Being introverted isn’t something we should want to change, but social anxiety is something we can work on and lessen its stranglehold.
Just because you have social anxiety doesn’t mean you’re an introvert — and vice-versa. But if you’re socially anxious, there are ways to manage it.
Introversion is part of your nature. Your genetics. Your inner you. You either are or you aren’t. Being introverted doesn’t automatically mean you’re a socially anxious individual. You can learn skills to manage your social anxiety, but you cannot stop being introverted.
We know this to be true. Next time you’re in a park, or anywhere where kids are (which is every day for me), take a moment to observe their personalities. Who knew I was a scientist, too? You’ll see some that are running around playing with every kid on the playground, and you’ll see some that are hanging out by themselves, away from the ruckus. I was that kid hanging out a mile away from everyone else… because it’s just too “peopley” out there.
In fact, recently we took our 11-month-old son to a music class. All of the older kids aggregated right in front of the music teacher. We could easily spot the ones that weren’t comfortable dancing among the ones that danced their little hearts out. We saw one little girl jump around, dance, and sing, while the one right next to her stood as still as a statue, taking it all in (maybe she was an introvert).
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an introvert. The difficulty lies when you happen to be a socially anxious introvert. Then your quality of life can deteriorate.
How Social Anxiety Affected My Life as an Introvert
For extroverts, if they find themselves in an anxious situation, they’ll talk more, while introverts will likely talk less. That’s why so many people equate introversion with shyness. And for those of us who are introverted and socially anxious, we’ll stop talking altogether and fail to express ourselves even if we want to.
This is the bucket I fell into for most of my life: a socially anxious introvert. From a young age, making friends or navigating social interactions were never my strong suits. I went through most of my childhood with just two friends, all the while envying the popular girls who had no issue talking everyone’s ears off.
As time went by, social anxiety came into the mix. Unfortunately, I assumed those feelings came with being introverted, so I told myself I had to just “deal” with it. I know exactly the moment that social anxiety got hold of me. I was in the second grade, and I asked the girl sitting next to me to be friends. Let me tell you, it took a lot of courage for me to ask her that, so to get her response of “I already have friends” was like a knife straight to my heart.
Ouch — pure rejection.
Fast-forward to some circumstances that made my parents home-school me from the time I was 13 until I went to college, and you can just imagine how nice of a home social anxiety found in me. Do you have any idea what that does to someone who is already introverted by nature? It accentuates it. After five years of being home-schooled, traveling the world alone, and not having any close friends I could turn to, I was the poster child for what a socially anxious introvert looks like.
I went to college not being able to raise my hand in class to ask a simple question. Let that sink in. I wasn’t able to ask a question in front of people. It felt like I’d never fit in anywhere.
How I Learned Social Anxiety Is Something I Can Work On
My introverted nature did give me an academic advantage though. I studied a lot, got the highest honors, completed three internships prior to graduation, and immediately got a full-time job as a financial analyst. I credit my introversion for keeping me focused all those years, but I severely lacked social skills by the time I entered the workforce. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be promoted simply because I had the knowledge; I had to interact with colleagues and upper management to prove my worth as an employee. What’s that all about?
Here I was in my mid-20s, and I was socially anxious in every area of my life. One day it hit me that it wasn’t sustainable living this way. It was seriously taking a toll on me. I realized that I was perpetuating my own anxiety by not taking the necessary steps to abate it.
Being introverted isn’t something we can change, nor should we want to, because it’s a beautifully woven and intricate design. I love that my energy comes from being alone. There’s nothing I enjoy more than solitude because it truly makes me feel alive in this vast universe of ours. But social anxiety is something we can work on and lessen the stranglehold it has over us. Here are the three steps I took to overcome my social anxiety, although it’s a constant work in progress.
3 Ways for Introverts to Overcome Their Social Anxiety
1. Write an action plan — for instance, finally stop (over)thinking about that conversation you had with a friend weeks ago.
Like a true introvert, I love making plans and detailed road maps. I love thinking ahead and knowing what to expect. Spontaneity is non-existent in my vocabulary. So, when I realized that social anxiety was holding me back from my full potential, I knew I had to come up with a plan of attack. I was done feeling debilitated at work. I had a million and one frustrations, and I was ready to leave them behind. Maybe you can relate to some:
- Couldn’t let go of conversations that happened months ago
- Sweating in all the wrong places from the anxiety of speaking up
- Terrified at the idea of interrupting someone
- Couldn’t ask questions or voice my opinion for fear of conflict
I asked myself: “How am I supposed to become a CEO if I can’t ask a question in a meeting?” That was my ultimate wake-up call (well, on top of my manager directly telling me I had to speak up in meetings if I wanted to be promoted). So I wrote an awesome action plan, which you can see here, and my journey started.
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2. Put your action plan into practice daily, which means acting out your intentions.
It’s not enough to put pen to paper. Sure, it puts things into motion, but until you actually start acting on your intentions, you’re playing at the superficial level. You have to act. So I practiced items on my action plan daily, because practice makes confident. I took the first item from my plan (asking questions at meetings at work) and repeatedly banged my head against it at every opportunity. I faced it straight on. It didn’t matter how I felt about it. Whether my cheeks flushed, or my upper lip sweat, or my inner demons came out to play, everyday embarrassment paid a visit.
Yet I worked toward conquering my social anxiety. Little by little, I stopped sweating. And then I stopped overthinking. Finally, each action that seemed like a mountain to climb became a leisurely walk. They were no longer things I couldn’t do, but things that were now part of my personality. It’s really amazing what practice and exposure can accomplish.
3. List out all your anxieties, like being afraid to speak up at a group lunch.
As I worked my way through the action plan and resolved my feelings around the main action items on it, I realized that I needed to push my boundaries. I needed to seize every opportunity to get out of my shell. That meant writing down all the social anxieties I wanted to conquer so that they’d be top of mind. The moment an opportunity would present itself at work, I’d be all up in it. These are some of the internal conversations I had with myself the moment social anxiety presented itself:
- Whenever I felt terrified of speaking up, I told myself, I’m going to stand up and speak my mind RIGHT NOW.
- If I felt uncomfortable interrupting someone, I told myself, I’m going to interrupt this person RIGHT NOW.”
- If I was scared of having nothing to say at a group lunch, I told myself, I’m going to sit here and eat in silence peacefully RIGHT NOW.
In essence, I did the opposite of what I was feeling. Every. Single. Time. So if the socially awkward home-schooler who traveled the world alone can change, so can you!
I had everything going against me, in terms of overcoming my social anxiety, but I kept forging forward, one actionable step at a time. It’s easy to remain frozen in place if you’re only looking at the big picture. Instead, try to break it into smaller pieces that are more manageable to swallow. Keep in mind the end goal, but don’t focus so much on it, because it takes a million tiny steps to get to it. Look right in front of you instead.
What’s the next right step you can take today or tomorrow to stop being socially anxious? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
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