I wouldn’t say that I have intense social anxiety, but at times it does pop up and inconvenience me. Normally it’s in large gatherings, or when I’m faced with meeting someone new, that I feel myself morphing into the most awkward version of myself.
On the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ISFJ-T. (Check out 16Personalities to learn more!) When I took the quiz, I scored 58% on the Introvert scale, which surprised me at the time because sometimes I feel much more introverted than that. I like people, and when I get comfortable around people, my fun and crazy side usually starts coming out – but I definitely feel most comfortable at smaller gatherings, and I do need alone time to recharge.
All that to say, even though I’m not an extreme introvert and I do like social gatherings, I do find myself struggling with social anxiety more often than I’d like.
Social anxiety can be an actual diagnosable disorder (SAD), and I do not have that. I am talking about levels of social anxiety that probably everyone feels at one time or another.
My family and I recently began attending a new (to us) church. This is probably where I feel my social anxiety most acutely these days. For example, when I’m sitting in Bible class, but the class hasn’t actually started yet, here are some thoughts that are probably popping into my mind:
Hmm… I’ve never met the people behind me. I should probably introduce myself. They look like they’re in the middle of a conversation though. I shouldn’t interrupt them… I’ll look back again in a minute. Okay they’re still talking, I should just quickly say hi… but Bible class is probably about to start, I don’t want to say something and then get cut off… Maybe next week I can try to meet them.
There’s that person I’ve met before – I have no idea what their name is. I’ve already asked them three times, so I can’t possibly ask them again. I guess I’ll sit on the other side of the room until I get a chance to look up their name…
*after saying hello to someone* Hmm… they didn’t really smile that much when they saw me. They probably hate me. Were they trying to avoid me? Oh no, did I do something to offend them???
Wow, that person seems so popular and cool. They probably have a ton of people who will want to talk to them, so I won’t waste their time by introducing myself. Wait, now they might think I’m avoiding them… I guess I’ll just say hi and then keep walking… but I just remembered I have a huge pimple on my chin – I don’t want that to be their first impression of me – I’ll just keep my head down and pretend I don’t see them.
Can anyone else relate to these thoughts? They sound extreme when I read them, but these are thoughts that I occasionally have to battle. I know they are irrational 99% of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes they overwhelm me.
I have definitely had to develop my social skills over time. Despite my moments of social anxiety and awkwardness, I am still a lot more socially aware and confident than I used to be. Part of that is due to just practicing over and over the skills I wanted to be better at (and often failing miserably). Some of it is due to others, like my husband, making me more aware of my social shortcomings.
When I was young, I remember my mom offering to pay me a quarter if I would just say “hello” to someone if they spoke to me at church. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say anything. It worked, I wanted that quarter! I can relate now as a mother with a shy child of my own – it’s embarrassing when someone says hello to your kid, and they literally just walk away. I always feel like my parenting skills are being judged. But as always, there’s a balance of being sensitive to my introverted child’s needs, and pushing him to have good manners and social skills.
When I was in middle school, the other kids used to call me Daria – if you are unfamiliar with the t.v. show Daria, it’s a show from the late 90’s and early 2000’s that stars a high school girl who is very monotone, and emotionally even-keeled. I got this nickname because I was so shy and quiet, and honestly pretty flat emotionally. But inside, I was the opposite of even-keeled. I just didn’t want my emotions to show, I bottled them all up inside. (Typical for an unhealthy Enneagram 1!)
By the time I got to college, I was getting better at social skills, but I struggled with a looming fear that everyone secretly hated me. I convinced myself so many times that people were mad at me or that they really couldn’t stand me. Freshman year, I was so convinced a girl on my hall in the dorm hated me, that I actually wrote her a letter asking her about it. I remember her stopping by my room and telling me that she did NOT, in fact, hate me. Her exact words were, “don’t worry, if I hate you, you’ll definitely know it!”
So where am I now? I’m almost 35 years old, and as I mentioned above, I still struggle with irrational anxious thoughts when I’m in social settings. But now I know that they are mostly irrational. At this point, I’ve realized that I’d rather be true to myself than worry about compromising who I am to make someone like me. (Realizing this does not automatically make it easy to do!) If someone doesn’t smile at me or say hello, maybe they just didn’t notice me, or maybe they are also a socially awkward person(?) I try to remind myself to give people the benefit of the doubt.
A wise friend of mine described her experience of trying to meet new people and make new friends by saying, “I think I’m not everyone’s preferred flavor of friend.” It wasn’t a disparaging statement against herself, it was simply a matter-of-fact statement. We are going to naturally connect with some people, and with others we won’t. If we’re lucky, we’ll find people who really understand and accept us, and with whom we are able to truly feel comfortable being ourselves.
If you’re like me and sometimes struggle with meeting new people or making new friends, a great book I’d recommend checking out is Frientimacy – it talks about how our fears and anxiety can potentially sabotage the friendships we are wanting to develop. We might fear we aren’t good enough, that we’ll be rejected, or that we’ll be judged if we show our true colors… I’ll share more on this book in another post soon.
In the meantime, good luck in all your social endeavors!