There’s a difference between being an introvert and a socially anxious introvert.
Introversion is part of your nature. Your genetics. Your inner YOU. You either are or you aren’t. Being introverted doesn’t automatically mean you’re an anxious individual. You can learn skills to manage your social anxiety but you cannot stop being introverted.
We know this to be true; next time you’re in a park, or anywhere where kids are (which is every day for me), take a moment to observe their personalities. Who knew I was a scientist too? You’ll see some that are running around playing with every kid they see, and you’ll see some that are hanging out by themselves, away from the ruckus. I was that kid hanging out a mile away from everyone else.
Because it’s just too ‘peopley’ out there.
In fact, this past weekend we took our 11-month-old son to a music class. All of the older kids aggregated right in front of the music teacher. We could easily spot the ones that weren’t comfortable dancing among the ones that danced their little hearts out. We saw one little girl jump around, dance, and sing, while the one right next to her stood still as a statue, taking it all in.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an introvert. The difficulty lies when you happen to be a socially anxious introvert. Then your quality of life can deteriorate.
For extroverts, if they find themselves in an anxious situation they’ll talk more, while us introverts will talk less. This is why many people equate introversion with shyness. For those of us who are introverted and socially anxious, we stop talking and fail to express ourselves even if we want to.
This is the bucket I fell into for most of my life. For many many years, I was a socially anxious introvert. And to this day, remnants of those tendencies remain. But I’m able to control and override them.
I’ve always known I was an introvert. From a young age, I spent most of my time doing puzzles, coloring, and reading. Making friends or navigating social interactions were never my strong suits. I went through most of my childhood with just two friends, all the while being envious of the popular girls who had no issue talking to anybody.
I slowly added social anxiety to the mix as time went by, or as they say “life happened“, but I didn’t realize it because I assumed those feelings came with introversion. I thought it was something I just had to learn how to “deal” with.
The moment social anxiety grabbed me by the shoulders was in the second grade. I sat next to a girl in class and asked her if she wanted to be friends with me. Let me tell you, it took a LOT of courage for me to ask her that, especially in French, because I wasn’t too proficient in it at the time, so to get her response of “I already have friends” was like a knife straight to my heart.
Ouch – pure rejection.
That moment in time, and those four words, really did a number on me. My therapist tells me I need to let go, but what does she know?!
Fast forward to some circumstances that made my parents home-school me from the time I was 13 up until I went off to college, and you can just imagine how nice of a home social anxiety found in me.
Do you have any idea what that does to someone that’s already introverted by nature? It ACCENTUATES it. It’s not like I had any extracurricular activities that allowed me to meet people. No. I was training to become a professional tennis player and let me tell you, that’s one of the most isolating things an individual can go through. Big ass cake of “outcast” was being cooked in the oven for me.
After 5 years of being home-schooled, of traveling the world alone, and of not having any close friends I could turn to, I was the poster child for what a socially anxious introvert looks like.
I went to college not being able to raise my hand in class to ask a simple question. Let that sink in. I wasn’t ABLE to ask a question in front of people.
It felt like I’d never fit in anywhere.
My introverted nature did give me an academic advantage though. I studied a lot, got highest honors, completed 3 internships prior to graduation, and immediately got a full-time entry-level job as a Financial Analyst. I credit my introverted nature for keeping me focused all those years, but I severely lacked social skills by the time I entered the workforce. Unfortunately, I couldn’t advance simply by studying anymore, I had to interact with colleagues and upper management. What the fuck is that all about?
Here I was in my mid 20’s and I was socially anxious in every area of my life. I still had no close friends. I wasn’t able to put myself out there to connect with people, mostly because I was scared they would find me boring. The only light in my life was the relationship I had with my boyfriend at the time (husband now). I found a like-minded soul in him.
One day it hit me that it wasn’t sustainable living this way. It was seriously taking a toll on me.
I realized that I was perpetuating my own anxiety by not taking the necessary steps to abate it.
Being introverted isn’t something we can change, nor should we want to, because it’s a beautifully woven and intricate design. I love that my energy comes from being alone. There’s nothing I enjoy more than solitude because it truly makes me feel alive in this vast universe of ours. But social anxiety is something we can work on and lessen the stranglehold it has over us.
Here are the 3 steps I took to overcome my social anxiety:
1) I wrote an action plan
Call me an INFJ if you must, but I LOVE making plans and detailed roadmaps. I love thinking ahead and knowing what to expect. Spontaneity is non-existent in my vocabulary. After years of living with myself, I decided I had enough of being debilitated and of holding myself back. How the hell am I supposed to become a CEO if I can’t ask a question in a meeting? That was my ultimate wake-up call. So I wrote this awesome action plan, that you can get here. In fact, you can grab it right here on this page. Do it.
2) I practiced daily
It’s not enough to put pen to paper. Sure, it puts things into motion, but until you actually start acting upon your intentions, you’re playing at the superficial level. You have to act. So I practiced daily because practice makes confident. I took the first action item from my action plan and repeatedly banged my head against it at every opportunity. I faced it straight on. It didn’t matter how I felt about it. Whether my cheeks flushed, or my upper lip sweat, or my demons came out to play, every day, embarrassment paid a visit. Yet every day I worked towards conquering my social anxiety. Little by little, I stopped sweating. And then I stopped overthinking. Finally, each action that seemed like a mountain to climb, became a leisurely walk. It no longer was something I couldn’t do, but something that was now part of my personality. It’s really amazing what practice can accomplish.
3) I listed out all my anxieties
As I worked my way through the action plan and resolved all my internal feelings around the 3 main action items on it, I realized that I needed to push my boundaries. I needed to seize every opportunity to get out of my shell. That meant writing ALL the social anxieties I wanted to conquer so that they would be top of mind. The moment an opportunity would present itself at work I’d be all up in it. These are some of the internal conversations I had with myself the moment social anxiety presented itself. If I felt terrified of speaking up, I told myself “I’m going to stand up and speak my mind RIGHT NOW”. If I felt uncomfortable interrupting someone, I told myself “I’m going to interrupt this person RIGHT NOW”. If I was terrified of having nothing to say at a group lunch, I told myself “I’m going to sit there and eat my silence peacefully”. I did the opposite of what I was feeling. Every. Single. Time.
So if I, the home-schooled kid, who played an individual sport, and who traveled the world alone, all the while being a socially anxious introvert who never made friends, can change, so can you.
Together we can overcome it!