I’d always been a shy person, but lately things had been getting ridiculous. It was like I didn’t even know how to be around people anymore. I felt horrible at starting conversations and hopeless at making friends. I was hyperaware of every little mistake I made, and the mere prospect of talking in public made me worry myself sick.
I was beginning to think there was something actually wrong with me. My nervousness in social situations wasn’t normal. I was suffering from far more than just shyness; this was something above and beyond. Other people weren’t like me—they didn’t do anything they could to avoid social situations. So why was I different?
I’m an introvert, and I have always been quiet and shy. But it had never been this bad. Now, I felt like I could barely talk, even around people I’d known for years.
Something must have changed. But what?
My whole life, teachers had told me the same thing: that I needed to put my hand up more. I was too quiet; I should make more of an effort to join in and answer questions. What they never bothered to explain was why I needed to do that. Why did I have to go out of my comfort zone and try to be someone I’m not? How does someone force themselves to change their entire personality anyway?
It didn’t work, of course. Telling me to change didn’t do anything and my anxiety only got worse. The move to secondary school left me with few friends, and it took far longer to make new ones. My voice was rarely heard in group work, and I sat in constant fear of getting picked to answer a question. Role-playing and presentations stressed me out so much sometimes that I would cry. I even pretended to be sick on occasion to avoid them.
It was impossible to be myself without being in a continuous state of tension and stress. And when you grow up that way, you have no choice but to believe that your shyness and introversion are flaws. How can you think otherwise, in a world where almost everything is designed around an idealistic extrovert mentality?
What nobody seemed to realize is that my introversion couldn’t be changed—no more than you can change your fingerprints or the color of your eyes. More than that: it shouldn’t be changed. It’s as much a part of me as anything else, and if you’re asking me to stop being an introvert, then you’re asking me to pretend to be something I’m not. And that’s something no one should have to do.
Time presented me with new, largely unrelated, issues. I started to feel like no one really wanted to be with me, or even saw me at all. I felt unwanted, isolated, invisible. I don’t know how much truth there was to these feelings, but they were there, and at the time, they took their toll.
So when it came time to move schools again, my social skills were worse than ever and had no idea how I was going to make new friends. I was told to just join conversations or ask to tag along with people, like that was no big deal. But I knew I could never do that. What if they only talked to me out of politeness, and when I invited myself along, they only said yes because they felt obligated? What if they spent the whole time thinking I was weird for inviting myself and wishing I hadn’t? In the end, the few people I talked to never became more than acquaintances, and I only made friends because my existing friend introduced me to hers.
But that same problem applied to my existing friends too. I didn’t want to just contact them out of the blue and ask them to do things with me, especially since they rarely did the same back; I worried that they didn’t actually want to spend time with me. I didn’t want them to be forced to hang out with me out of courtesy.
I think that after all that time feeling invisible and being alone, I’d grown used to it, like that was just the way I was supposed to be. After worrying so much about what people thought of me, I was having almost constant anxiety. I came to need alone time more than ever, because it was the only time I could fully relax.
I wished I could have explained all of this to people, but I didn’t know how. I thought it would sound ridiculous and paranoid. I felt like I was making excuses for not making the effort. I thought no one would understand or take what I said seriously. That “I can’t do that” didn’t mean “I don’t want to.” It was ridiculous and unreasonable, but for whatever reason, it was me.
Then one day, I found the reason. While doing research for a book, I came across the term social anxiety disorder. Something just clicked. The more I read, the more sure I was. This is me, I thought. It just fit. Without even trying, I had found an answer. And finally, I felt like I understood myself.
I also discovered that I wasn’t alone in feeling drained by social interaction and needing time alone to recharge. Introversion exists, and while I don’t know for sure that I have social anxiety, I am undoubtedly an introvert. It isn’t something to be improved, escaped from, or denied. It’s something everyone needs to accept.
But acceptance isn’t easy. When I think about telling people, I can’t help worrying that they’ll think it’s just another excuse. That I’m only using these “explanations” to justify not making an effort to talk to people and go out more. I even feel like I’m making those excuses to myself sometimes.
It’s hard not to doubt yourself when you’ve had so much practice. But at heart I know it’s not an excuse. I hadn’t gone looking for a way to justify my ridiculous shyness and inability to socialize; I’d simply stumbled, by accident, onto an explanation that seemed to fit me to a T. The answer to a question that had only ever been asked rhetorically.
I leave for university in a few months, and it’s nice to understand why the idea of going to all these loud, crowded places with dancing and drinking and socializing is so unappealing to me—when most people my age live for them. I only wish others could understand too. I’m simply different from them, and it doesn’t mean I’m not trying. I appreciate the little things I manage to accomplish. I wish I could explain how hard it is for me and know other people would take it as fact.
However, acceptance is not something that happens in a day. I may be on the way now to accepting my introverted, socially anxious self, but it’s a work in progress. There are still times when I have my doubts. And I can’t expect anyone else to accept me until I’ve accepted myself.
So that’s the first step. And with any luck, my friends and family can take the next ones with me.
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.