Often when people come in for counseling for the first time, after talking about how they’ve managed life so far, they label themselves by way of explanation: “Well, I’m in an introvert, so …” Or sometimes they’ll write on the intake sheet: “I’m anxious around people I don’t know.” My follow-up question is usually the same: “How do you figure?” It’s how a person answers that question that makes all the difference in how we proceed.
Introversion and social anxiety often get scrambled together, but for therapists they generally describe two different parts of a person’s being or functioning. Introversion is considered a trait—you rolled out of the womb with it. When you were a wee one, you might’ve preferred playing in the sandbox, thinking about where shadows come from, to joining in raucous games of tag or being on the jungle gym with a bunch of kids you’d never met. In school, you may have had your tribe of close friends and preferred to hang with them rather than join the big table of loud yakkers.
As you grew older, you may have learned you need some downtime to rekindle your energy after teaching a class, being in meetings all day, or hanging out with friends. You might prefer singular, interesting activities over small talk-laden cocktail parties. It’s how you roll. With work’s constant demands, kids’ busy schedules, and the accessibility mobile technology has thrust upon us, introverts often don’t feel that they have the recharging time they need. The constant demands for interaction can make an introverted person feel, well, nuts. It may be that people who are more introverted are just exhausted from trying to balance all the demands on their dwindling downtime. This can be especially difficult if they have an extroverted partner or children.
Introversion is not a given for those who experience social anxiety. Both extroverts and introverts can be socially anxious. Social anxiety is a mental health concern that, with help, can be managed. Like all anxieties, social anxiety often makes a person feel less capable and seemingly shrinks his or her world.
Here are some ways social anxiety affects people:
- Intense fear of social situations.
- Self-consciousness on steroids: Kicks up persistent worries about being judged by others, a preoccupation about what others think.
- Replay: Constantly reviewing interactions with others and negatively critiquing one’s performance.
- All knowing: Believing others know one is anxious, either via noticing physical symptoms or by mind reading abilities. And believing one will be judged harshly for it.
- Avoidance: Since social humiliation is obviously right around the corner, why go there?
It seems social anxiety may have some sort of biological loading. Often there’s a problematic anxiety issue lurking up the genetic line. This lineage seems to dovetail with experiences creating conditions for a social anxiety to show up all shaky, worried, and unbidden on a person’s proverbial doorstep. And because there are so many other humans wandering the world, social anxiety can really get in a person’s way.
As a socially anxious child you may have wanted to be at a friend’s birthday party but feared what might happen if you were around other kids. In school, you may have avoided certain classes and majored in accounting instead of communications. At work, you may white-knuckle it through the day, ascribing thoughts to your coworkers: “I know they think I’m not as smart as they are.” You may be an extrovert and want to hang out with coworkers after work but think they don’t want to hang with you.
If you feel like social anxiety is an issue for you, seeking a therapist trained in anxiety could be quite helpful.
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