I’ve heard these two words used interchangeably, perhaps because being introverted often goes hand in hand with staying home a lot. But there is a big distinction between the two. If you don’t recognize that, social anxiety can take control of your life.
I used to use introversion as an excuse. It was an excuse to avoid parties, an excuse not to make new friends, and an excuse to bury my face in my phone in new social situations.
Introverts derive energy from solitary endeavors, unlike extraverts, who derive energy from social pursuits. Socializing exhausts the introvert. You may not find yourself falling asleep after 30 minutes at a party, but I’ve definitely seen the toll socializing takes cumulatively.
My husband’s family can come for a visit and at the end of the first day I feel fine. But the second day I’ll be listening to my sister-in-law or talking to a cousin and my mind just grinds to a halt. I can’t talk or process any more. I need a nap, but something tells me that won’t fix it. What I really need is a whole afternoon, maybe even an evening too, just to myself. I need quiet and time to read, time to journal or paint.
When I’m socializing too much, sleep is disturbed. I hear conversations rattle around in my head while I’m going to bed. I’ll dream about talking to people. And that’s just after doing a great deal of socializing with people I know well and feel very comfortable with.
I wonder, How can someone talk for a living? Some people are professional chatters and they meet new people every day. I like to believe that I don’t know if I’m suited to something until I try it, but I know for a fact that job isn’t for me.
But preferring not to socialize and being held back by anxiety are entirely separate things. It can be easy to identify with the definition of introvert, but many of us don’t want to be called shy. We don’t like to think of ourselves as afraid of socializing or being judged by others, but when you excuse your loner ways as simple introversion you do yourself a disservice and allow social anxiety to win.
I spent most of my life as a wallflower. By the time I was 11 I would have bouts of heartburn and difficulty sleeping at the end of a break from school because going back terrified me. Yet, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was I was afraid of.
I spent middle school dances hiding in the corner, missed the birthday parties of my closest and dearest friends and avoided perhaps some of the most memorable outings one can have in childhood.
The problem was at first it seemed like outright disinterest, but at some point I got the impression that I was missing out. Did I turn things around and make an effort to socialize more often? No, I didn’t. At that point I was a self-conscious 13-year-old who felt like everyone else knew just what to say and just how to act, while I was lost at sea in a conversation.
That’s how fear manages to rule your life when you’re socially anxious. You do the easiest thing, which is to avoid situations where you feel uncomfortable or inept. If you avoid it long enough, those situations bring you even more anxiety than they might have to start with.
The only way to socialize more easily (and enjoy it) is practice. It may seem antithetical to tell an introvert to practice socializing, but it isn’t actually an endurance test. You don’t have to meet and talk to people every day, all day. What it takes is regular, short exposure to people, mostly new people. Why new people? Because it forces you to be socially flexible.
You never know where a conversation with a new person is going to go. They’re going to bring up things you aren’t familiar with or maybe aren’t interested in, and that forces you to poke holes in your discomfort. You gain competence and confidence. Each time you meet a new person and talk without them wrinkling up their nose at you and running away, the more you feel like a charming social maverick.
What difference does that make? Well, you may not feel like becoming a motivational speaker at the end of it, but suddenly socializing isn’t a big deal. You don’t think about it before going to parties. You don’t worry about the new people you’ll meet and how they’ll react to you. And if you ever meet someone who doesn’t seem to like you or approve of you, you don’t take it quite so personally. Experience has shown you that you aren’t a social leper and you’re quite likable.
Remember what Bill Murray said in “What About Bob?”:
You know, I treat people as if they were telephones. If I meet somebody who I don’t think likes me I say to myself, “Bob, this one’s temporarily out of order. You know, don’t break the connection, just hang up and try again.”
Personally, getting a dog really helped me come out of my shell and stop being a wallflower. I got my French bulldog Keaton (pictured above) in 2008. I lived in my Brooklyn neighborhood for two years and I hadn’t met any of my neighbors. Nobody had a bulldog and many had never seen one of these bat-eared snorters before. Taking walks with Keaton I met everyone, old and young, even a few people who barely spoke any English. One man from Haiti named Keaton the Mayor of Hart Street.
Just last month, I was speaking to my new editor on the phone and we were discussing whether we needed to have a conference call between us and the other new writer. “No, that’s unnecessary,” she said. “She’s really quiet. She’s my quiet writer. She’s not going to talk anyway.”
Just a few years ago, that’s how my editor would have been describing me. People can change.
As an introvert, you’ll always need alone time to energize yourself, but your decisions don’t have to be based on fear. It’s not introversion that makes you feel held back, it’s shyness.