Upset stomach. A heavy weight on your chest. Feeling like you can’t breathe. A constant, unrelenting worry that others think you’re stupid or annoying. The sudden urge to bolt from the crowd. This is what it can be like to experience social anxiety as an introvert, according to the introverts I spoke with.
To be clear, both introverts and extroverts can struggle with social anxiety, and not every introvert is anxious. Although they’re often mistaken for each other, introversion and anxiety are not the same thing. As I explain in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, introversion is simply a preference for calm, minimally-stimulating environments. If you relate to these 21 signs, you're probably an introvert.
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. Introversion is a temperament, meaning introverts were likely born that way and will stay introverts for life (although research shows we do grow and change). Social anxiety, in contrast, is treatable.
Nevertheless, it’s common for introverts to find themselves battling some level of social anxiety. It can strike at any social gathering, big or small, and sometimes without rhyme or reason. For example, Josh, an introvert working in retail, told me that social anxiety sometimes 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 at a concert or political rally. The last such 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 suffer from social anxiety disorder, we don't talk openly about it, because, like most mental health issues, there’s a stigma around it. In an extroverted society obsessed with gregariousness and charm, social anxiety has no place.
Most people who don’t have social anxiety have no idea what it’s truly like. Like many who struggle with it, I’ve been told to “fake it until you make it” and “just get over it,” which, to this date, have failed to magically cure me.
As a result of being misunderstood, 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 may suffer in silence or withdraw from the world, which just makes things worse.
What Introverts with Social Anxiety Wish You Knew
In an effort to bring more awareness to it, I asked introverts with social anxiety from the Introvert, Dear Facebook group to tell me what they wish others knew about their experience. Here are 15 things they told me:
- “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
- “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
- “I wish other people knew that it isn’t as easy as ‘just stop it.’” —Bridget
- “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
- “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
- “If I’m talking fast, it’s because I’m uncomfortable and I want to get through the interaction quickly to spare myself discomfort.” —Riley
- “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
- “I wish people knew that it is just something that I cannot control. Also, I’m not crazy.” —Sara
- “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
- “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
- “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
- “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
- “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
- “No one can make you snap out of it.” —Amoreena
- “I wish people knew I had social anxiety. Then I would no longer have to pretend.” —Jane
We need to start talking about social anxiety. We need to stop acting like it doesn't exist and accept that it’s a very real part of many people’s lives. Because when we do that, we open the door to more understanding and help for those who need it most.
This post was originally published on Introvert, Dear.
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