried, “How much happiness do they need to see so they know that I truly appreciate their gifts?”
8. Confrontation with people at my job
Anytime I have to have a conversation with someone regarding a problem, I will panic. I need time to rehearse what I want to say, but in some situation, I do not have that opportunity. For example, the teacher in the classroom next to mine has no trouble barging into my room (once the children leave) to scold me about something random or not my fault. I usually end up sweating, blushing, and not giving a good response because I don’t have time to prepare.
9. Any time people give me compliments in a group setting
Compliments are always nice to hear, but they still make me uncomfortable, so I blush. Then, if it turns into a bunch of compliments in front of other people, I pray the spotlight will go elsewhere as I feel my heart race and nausea overtake me. For example, at a previous graduation ceremony, my principal raved about how well I did during the school year in front of my students’ parents. Well, the parents all started chiming in while their extended families looked on. At first, it was so nice to hear how they viewed me, but then, as I heard more and more compliments, I was begging my invisibility superpower to kick in!
10. Having to make phone calls to strangers
For example, scheduling a doctors appointment. I can practice what I want to say, but I can’t predict how the other person will respond. I can usually guess how a doctor’s office will respond or what questions will be asked, but I still have to mentally prepare ahead of time. Sometimes I put notecards or a calendar in front of me with the phone on speaker to ease my anxiety.
It’s even worse when I have to call someone to tell them bad news. For example, when I worked in childcare, I occasionally had to call a parent whose child had gotten injured. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have over the phone — oddly, it was usually easier in person, because I could read the parent’s reactions better. Often parents would get upset, yell at me, or ask question after question without waiting for an answer. This is another scenario where I place notes in front of me so I can stay on target with what I want to say.
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11. Ordering at a restaurant
I need to practice what I want to say in other situations as well. If I’m at a restaurant, I need to be the last person in the group to order so I can mentally repeat what I’m getting — otherwise I fear I will mess up. When going through a drive-thru, I carefully read the menu in advance so I can repeat to myself what I want. Another trick I use at drive-thrus is always getting the same thing so I have the number or drink order memorized. Sometimes I go through phases where I want to try something new, but then I feel my anxiety creeping up, and before I know it, my mouth is repeating my usual order.
12. When I mess up my words
After social situations, sometimes I lie in bed and run through the whole event and every word spoken to see where I might have messed up. I may wonder if I chose the right words or if I came across differently than I intended. If I do mess up, it can haunt me for days — or longer.
For example, sometimes my students ask me hard questions. Last year, a girl asked, “Mrs. K., can 15-year-olds have babies? They are too young, right, so they can’t?” Pardon me while I try to quickly figure out an answer that will appease this curious girl and won’t anger her parents! I told her that her mom would be a better person to ask. Nevertheless, later that night, I found myself worrying, “Did I answer her question correctly? What if my answer gets twisted around? Will her parents get mad at me for allowing a question like that during class?” This is just one of the scenarios that has caused me to panic and stay up late wondering what consequences will happen because of what I said.
13. When my child has a temper tantrum in public
I’m still new to the mom thing. I’ve worked with kids ranging in age from 1 to 7 years old, but it’s a different ball game when the child is your own. Dealing with a screaming kid in the middle of a store while people turn and look at me — it feels like I’m going to die!
For example, I recently ran into Target to return shoes for my very extroverted daughter. As I tried to put the new shoes on her, she started to fight me. I sat her down and told her to stop. Let the tantrum commence. She screamed as if I were ripping her fingernails out, and I wanted to melt into the floor and vanish. The worst part was while I was leaving the store, my toddler kept reaching out to other moms while saying, “Help pwease!” Excuse me while I look around for the adult to help me in this situation… oh wait… I am the adult!
Introvert, if you struggle with social anxiety, you’re not alone. I’m working to manage my symptoms and overcome my anxiety, but it’s not a quick or easy process. Here are some resources that have helped me understand and cope with my anxiety that may help you, too: