Fun times - being an introvert with social anxiety
I’m trying to decide what is worse – being noticed and having a whole room full of people dislike you or to go completely unnoticed in the first place, to appear so grey in a room full of colour that you may as well be invisible.
I have always been an introvert. I struggle in social situations, especially with people I hardly know. It takes a while for me to warm up and for others to get to know me. It is safe to say that all of my friends are people who have been forced into some sort of long term interaction with me – school, study, work. I’ll be bold enough to say that the people who do know me consider our friendships worthwhile, but the problem is, unless someone endures the prolonged and sustained exposure to the weird and quirky person I am the chances that they will like me or want to get to know me further are slim to none.
This realization over the past few years and the pressure that this puts me under to preform and be my ‘best self’ has lead to a certain level of social anxiety. In the early days of my relationship with my now husband (who is an extrovert and will hug and kiss people who he is only meeting for the first time and then keep them entertained and amused for hours on end), my 'introvertedness' has caused many fights after parties where my husband had ditched me as soon as we have entered the room to talk to his mates. I’d be left standing in the corner not willing to walk up to a stranger because, introvert. It took a long time to explain how I felt which was obviously completely foreign to him being an extrovert but over the years we have both gotten better with dealing with it together. He now stays with me for a bit, introduces me to people he knows and will check that I’m ok before he heads off without me. I have become stronger in these situations but I still have to have my game face on and be prepared, which probably sounds ridiculous, to need to be prepared for social outings.
It took me years to identify what it was – social anxiety induced by being an introvert. The realization came a few years ago when we attended a birthday on a whim and unprepared for the night ahead. I was physically and emotionally tired, we had spent the day fixing up the pool area and finishing it off by laying roll on lawn. I decided at the last-minute I would go with my husband, even though in the back of my mind I knew I probably wasn’t up for it (hindsight is great). He assured me that we could leave when I was ready, I would just have to say the word. We arrived, I knew a couple of people, we chatted, but I could feel I was drained. I used what energy I had to meet some new people and after a few hours I was done. I wanted to go and I waited and waited for my husband to be ready. We were making our escape when someone who had ignored us for the entire night (hates me or doesn’t see me?) made a point of speaking to my husband. He dropped my hand, went over to her and left me standing in the middle of the room on my own, halfway to the door. They struck up a conversation and I just stood there. I completely shut down. I couldn’t even look at anyone let alone talk to them. I was frozen in my fear and anxiety. I couldn’t move forward or go back, just stuck like a deer in headlights.
Now I know exactly how much effort it takes me to attend a seemingly innocuous event like a birthday and that it really was a whole lot more to it than feeling antisocial. This was a real issue that needed more attention than the simple explanation of ‘I don’t like going to things where I don’t know people’. The feelings of worry, of not being enough, the restlessness, the tight chest, frozen fear, the embarrassment of not being able to hold a conversation due to mind blanks like not being able to think of simple questions, to seem interesting and entertaining like my husband is. It is debilitating and in turn confidence breaking, making the anticipation of the next social interaction even worse. It creates a downward spiral of thoughts and feelings that become uncontrollable if left unchecked.
Now that I am aware of it, I’ve spent the last couple of years working hard to combat this. Not just the introvertedness but the anxiety that is created if I find myself unprepared for an event. I know that I must prepare beforehand, be physically and emotionally well rested because being in social situations as an introvert takes a whole lot of energy and effort and for me they are more manageable if I am prepared.
Lately though, they are becoming harder and harder and yesterday I found myself at an event and unprepared and I basically lost my shit.
In hindsight, I probably should have recognized the signs and stayed home. I was physically and emotionally tired. The day before was spent at 3 different places, interacting with more people than usual and laying roll on lawn again (hmm maybe I should quit laying roll on lawn?) I stayed up late talking with my husband and I was up early. Little sleep, feeling flat and emotionally blah, all warning signs for an introvert who doesn’t have her game face on. But the thing is, I thought I would be ok. I wanted to go to this event. I was looking forward to it. I would only know one person besides the guest of honour but I thought I could handle it.
I didn’t know these people well, but I had met them all before at other events for the same guest of honour. I knew their faces and remembered some names, surely I would be ok for half an hour until my friend arrived. I smiled, was friendly and said hello to those who were familiar. I was met with obligatory hellos, blank faces, forced smiles and even grunting when I tried to interact. Ok then, no problem. I’ll just take a seat. I sat there for the next half an hour completely invisible to every single person there. The uncontrollable worry started along with the obsessive thinking. I had been to birthdays, a hen’s night and wedding with all of these people and not one person remembers me, or do they remember and just hate me like everyone else who has only met me under the strain of social gatherings? I analyzed and obsessed over what was wrong with me and why people hate me so much all while pretending I was fine with sitting at the back on my own. Before I realised I had tears streaming down my cheeks. I faked a phone call with my mobile to my ear and headed out the front. I texted my friend who was still on her way to say I was leaving. She called and was met by my inconsolable, uncontrollable ugly crying. Lucky for me my friend is a clinical psychologist and is used to dealing with such things. She talked me out of leaving and told me to hold tight until she got there. I managed to stop myself from fleeing but I couldn’t stop the thoughts. The thoughts of feeling like a failure because I couldn’t put on the brave face, because I couldn’t start one single conversation with anyone, a social leper whom nobody either remembers or quickly wants to forget. Feeling like I can’t decide what is worse, being hated or being invisible.
It doesn’t matter if they remembered me, liked or hated me. It doesn’t matter what the reality of the situation was because my reality is where my anxiety took me, down the rabbit hole in a downward spiral that I was clearly unable to pull myself out of. I was all of those things in that moment. That was my reality.
My friend arrived and after our chat (lets be honest it was me sobbing through the tears of ‘why doesn’t anybody like me!’) I had the option of leaving or going back in with the support of my friend. I wanted to go back in. I wanted to see my beautiful friend glowing and surrounded by the people who love her so much. I managed to stay for about an hour, talking with my friend (luckily there was no chance of small talk with anyone because we were both invisible) and when what energy I had was gone, we left.
There were a few lessons I took from the day.
1. Listen to myself and be mindful of where I am at. I knew I shouldn’t have gone and I probably should have listened to that voice in my head that said stay home, you are not strong enough.
2. That being in those situations takes energy and I need to be prepared, even if I think I am going to be ok.
3. That my reality in that moment is probably not the real reality.
4. I need to look after myself more.
Being an introvert, experiencing social anxiety (or heaven forbid, both) can be minimized with some thought and forward planning.
1. Don’t have too many events on in the one weekend. If you have a big event on a Sunday, make sure your Saturday is not too full as well.
2. If you have to be somewhere get your game face on, especially if you are feeling particularly vulnerable. There’s nothing wrong with ‘playing a part’ or putting on a front if it helps you get through the event.
3. Be a listener. If leading a conversation is hard, let someone else lead, actively listen and ask a few questions.
4. Have a few thoughtful questions up your sleeve to ask. 'Why' and 'how' questions usually invoke longer, more thoughtful responses than 'what' or 'where' questions.
5. If possible, have a wing man or wing woman in tow. If you are invited to an event solo, explain your situation and ask if it is ok to bring a friend.
6. Decline events where you feel it will put you at too much risk. Saying no is ok.
7. Choose quality over quantity – decide what is important to you and what is worth your time and energy.
8. Seek out other people who are alone at an event – chances are there is someone feeling the same way as you.
9. Use a natural therapy like rescue remedy.
10. Slow your breathing and use it to calm the mind and steady your thoughts.
11. Take it slowly and only take on as much as you can handle.
12. Recognize when you have had enough, you have reached the limits of energy expenditure and when it is time to go.
13. Be mindful of how you are feeling and what you are thinking – don’t let yourself be caught off guard by your thoughts, challenge the reality of your thinking.
14. Is it your emotional or rational side that has the loudest voice? Recognize that.
15. Leave some time to reenergize after the event to help build your energy levels back up.
16. Work on facing your fears, one at a time. list what they are and then break them up into manageable goals that you can begin working towards.
17. Balance out events that drain you with things that nurture you.
18. Consider professional support.
I took some time yesterday after I got home to go for a walk out in the fresh air around sunset. It is what helps me to feel grounded, gives me energy and makes me happy. Having my family there along for the walk was a great reminder that I am loved and I am not that bad to be around, that I am enough. Today I feel flat and not very talkative so I have honored that feeling with plenty of solo time in order to be back in control by the time I have my clients tonight.
I understand that dealing with social anxiety is something I will probably have to do for the rest of my life and like everything else I need in order to create a healthy life it needs my time and attention. This could easily turn into something completely unhealthy if I don’t stay mindful of it but I am committed to creating some new healthy habits to help me stay on track. The last thing I want to do is withdraw further back into my shell and become more isolated than I already feel and that is going to take some constant, mindful and deliberate actions on my behalf in order to create some real change.