“People think I’m overreacting.”
Upset stomach. A heavy weight on your chest. Feeling like you can’t breathe. An irrational fear that others think you’re stupid or annoying. The overpowering urge to bolt from a crowd. Being too nervous to text or approach someone you want to get to know better. This is what it can be like to be an introvert with social anxiety.
To be clear, both introverts and extroverts can experience social anxiety, and not every introvert is anxious. Although sometimes they masquerade as one another, introversion and anxiety are not the same thing, and it’s important to know the difference. Introversion is defined as a preference for “quiet, minimally-stimulating environments,” according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet. Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is an “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
For example, an introvert might turn down a social invitation because he or she simply prefers to spend time alone. In contrast, someone with social anxiety might turn down the same invitation because he or she is too nervous to attend. Introversion is a temperament, meaning, introverts were likely born that way and will always have a general preference for quiet and calm. Social anxiety, in contrast, is a treatable condition.
However, you can be both — an introvert and socially anxious. In fact, it’s incredibly common for us “quiet ones” to battle some level of social anxiety. It can strike in any social setting, big or small, and sometimes seemingly without rhyme or reason. Social anxiety doesn’t even have to involve the presence of other people. It can be worrying over inviting someone to hang out with you, making a phone call, or jumping to the conclusion that someone doesn’t like you when they don’t respond to your text right away.
I spoke with introverts in the Introvert, Dear community about what social anxiety feels like for them. Josh, an introvert working in retail, told me that sometimes his anxiety forces him to escape to the privacy of the bathroom, when his heart is beating out of control at the thought of having to interact with strangers.
Jacqueline, another introvert, said social anxiety strikes when she’s in an unorganized crowd, such as a political rally. The last event she attended induced a breathless panic attack that made her flee the “mass of bodies and people” talking to her.
Social anxiety is the worst.
Why We’re Not Talking About Social Anxiety
Although about 15 million adult Americans have social anxiety disorder, it’s still not openly discussed, because like all mental health issues, it’s negatively stigmatized. In our extroverted society that’s obsessed with friendliness and chatter, social anxiety closes your mouth and consigns you to the back of the room.
If you don’t experience social anxiety yourself, you probably don’t know what it’s truly like. Like many people who struggle with it, I’ve been told to simply fake it until I make it and “just get over it,” which, to this date, have failed to magically cure me.
As a result of being misunderstood by others — and not understanding the condition itself — people who experience social anxiety may blame themselves for their reactions. They may wonder why they can’t go out and enjoy socializing like “normal” people. They may withdraw from the world, sacrificing important relationships and opportunities, which of course just makes their anxiety worse.
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What Introverts With Social Anxiety Wish You Knew
In an effort to bring more awareness to it, I asked introverts with social anxiety to tell me what they wish other people knew about their experience. Here are 15 things they told me:
1. “People think I’m overreacting. They say, ‘It’s just a simple presentation,’ but for me, it’s a big deal. Instead of mocking me/us, just EMPATHIZE. It’s not easy being in our situation. Instead, help us boost our self-confidence by saying words of encouragement.” -Assenav
2. “Don’t take it personally. Strike up a conversation and I’ll try to keep my end of it. It’ll take a bit, but I do warm up to talking. Odd, but being with my students is never a problem. Perhaps because in a sense it is scripted, according to the lesson plan.” -Ann
3. “I wish other people knew that it isn’t as easy as ‘just stop it.’” -Bridget
4. “I wish other people knew how much a simple reassurance or kind word means to someone struggling with social anxiety. Put yourself in their shoes and always be kind.” -Angelica
5. “I wish I could tell more people about my social anxiety but I worry that I’ll be labeled as someone with a mental illness.” -Sylvia
6. “If I’m talking fast, it’s because I’m uncomfortable and want to get through the interaction quickly to spare myself discomfort.” -Riley
7. “Forcing me to say something isn’t the way to win me over. I have to feel comfortable contributing to a conversation. Social anxiety feels like you’re about to be persecuted for being yourself.” -Tina
8. “I wish people knew that it is just something that I cannot control. Also, that I’m not crazy.” -Sara
9. “I wish people wouldn’t expect everyone to be perky and outgoing, and I really wish not to be made fun of or ‘pitied’ when I can’t take it anymore and dash out of the room.” -Kris
10. “I wish people knew that my demeanor or lack of engagement and nonverbal signs of avoidance have nothing to do with them. I wish they wouldn’t get personally offended when I’m late or seem uninvolved or aloof. I’m really just dealing with the intense dread and trying not to get overwhelmed and swallowed up by the feelings of impending doom.” -Sara
11. “Just because there are times I come across as very confident and outgoing, it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle inside with anxiety and negative self-talk.” -Melissa
12. “I don’t feel the need to be the center of attention at social events, and ‘working the room’ feels fake and tires me out. I used to get stomach aches and sweats before I went out, and I hated relying on alcohol to let my guard down. Now I just force myself to do events but in short spurts and well-spaced out so I can cope better.” -Amoreena
13. “It’s not something that just goes away. It takes a lot of energy to fight it, so I may not stay long in the situation. Not just to get away as an introvert, but anxiety can physically cause pain so I leave.” -Hilary
14. “No one can make you snap out of it.” -Amoreena
15. “I wish people knew I had social anxiety. Then I would no longer have to pretend.” -Jane
Do you struggle with anxiety? To learn more about it, as well as how to manage it, please see the resources below.
More Anxiety Resources:
- These 10 Comics Are All Too Real for Introverts With Anxiety
- How to Get Out of Social Anxiety Hell
- I Wrote an Action Plan to Get Over My Social Anxiety
- 15 Signs That You’re an Introvert With High-Functioning Anxiety
- Telephonobia Is the Intense Fear of Talking on the Phone, and It’s Real
- I Was Genuinely Afraid to Leave My House
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