I’ve always been an introvert, and I’ve recently been proud of it. I love the part of me that thrives under intimate, deep conversation, that cultivates lasting friendships, that is comfortable being alone. If the flip side of these benefits is that I am uncomfortable around large groups of people, so be it.
But lately I’ve been realizing that maybe my discomfort is something other than introversion. Earlier this week Dina said about “D,” one of the girls in our safe house: “She is scared to get her monthly metro card. She has never done it before, and she is terrified. She has many problems.” (Please also understand this is a Greek woman speaking in English, so her thoughts are blunted by translation.) Even with that caveat, however, all I could think was, “I haven’t gotten my monthly metro card either. I thought about it on many occasions, but it always scared me and was never SUPER necessary, so I avoided it. Does that mean I have many problems?” (Yes, obviously, but I did not this specifically was such a problem.)
Because doesn’t everyone hate doing something new? Doesn’t everyone get nervous interacting with customer service reps? Doesn’t everyone avoid stressful things if possible? Or at least, don’t all introverts?
Before I could console myself, I flashed back to when I was living at the school, and to one particular day when I happened to be on campus during the lunch hour. I knew I should go eat with the other students. I knew they would be nice to me, and I knew the food would be good. But I sat at my desk watching my cell phone tick away minutes. Finally I put on pajama pants and crawled into bed as a mental, “Well, I CAN’T leave the room now,” assurance.
I thought back further, to when I went to an amazing Harry Potter festival with my friend Elizabeth and her sister Natalie. We went to a crowded dinner full of exuberant people, and when we found a table, I clung there like it was a life raft. “Do you want to get food?” Elizabeth asked, gesturing to the buffet line. “No, I’m…going to sit here for a while.” It was a good ten minutes before I worked up the courage to walk through a line, not talking to anyone, and when I accomplished this I felt SO AMAZINGLY BRAVE.
These things…don’t seem strictly normal. I don’t quite know what the difference between introversion and social anxiety is, but I would imagine introversion feels a lot less like being paralyzed. The times when I’m introverted, I can confidently say, “Cool, I’ll see you later, I need to be alone now.” Or even just confidently lie, “Aw, that sounds awesome, but I have other plans (reading a book).” These other moments…they aren’t about taking care of myself. They’re something more shameful.
Like a good counselor with many counselor friends, in this time of confusion I naturally turned to Google. After a few semi-helpful posts, I found one called “The 4 Differences Between Introversion and Social Anxiety” by Ellen Hendriksen. She starts by telling the story of two introverts, one with social anxiety and the other without.
But you can also be a socially anxious introvert, like Alex. Lately, as introversion is validated and empowered, I hear folks like Liam and Alex proudly describing themselves as introverts, which is liberating and game-changing. But those similar to Alex still feel that something’s off.
To be sure, with Alex’s social anxiety comes other, valuable, stuff. The socially anxious among us often have deep emotional empathy. We are finely attuned to the feelings of others. We are the diplomats, the ambassadors. We navigate a multicultural, twenty-first century world with sensitivity and care.
But sometimes our social antennae are too sensitive—the social smoke alarm goes off too readily. Social anxiety is the third most common psychological disorder, right after the big boys of depression and alcoholism. Up to 13% of American adults will have social anxiety that reaches clinical proportions in their lifetime.
Her four main points about social anxiety as something separate from introversion are as follows (though I strongly suggest you read the whole article because it’s amazing):
- Introversion is born. Social anxiety is made.
- In social anxiety, there’s a fear of being revealed.
- Perfectionism lays fertile ground for social anxiety.
- Introversion is your way. Social anxiety gets in your way.
Reading through her descriptions of these facts was illuminating. The key difference, if I may summarize, between introversion and being introverted with social anxiety, is that the social anxiety layers everything with fear. Again, I thought of my friend Elizabeth, who is an introvert but who generally doesn’t seem to give a shit what other people think of her. I constantly assume she is an alien queen, but maybe she’s…a normal introvert. I, on the other hand, am the unusual one, overthinking everyone’s assumptions about me, worrying about my self-presentation, fearing that people will realize what a weirdo I am and stop interacting with me.
I feel like, in retrospect, this is obvious. I have social anxiety. I remember Googling social anxiety in high school too, and clicking out of the web browser when a quiz said there was an 80% chance I had it. But does knowing this mean I have to DO something about it?
…One step at a time.