Upset stomach. A heavy weight on your chest. Feeling like you can’t breathe. The constant, unrelenting worry about what others think of you. The sudden urge to bolt from the crowd. This is what introverts told me it feels like to have social anxiety.
Of course, both introverts and extroverts can suffer from social anxiety, and not every introvert is socially anxious. Although they are often confused for one another, introversion and social anxiety are not the same thing. Introversion is a preference for “quiet, minimally-stimulating environments,” according to Susan Cain, whereas social anxiety disorder is an “extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Introversion is a temperament, meaning, introverts were likely born that way and will stay introverts for life. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is treatable.
Many introverts find themselves battling some level of social anxiety. It can strike at any social gathering, big or small. Ann, an introvert and a special education teacher, told me it threatens when she has to interact with people who she doesn’t know well; she worries about what she’ll say and what kind of impression she’ll make. For Josh, working a retail job that forces him to interact with strangers gives him the kind of stomach-churning anxiety that makes him want to hide in the restroom. For Jacqueline, 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 want to flee the “mass of bodies and people talking” to her.
Social anxiety is the worst.
What Introverts With Social Anxiety Wish You Knew
Although about 15 million adult Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder, it’s not something that is openly talked about, because, like most mental health issues, there is a stigma associated with it. In our “extroverted” society that values confidence, talkativeness, and charm, social anxiety runs counter to all that. The socially anxious are told to “fake it until you make it” and “just get over it” (which never helps, according to those with anxiety). As a result, people with social anxiety may blame themselves for their reactions. They wonder why they can’t go out and enjoy socializing like “normal” people. They suffer in silence, withdrawing from the world of people more and more.
In an effort to bring more awareness to it, I asked introverts with social anxiety to tell me what they wish others 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 more 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 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 it can physically cause pain so I leave. I’m not ignoring anyone, I just can’t deal with people outside of work. Then I think you all hate me for ‘ignoring’ you.” -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
Social Anxiety Resources
Must-Have Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety, by Dr. Barbara Markway (Psychology Today blog post)
Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety and Phobia, by Dr. Barbara Markway (book)
The Strange, Surprisingly Effective Cure for Social Anxiety, by Olga Khazan (Atlantic article)
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