Do I Need to Be More Social?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I’m reaching out partly at the insistence of a few friends, who all seem to be worried about me and my antisocial habits. I guess the problem, as they see it, is I don’t go out and party like a “normal” person. You’d definitely call me an introvert. I’m friendly enough sometimes, but I’m also the roommate who slinks back to my room instead of engaging in prolonged interaction with my housemates. I prefer writing to board games, and Netflix to house parties. I spend a ton of time online and mostly interact with online friends. I do have a few close friends I’ve kept (or who’ve kept me) after college and various jobs I’ve had, and I enjoy their company. We occasionally do activities together like hiking or movie nights, but I can’t really handle large groups or loud noise. And those events only happen a couple times a month … or I only join in that often.

So the rest of the time, I get told I should have more of a life, should go out more, should be more social. The problem is, I’m a bit worried too. I don’t want to force myself to make small talk with people, but it seems like that’s how you’re supposed to get ahead in life, in a career, or in both. I worry that I lucked out with the friends I do have, and won’t be able to make more.

I’m not unhappy as it is, but I’m tired of feeling guilty for declining social events and doing things that feel better to me. Are humans supposed to be more social? How much does my mental health depend on social interaction and events? And do I need therapy for social anxiety? —Going Solo

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Dear Solo,

Thank you for writing. Thank goodness, also, for the introverts of the world; can you imagine a world full of nothing but extroverts? Sounds like a reality TV show on steroids.

Your letter is interesting in that it seems as though others in your life find your social preferences problematic, while you for the most part sound okay with them. Who are these others who “insist” you reach out? And why are they insisting you come out and play? Do their “protests” seem one-sided/out of self-interest? Or is there a part of you that wants to be more socially engaged but is hesitant? It is hard to tell if they are being empathically supportive or a pain in the … well, neck.

I take it you are not long out of college, as it is mostly twenty-somethings who place such an emphasis on partying, as these friends seem to. Not having sufficient “party habits” is not something to worry about. In a way, the “party” is about dealing with the anxiety of transitioning into the big, bad world of adulthood; sooner or later, the party is over. I work with people for whom the party never ends, and they end up struggling to get clean and sober as a result. Perhaps your choices will look prescient and mature in a few short years.

At the same time, it sounds as if this is has stirred some internal conflict, or you wouldn’t have written. I would also add that you do sound socially active to a degree and not “shut in.” The ability to maintain close friendships is an admirable skill.

Do your social preferences affect your work presently? It strikes me that you are able to socially engage, meaning you could do so if a profession required it, but you prefer not to as it is as not as enjoyable—or, perhaps, safe?

I must confess, however, I detect a strain of … something … in your letter—sadness, perhaps, or confusion, or some/none of the above. I can’t tell if it’s due to others’ apparent view of your choices or something else, such as a strain of isolation.

Which leads me to this question: Is there something emotionally undesirable or unsafe or un-fun about joining others live and in person, as opposed to online? I say this as you mention “a ton” of online activity.

Some might genuinely not know how to answer that. Here’s a constructive way to process not-so-comfortable feelings, which many of us would rather avoid. You can try this alone, with a supportive friend, or even with a counselor: Next time you get told to “get out more and join the party,” pay attention to what you’re feeling inside. Do you feel guilt? Shame? Anger? Anxiety? Some/none of the above? It may help to identify body sensations—if they are tense or knotty, and so on. Try to identify these feelings as best you can.

Assuming “social anxiety” is a diagnosis—and I personally have a lot of ambivalence about such labels and diagnoses, since they often hurt more than help—I would say everyone experiences some degree of it. So try not to get hung up on such labels; if there is anxiety there, it exists on a spectrum and, based on your letter, does not appear to be “severe” or acute. You sound like you’re doing fine on the whole, and the issue is more subtle than extreme.

Next, try to recall earlier times you felt such emotions and within what context they arose. Did this happen in college? High school? Earlier?

Another question I would ask: Were you ever asked to join in group or family events, in the past, toward which you were not particularly enthused, even dreading? Were you made to feel guilty or bad for having these feelings?

Again, you mention you spend “a ton” of time online. This is not the forum to debate the pros and cons of online socializing, but since you mention it, I wonder what it is that feels more enticing or safe or preferable about online versus in-person activity. As a therapist and Gen Xer, my perspective is biased in that I have come to value face-to-face interaction over online socializing, for the most part. While there are friends whose distance makes this impossible, at the end of the day, online exchanges feel somewhat empty to me, not as enriching or colorful as being together in the same space. This is not the case with everyone, however.

One could write a book about the phenomenon of online socializing (and some already have); my basic theme here is to reflect on what is going on in your own psychological experiencing, and begin to understand your truth, to see where you feel comfortable as things are, and where you might—if you choose—want to explore further or try new things. We all have what psychologists call our “growing edge.” It is not a bad thing to nudge ourselves out of our comfort zones, at least a little, with some regularity.

Finally, assuming “social anxiety” is a diagnosis—and I personally have a lot of ambivalence about such labels and diagnoses, since they often hurt more than help—I would say everyone experiences some degree of it. So try not to get hung up on such labels; if there is anxiety there, it exists on a spectrum and, based on your letter, does not appear to be “severe” or acute. You sound like you’re doing fine on the whole, and the issue is more subtle than extreme.

There might, however, be some twinge of concern about your experience with other people and what it brings up, and so a discussion with a counselor could help, if only to satiate your curiosity and uncover whatever this possible conflict is about. Though from what I can tell, it sounds as though your fears are more future-based and concerned with “what if” than anything tangible now, besides the possible disapproval of others. But others’ disapproval may be inevitable for those who want to march to the beat of their own drum. Unless that itself is the issue that gnaws at you.

In the meantime, it sounds like you have a core of reliable friends, and in the long run that’s really all you need. I would be curious to hear more about a possible note of sadness or quiet discontent in your letter, if that is indeed what I’m detecting.

Thanks again for writing!

Kind regards,

Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 7 comments
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  • jessie

    jessie

    September 23rd, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    Pish! Don’t feel bad for staying true to who you are and the things that make you comfortable. Not everyone is a social butterfly and that’s okay! You shouldn’t be made to feel bad about being what you were intended to be. Just think about it like this- when you right tribe comes along they will know that about you, and you might enjoy spending time with them! Until then I wouldn’t worry about it at all.

  • frank

    frank

    September 24th, 2016 at 8:31 AM

    For some of us this is a hard move but being social can lead to so many more opportunities for you than sitting at home alone ever will. Sometimes you have to do some things that are a little uncomfortable to be able to make a forward move in life.

  • Danna d

    Danna d

    September 25th, 2016 at 7:49 AM

    I actually read something that said that introverted people are just being selfish. Really?!

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    September 26th, 2016 at 4:19 PM

    my vote is for yessss

  • Robert

    Robert

    September 27th, 2016 at 3:40 PM

    I am like Jennifer. The more people that I am around and the more opportunity that I have to go out then the better I feel. There is just something about being with other people in a social setting that gives me life. I feel blah when I am alone but get me in a group of friends and I can have the time of my life doing nothing at all.

  • antoinette

    antoinette

    September 28th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    I always experience a great deal of social anxiety so going out and being around people, especially those that I don’t know all that well, is something that has always been very hard for me. There are times when I will literally have trouble breathing just thinking about having to have a conversation with someone that I don’t know or going somewhere where I am not already familiar with. I know that there are probably jobs I have lost out on because of it.

  • larson

    larson

    September 29th, 2016 at 2:08 PM

    It can be a real mood lifter to be around other people.

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