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.

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

Except when it comes to staff meetings.

I’ve been lucky that most of my jobs haven’t required weekly staff meetings, because honestly, I’m not sure I could handle that. The job I have now only has quarterly staff meetings, but they’re enough to drain me.

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

Why Staff Meetings Are Nerve-Wracking for Introverts

Whenever there’s a meeting, I’m nervous for hours leading up to it, because as an introvert and an anxious person, I never do well in group settings. I’m thinking of a thousand ways it can go wrong and playing out all the catastrophic scenarios in my mind. So as I walk into the meeting, I’m already a nervous wreck, sweating through my shirt. And the tiny conference room is always 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 at this job for a few months, so I haven’t formed close relationships with any coworkers yet. I started to feel really self-conscious and played around with the idea of faking an emergency and darting out of the room, but I ordered myself to stay put.

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 talk to and stick by them 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 chatted comfortably. Minutes passed and the meeting started late, so I was stuck there not making conversation but being exhausted by the whole situation.

Finally, the meeting started, and things went from bad to worse: The people leading the meeting 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 Introverts Hate Icebreakers

Many introverts hate ice breakers for a variety of reasons. For one, you become the center of attention. Whereas many extroverts actually enjoy being in the spotlight, for introverts, it tends to be overwhelming and overstimulating. 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’s especially difficult to come up with something to say on the fly. That’s because the introvert’s brain might be wired to rely more on slow-processing long-term memory than active memory, whereas extroverts do the opposite. (Here’s the science.)

And personally, even when I come up with something to say, it never comes out quite the way I planned it in my head. This spikes my anxiety, and leaves me frazzled and sometimes embarrassed. 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. But we did it in pairs, and no one assigned pairs, so I had to go find someone. We were supposed to play with our partner, and whoever won would go on tournament-style until someone was crowned the ultimate victor.

The guy next to me asked if we should be partners. This was a relief, because it meant I didn’t have to move around the room, but I was still on edge. He started explaining the different kinds of Rock, Paper, Scissors games, and because I was already so uncomfortable with the whole thing, I completely lost it. I told him that I didn’t want to play, so he won by default.

He wasn’t upset because he got to go on and play someone else. I, on the other hand, was very upset — with myself. 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.

Please Stop Doing Icebreakers

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

For example, you could have meetings in smaller groups (whenever possible) so introverts feel more comfortable. If they have to do some sort of activity, don’t make it personal, and always give them the opportunity to work alone or with people they already know. I always feel better about working one-on-one with someone I’m comfortable with.

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. Most people end up mingling anyway, so you don’t really need an icebreaker to accomplish that.

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 beat myself up when my nervous feelings get the best of me. At the end of the day, I’m just doing the best that I can.

Everyday 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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Monique Hebert is a writer who is originally from Ohio but now resides in Seattle, Washington. She graduated with an English degree from Cleveland State University in 2014. She loves writing the three P's; poems, personal essays, and plays. She published her first book Anxiety, Anxiety, Why Do You Have a Hold on Me? about her experience with an anxiety disorder in May 2018. She's most passionate about theater and advocating for mental health.