A former friend of mine once lumped introversion and anxiety into the same category. Basically, she told me that the Internet had romanticized introversion and anxiety, that it was nothing more than a passing fad, and that I should just get over myself. Despite being an anxious introvert, I’ve never wanted to punch someone in the face as much as I did in that moment. I didn’t follow through, of course, but I did try to explain the difference between introversion and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, I don’t think I got through to her.
While it’s true that introversion and anxiety disorders share some traits, the “why” behind it is where the difference lies. A brilliant article by Jenn Granneman, founder of Introvert, Dear, recently made its way to my Facebook wall. The article discusses things people do that others may not realize are related to their introversion. After reading the piece — and nodding fervently in agreement to all her points — I started thinking about how so many of the things on the list also rang true to my anxiety disorder.
To put it simply, introversion is a temperament, and an anxiety disorder is a mental health condition. Both can exist in the same person at the same time, and both can lead to similar behaviors. That being said, the thought processes responsible for theses behaviors are wildly different. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to take five of Jenn’s points (in italics) and explain why someone with an anxiety disorder might do the same thing.
Introversion vs. Anxiety
1. Introversion: “When your friend invites you to a party/event and you have no desire to go. You’d rather stay home and recharge your introvert batteries by watching Netflix, reading, gaming, or just relaxing. But you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings, so instead you make up an excuse like, ‘I’m not feeling well.’”
Anxiety: When your friend invites you to a party/event, and you’d like to go, but having to interact with so many strangers scares you to death. You don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings by declining the invite, so you make up an excuse like, “I’m not feeling well.” But then you think that they must know you’re lying — and that once they get to the party, they’re going to start telling everyone how tired they are of your lies, how you’re such a flake, and that they don’t even know why they put up with you. So instead of relaxing and recharging, you spend the entire night worrying that your friend is mad at you, and that you’re going to lose them — all because you were too anxious to go to a party.
2. Introversion: “When you order takeout online instead of calling because you literally can’t talk to one more person today.”
Anxiety: When you order takeout online instead of calling because if you call, you’re going to have to rehearse your entire order. If they interrupt you, or ask you a question you’re not prepared for, you’ll lose your train of thought and trip over your words — and maybe even mess up your order. They’re going to think you’re some kind of idiot, and make fun of you to their coworkers, and you’re never going to be able to order from that restaurant again.
3. Introversion: “When you’re having trouble explaining your thoughts or feelings. Everything makes so much sense in your head, but it never comes out as eloquently as it seemed in your mind. Other people are like, ‘Come on, spit it out, what’s the problem?’”
Anxiety: When you’re having trouble explaining your thoughts and feelings, because you’re so worried about saying something wrong, or offending someone, that you get trapped in an overthinking loop. You stutter, ask for more time, try to explain yourself, but you only make everything worse. Other people are like, “Come on, spit it out, what’s the problem?” You realize you’re taking too long and everyone is staring at you. Your face turns red, your voice shakes, you know they can see that you’re panicking. You’re afraid no one’s ever going to take you seriously again.
4. Introversion: “When you say, ‘I want a low-key birthday this year. Like, dinner with two friends.’”
Anxiety: When you say, “I want a low-key birthday this year. Like, dinner with two friends,” because you feel like you always have parties at the same person’s house, and you must be overburdening them by asking. You can’t have a party at your house — everyone will judge your furniture or think your house is dirty. There are only a few restaurants in town that have enough room for everyone, and if you eat there, you won’t be able to split the check. It will be a complete hassle and everyone will resent you for it. But if you have a birthday with just a few friends, your other friends will be mad that they weren’t invited. You’ll end up hurting someone’s feelings. Maybe it’s better to not have a birthday party at all.
5. Introversion: “When you get off work and you’re so mentally burned out that you don’t even want to turn on music or a podcast in your car. You just need everything to be quiet for a few minutes, PLEASE.”
Anxiety: When you get off work and you’re so mentally burned out and overstimulated that you don’t even want to turn on the music in your car. You just need everything to be quiet for a few minutes because you’re on the verge of a panic attack and it’s hard to breathe. Your hands are going numb and your vision is fuzzy — you can feel the tears threatening. You can’t stop thinking about everything you did wrong that day, and how you’re almost positive that you’re going to be fired. How will you pay your bills, where will you live? Why can’t you do anything right? Why can’t you JUST BE NORMAL?
What to Do When You’re an Anxious Introvert
Anxiety is an adept liar; it’s really good at convincing you that you’re nothing more than a burden, and everyone around you hates your guts. Combine that with a naturally introverted personality, and you have a recipe for trouble. While tuning out anxious thoughts is easier said than done, there are a number of ways I’ve learned to marry my introversion and anxiety to achieve peace.
Both non-anxious introverts and those who suffer from anxiety disorders (especially social anxiety disorder) need time alone to recharge. Our brains process everything on a very deep level, which can be incredibly tiring. Time alone allows us to control the world around us — sights, sounds, smells, etc. It gives us time to mull over conversations and other social interactions we’ve had. Most importantly, it offers us a chance to work through our emotions.
Living in a society where introverts are still considered fairly abnormal, it’s easy to convince myself that I’m not valued at work or as a friend. Toss that together with anxiety and I find myself in a slump, absolutely certain that I’m completely worthless. That’s where positive self-talk comes in. When I’m feeling blue, I remind myself of the following things:
- I have many positive qualities and am worthy of love. I would not have the amazing friends I do if I was a bad person.
- I am a worthy employee. Introverts are capable of much more than they’re given credit for, and I am a dedicated worker who does her job well.
- I have a lot to offer society at large. I am a social activist and animal lover; I work hard to make the world a better place.
- And, as Stuart Smalley said, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
Self-care is something I encourage all people to take part in — but it’s especially important for introverts and people prone to anxiety. Self-care involves indulging in activities and behaviors that have a beneficial effect on your mental and physical health. Self-care is different for each person. One person may choose to take long baths and keep a journal while another may choose to run marathons and volunteer at the animal shelter. No matter what self-care looks like for you, the end goal should be to reduce stress, improve your relationships, retain a positive work/life balance, and nurture your mental and physical well-being.
Life isn’t easy as an anxious introvert. Though I have to work hard to stay positive, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive friends, family, and coworkers. Being aware of what behaviors are a result of my anxiety — and what are simply part of being introverted — allows me to make positive changes and work toward a better future. And that’s something worth fighting for!
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Learn more: Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks, by Barry McDonagh
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