I’ve always seen myself as a textbook introvert. Wary of large gatherings and new people, I largely prefer solitude and have a tendency to look inward rather than outward. I’ve lived with a passing definition of introversion for as long as I can remember and attributed many of my habits and behavior to it too.
Moments like making excuses to bow out of large gatherings repeatedly because the mere thought of it didn’t sit right. Preferring email and text conversations as opposed to verbal communication. Waiting till the office kitchen cleared before making my way there. Not meeting anyone’s gaze when I walked around. If I was alone, purposefully heading to a public place super early just to avoid massive crowds because I felt packed in.
Or if I was with someone, engineering a way to get them to speak or respond to a stranger if such a situation arose because my insides would begin to coil tight at the thought of engaging. At the gym, I’d gear my workouts according to which area was empty rather than what workout I wanted to do. Sometimes, in a crowd, I escape to a quiet place to just breathe. Once, I faked a call – thank God for smartphones? – to get out of a conversation with strangers because it was too much.
Over time, as I watched others – fellow introverts – handle social situations with ease, I began to wonder if my anxiety wasn’t a factor of my introversion after all. And oh, it clicked. It was a moment, nothing life-altering. I just knew what to call it now: social anxiety.
Just to be clear, introversion and social anxiety are not the same. And neither is shyness or social anxiety. Introverts may be more likely to suffer from it than say extroverts, but there are plenty who don’t. As for shyness, it does involve a sense of anxiety, but not crippling.
See, introversion speaks to a person’s internal thought process and what kinds of interactions they find rewarding or draining. Social anxiety is fear-based, looking instead at feelings of being judged and evaluated negatively. This can lead to issues with self-esteem as one battles with embarrassment, inadequacy, and then even depression.
So I began to take stock of myself. What would trigger me? Unfamiliar circumstances, for sure. What If scenarios ran rampant in my mind. What if so-and-so says so-and-so? Asks me this? Tells me to do this? Can I do it? What if I can’t? What if I mess up? I probably will. Maybe I should cancel? I don’t feel well, I’ll say. I have a family emergency. My car broke down. Let’s pick family emergency, no one asks you to explain that, right Phoebe?
I’d worry myself out of new experiences and opportunities, and then I would regret it. I began to realize how this was impacting my quality of life. I stayed at a job that wasn’t right for me because I didn’t want to go through the anxiety of settling in with new people. I’ve been procrastinating on job hunting for the same reason. It’s also one of the reasons I sought online work, and perhaps the main factor in why I chose to dive into books and writing as a kid.
At first, I told myself that this will pass. I was just hoping that if I ignored it enough, it would disappear. Like when you’re ill and tell yourself you’ll go to the doctor tomorrow if it doesn’t get better (also me). Needless to say, that strategy didn’t work.
I became stagnant. Without putting myself in new situations, around new people, and new challenges, I was putting a stop to my growth. I came to the realization that where I had come to so far in life had been the result of others. I had to go to school so I had to deal with whatever situations came into being there. The same with university and then the same with the first job I landed (a result of a forced email application that came into fruition months down the line).
So I pushed myself. Some days I succeed, most days I fail. My struggles aren’t obvious because for all intents and purposes, I’m doing what I should be, but I can do so much more. And it’s that thought that lays the ground for an everyday internal conflict. Again, some days I win, some days I lose.
I wish I could say that I see a clear end to this or that I know just how to overcome my social anxiety. My struggles are nowhere near that which others officially diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder go through. When I have a buffer – a friend – I do it all because I get to focus my attention there, on another person, rather than on myself. Anxiety still bleeds through though, sometimes, in cracks but I know who I can be. And that keeps me pushing.