My life’s philosophy so far could be summed up in three words: “duck and cover.” As an introvert, I spend a good portion of my time avoiding excess human interaction, and I’ve gotten quite adept at it.
I’ve been known to pause and listen with one ear pressed to my apartment door before exiting, just to make sure there won’t be anyone in the hallway that I have to awkwardly smile and nod at. Upon entering the gym, I usually stop to scan the perimeters before proceeding, in an attempt to find the most isolated piece of equipment I can use.
I’ve developed an almost supersonic range of hearing that I employ while at work in an attempt to hear if there’s anyone in the office kitchen before I enter. If you are jealous of this supersonic hearing, don’t be. It frequently fails me. My only advice is that heading past the occupied office kitchen and pretending to fiddle with the copy machine is not a good save, especially if you are carrying a large bowl of spaghetti.
Introversion Didn’t Explain the Ball of Fear in My Stomach
I’d always been labeled a “shy” kid, and I didn’t have any other explanation for my aversion to large groups of people until I read Susan Cain’s Quiet. Cue the lightbulb moment that many introverts have when first reading Cain. I then realized there was another word for my behavior besides just “shy” (and why that label never felt quite right). There was a reason I had more energy when spending time on my own. Most important, I realized I was not alone.
That realization gave me the confidence to embrace my introverted nature. I became a lot more secure in who I am as a person, and I no longer felt bad for spending my weekends without plans or cutting social outings short when I began to feel drained. Still, I felt like something was missing.
I had come a long way from the awkward college student who turned bright red and stuttered every time a professor asked the class to go around the room and introduce themselves. Since then, I’ve traveled to foreign countries with people I barely knew, managed to come across as a hirable human being at multiple job interviews, and even given class presentations and lived to tell about it.
I’m convinced that embracing my introversion actually helped me get through these things. Actions like taking more time to prepare talking points and scheduling downtime after social obligations has improved my mental health. However, it doesn’t stop the ball of fear in my stomach whenever I’m forced to interact with any new group of people I don’t know very well. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the term “social anxiety” that I really began to understand myself.
Introversion and Social Anxiety Are Not the Same Thing
For those that don’t know, being an introvert and having social anxiety are not the same thing. Being an introvert has to do with your internal thought process, your motivations, and how much social interaction (and what kind of interaction) you find rewarding. Social anxiety is a fear of other people and what they might think of you. It is a real disorder that can cause physical symptoms as well as mental stress, and if left unchecked, can greatly reduce your quality of life.
While many introverts suffer from social anxiety, not all introverts do. In fact, most people, introvert or not, have probably felt socially anxious at some point in their lives. It’s a very human response to get nervous around new people. However, it’s important to remember that some people experience this anxiety on a greater scale than others.
I’ve learned to embrace being an introvert as a positive thing. I may not be the life of the party, but I’m an excellent listener, I’ve developed strong writing skills (as often happens when you avoid verbal communication), and I’m quite proud of my independent nature and ability to be self-sufficient. When I discovered the term “social anxiety,” I realized I suddenly had a word for all of the negative emotions I had previously and falsely attributed to being an introvert. Somehow, this made me less afraid.
It was as if I could finally and completely come to terms with being an introvert, because I could still be an introvert and simultaneously work on improving my anxiety. I wouldn’t have to change who I am and morph into a social butterfly to overcome my social anxiety. Which was good, because whenever I tried this, I just felt worse. While meeting new people and exploring new life experiences has helped my social anxiety, just being confident in myself as an introverted person (and knowing that I’m not alone) has helped the most.
Overcoming Social Anxiety Is a Process
I won’t pretend that the cure to social anxiety is just discovering you have it and then deciding to get over it. It’s not like that at all. Dealing with social anxiety is a process, and it’s different for each individual. For me, as I grow more self-assured in my introverted nature, I realize that I care less what other people think of me.
If I have reached a point where I feel the need to withdraw and recharge my introvert battery, I’ll do it, and I don’t care if that makes someone see me as just being quiet or shy. Plus, if I leave a gathering on a positive note (before I’m exhausted), I feel more self-assured about inserting myself into a group of people the next time.
When I realized there was nothing wrong with being an introvert, I started to realize there is no shame in having social anxiety, either. If I scramble my words while talking or don’t always say the most intelligent thing, that’s okay. Most people are pretty understanding.
The world is full of introverts (some suggest up to 50 percent of all people are introverts), and it’s full of people with social anxiety. If that surprises you, it’s probably because most people don’t come across nearly as awkwardly as they think they do — and that includes you. Anyone who does judge you for stumbling over part of a sentence, or sustaining a long pause in the conversation that they are also participating in, isn’t worth talking to anyway.
I’m trying not to let my fear of awkward conversation hold me back anymore. I have as much right to my apartment building’s hallway and the exercise equipment at my gym as the next person, and I don’t want a couple mumbled “hellos” and a quick jab about the weather to interfere with this right. At the same time, if I decide to wait until the coast is clear before exiting the solitude of my apartment, that decision is my own, and sometimes it’s worth the extra 30 seconds for some peace and quiet.
I no longer avoid the office kitchen, though. Small talk really isn’t so bad when you’ve got a microwave timer to help you end the conversation. My new life philosophy is sometimes “duck and cover,” but it’s also to avoid eating cold spaghetti.
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