Dear Workplaces, Churches, and Schools, PLEASE Stop Doing Icebreakers. Signed, Introverts.

An introverted anxious person sits nervously waiting for an icebreaker at work to start.

Icebreakers are supposed to be “fun,” but many introverts dread these activities because they force them to be in the spotlight.

Being an introvert in the workplace has always been hard, but most days I get by just fine by minding my own business. For the most part, I don’t mind my job, and sometimes I even enjoy it.

Except when it comes to staff meetings.

I guess I’ve been lucky that most of my previous jobs haven’t required weekly staff meetings, because honestly, I’m not sure I could handle that. My current job only has quarterly staff meetings, but they’re enough to drain me and stress me out.

In fact, the most recent one was so difficult that I’m still reeling from it. Let me explain.

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Why Staff Meetings Can Be Nerve-Wracking for Some Introverts

Whenever there’s a meeting, I’m nervous for hours leading up to it, because as an introvert and an anxious person, I rarely perform well in group settings. Usually I’m thinking of a thousand ways it can all go wrong and playing out these catastrophic scenarios in my mind. Then, as I walk into the meeting, I’m already a nervous wreck; there have been times when I have visibly sweated through my shirt (which of course just adds to my anxiety). Often, the tiny conference room is so full of people and so loud with small talk that I can’t think.

At this particular meeting, I took a seat near the front of the room, then looked around and noticed that I didn’t really know anyone. I’ve only been in this job for a few months, so I haven’t formed friendships with any of my coworkers yet. In typical introvert fashion, it is taking me time to open up, feel comfortable, and make new friends. At this point, I started to feel extremely self-conscious and even played around with the idea of faking an emergency and darting out of the room, but I ordered myself to stay put.

As an anxious introvert, being in a room full of people sometimes feels like a code red situation for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t ever want to talk to people. During meetings, my impulse is to find the one person I know I can comfortably talk with and stick by this person the entire time.

Unfortunately, in this meeting, I didn’t find anyone to cling to, so I was left sitting awkwardly by myself while everyone else seemed to chat comfortably. Minutes passed and the meeting started late, so I was stuck in the room awkwardly not making conversation with anyone but still being exhausted by the whole situation.

Finally, the meeting started, and things went from bad to worse: My supervisor announced that we’re going to do an icebreaker. I’ve hated icebreakers my whole life because I don’t feel comfortable interacting with people in that way. Whether it’s in school, at church, or at a family reunion, I just can’t handle it.

Seriously, if you’re planning an event or a meeting, PLEASE STOP DOING ICEBREAKERS.

Why It’s Common for Introverts to Hate Icebreakers

Not all introverts hate icebreakers, but many of us do, especially introverts like me who suffer from social anxiety. I’m sure there are some extremely confident and self-assured introverts out there who have no trouble speaking in front of a crowd, but that’s never been me.

Why do some introverts tend to feel uncomfortable during icebreakers? For one, an icebreaker forces you to be the center of attention. Whereas extroverts are more likely to enjoy being in the spotlight, introverts may find it overwhelming. In general, introverts thrive in calm environments where there isn’t much stimulation. I can’t think of a more stimulating situation than a roomful of eyes watching my every move! For introverts, all this attention may simply put their nervous system in overdrive.

Also, icebreakers are supposed to move quickly, so there’s little time to think about what you’re going to say or do. Although no one likes being caught off-guard, for introverts, it can be especially difficult to think of something to say on the fly. That’s because our brain is wired a little differently in this sense. According to Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert’s Advantage, we “quiet ones” may rely more on long-term memory as opposed to short-term or “working” memory, which makes us a little slower to gather our thoughts and speak out loud (it’s because we’re processing our thoughts and experiences deeply). Extroverts, on the other hand, may do the opposite. (Here’s the science.)

Personally, even when I come up with something to say, it never comes out quite the way I planned it in my head. I might stutter or stumble or mix up my words. In turn, this spikes my anxiety even more and leaves me feeling frazzled and embarrassed… all in front of people I work with… in a situation where I am trying to make a good impression. I know icebreakers are supposed to be “fun,” but I, like many introverts, absolutely dread them.

What Happened During the Icebreaker

The icebreaker was to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. No one assigned pairs, so I had to go find someone to play with. We were supposed to play with our partner first, then whoever won would go on tournament-style until someone was crowned the ultimate victor.

The man next to me asked if we should be partners. This was a relief, because it meant that I didn’t have to move around the room talking to strangers, but I was still on edge. He started explaining the different kinds of Rock, Paper, Scissors games, but my anxiety had already gotten the best of me. Playing with him probably would have been fine, but the thought of going on to challenge other people — with the potential of playing in front of the whole room — was too much. I kindly told him that I didn’t want to play, so he won by default.

He was fine with this arrangement because it meant that he got to go on and play someone else. I, on the other hand, was very upset — with myself. It might seem silly that I didn’t want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, but that’s the thing about anxiety — it doesn’t always make sense. By the end of the meeting, I was so emotionally drained that I was fighting back tears. My anxiety made me feel like a failure for not playing the game, and I beat myself up for not being more social like everyone else.

Is social anxiety holding you back?

Although social anxiety is not the same thing as introversion, many introverts experience this painful and isolating condition. The truth is you can beat social anxiety, and our partner Natasha Daniels can show you how. This means more relaxed conversations, more enjoyable work/school days, and more social invitations that you don’t immediately decline (unless you want to, of course!). Click here to check out her online class for kids and adults, How to Crush Social Anxiety.

What to Do Instead of Icebreakers

To the supervisors, managers, and leaders of the world, please recognize that for many introverts, icebreakers are anxiety-inducing. Instead, engage your introverted workers in a way that’s more comfortable for them. Not all of us want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors in front of a room full of strangers or make small talk in a big group — and that’s okay.

If you really want to do some sort of team-building activity, don’t make it personal, and always make it an option for anyone to bow out or to do the activity with someone they already know. I probably would have felt better about playing Rock, Paper, Scissors if I could have done it with a partner who was a friend.

It also helps if the activity is work-related, and not just a game for the sake of passing the time and getting people talking. In meetings and at events, most people end up mingling anyway, on their own terms, so you don’t really need an icebreaker to accomplish that goal. Here are some more ways that facilitators can make team-building exercises better for introverts.

I don’t wish I were an extrovert, but I do wish I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I’m slowly learning to be more gentle with myself and not to beat myself up when my anxiety gets the best of me. I’m learning to challenge the voice in my head that tells me that I can’t do something or that I’m going to fail. At the end of the day, I’m doing the best that I can.

Every day that I get up and go to work, I’m learning to accept my introverted  nature and manage my anxiety better — one game of Rock, Paper, Scissors at a time.

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