Introvert + Social Phobia = Sucks

A tweet never sent:

All of my greatest accomplishments were achieved while ever so slightly intoxicated. 

Lately it seems every time I turn on the interwebs they are feeding me something about introverts and extroverts. Either this is a suddenly chic topic or I’m currently hyper-attuned to it because I’ve been giving it some long overdue thought.

social-anxiety

This cheesey photo actually captures what social phobia feels like very well. The attention is overwhelming and you just want to escape from it. image: sobernation.com

I’ve been giving it thought not because it’s new to me, or because I’m figuring myself out. I’ve always known I’m an introvert. And anyone who’s ever known me would surely agree.

I’ve been giving it thought because introversion, for me, ain’t the half of it. That’s what I’m realizing, anyway. I’ve also known for a long time that I have what’s called social phobia, or social anxiety disorder. But I’ve only recently had the a-ha moment that introversion and social phobia are not the same thing. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to see this.

I could cut and paste a definition of social phobia from the interwebs. I could explain it in layman’s terms. Or I could just say that when I’m out of my comfort zone, I tend to freak out. Klaxons sound, my shields go up, and I come across as a real weirdo. My head and feet pull back inside my tortoise shell, and they don’t come out until they know the coast is clear. This results in awkward verbal and non-verbal behavior on my part. In other words, I lose all sense of how to behave like the real me.

I’ve been giving this some thought because I’ve never realized how weird this must be for other people. I’ve always been focused on my own sense of self/comfort/security, etc. I’ve never really sat back and understood just how insane I must seem to other people when I raise my shields like I sometimes do.

I’m not nuts. I’m not socially incompetent (well, not entirely). I couldn’t have done what I wrote about here if I were. I’m reasonably successful in my life and work. This is because I know the people I live and work with. When I’m in my comfort zone, I’m witty, engaging, caring, considerate, and not at all bad company.

Outside of my comfort zone, though, I’m kind of like Rain Man, except without the mad counting skills.

And as I said, it’s because I’m not just an introvert. Lots of people are introverts, and lots of introverts are able to function just fine outside of their comfort zone, meeting new people, going to parties and what not. Some even talk about how they can hop onto a stage and deliver a speech, for example, as part of their job, so long as they can retreat to their own space afterwards to recharge.

I used to not believe people when they told me they were introverts. I didn’t believe them because I saw they were able to be pleasant and engaging and behave naturally when meeting new people or interacting in unfamiliar situations. I thought these people were incorrectly identifying as introverts, because I’d tested as an introvert, and I wasn’t consistently able to do those things, like them. To sort of fake it for a while, like them. I wasn’t able to do those things, really, at all.

If I were just an introvert, I would probably be just fine. But that combined with social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is a double-whammy. A nasty cocktail. A real bitch, actually.

My older daughter turned five today. That meant birthday party. That meant engaging with other parents. For me, this can be unreasonably stressful.

If these were parents I knew and had built relationships with, preferably through the kind of one-on-one interactions I’m most comfortable with, and whose company I’d already come to enjoy, this would be fine, and probably great fun.

If these were parents I’d never met, I would dread it. I would wish that time would slow down, or come to a stop, so I wouldn’t have to go through with the event. Or that time would skip right over it, and it would be done. Or that I would have to work, and therefore miss it.

Guess which one it was today? Hint: What am I writing about?

Luckily, my daughter wanted a bowling party, and the brand-new, upscale place we held it at was 1) dark, 2) noisy, and 3) good at throwing kids’ parties. This meant I had to do next to nothing insofar as being overtly sociable. My social anxiety was hidden by cover of darkness and noise and someone else acting as host. This left me with just my introversion to contend with. And I can contend with just my introversion, just like normal introverts, even when I would prefer not to. I can understand the need to make a bit of small talk with other parents. That it was dark and noisy, and that we were forced into a situation where the only possible kind of interaction was one-on-one, in between pleasant distractions of each child taking their turn at bowling, or eating pizza, or playing an arcade game, was perfect for me. I can do that with (relative) ease. What I mean is, it’s not easy, but I can do it.

social-phobia-symptoms2

image: socialanxietysolved.com

But if they’d stopped all the bowling, turned off the music, and turned on the lights, I would have felt the ground falling out from under my feet. I would have lost the ability to context simple comments. To follow a story being told. To nod, smile, or laugh at appropriate times. I would have come across as some kind of weirdo or asshole.

So I get it now, introverts. You really are introverts. You really don’t like what you sometimes have to do, but you can do it, and you really do need alone time to recharge afterwards.

The tweet never sent that I quoted above was intended as a joke. I don’t remember why I thought it was funny at the time, but I never sent it, so I must not have thought it was all that funny anyway. But there’s a good bit of truthiness to it. I killed the Best Man’s speech at my brother’s wedding. I mean, I wrote and delivered (after a practice run) what might possibly have been the best, most heartfelt microphone speech in front of what (to me) was a heinous number of people that was ever delivered. Okay, maybe not, but it was pretty dadgum good. A couple of strategically timed shots of vodka beforehand helped. And afterwards, I had people coming up to tell me I should go into public speaking. It reminded me of another time when I did an Elvis impersonation in front of an audience. Afterwards, I had girls lining up wanting to meet me (that’s another story entirely).

But in both cases, some awkward conversations ensued with those people. I hadn’t practiced them like I had the speech (or the Elvis impersonation). The lights were bright. And there was no music or pleasant distraction. I felt the ground falling out from under me and I lost the ability to context simple comments. To follow a story being told. To nod, smile, or laugh at appropriate times. I’m sure I came across as some kind of weirdo or asshole.

Which is a shame, because I killed that speech. And I can be entertaining when I find my comfort zone. And I used to have a pretty mean Elvis, when that kind of thing mattered to me.

But I would rather be sitting in a dark corner watching someone else doing it, and watching everyone else watching.

47 thoughts on “Introvert + Social Phobia = Sucks

  1. I hear you, I would rather sit in the corner of a room observe and write about the event then mix and mingle and it is difficult. All the things I am good at require me to be in front of a lot of people ,which is ironic because like you where saying I would rather watch everyone else and despise attention.This is something I work on and view it as this on going challenge- lets just say it’s a really big thorn in my foot. Great post.

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  2. Yeah, you have to work on it or it will own you, I think. I seem to be fine when I have a role to play or can rehearse, but it’s the undefined, unfamiliar situations that are challenging.

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  3. When I was younger I agonized about “fitting” in yet also reveled in my alone-a-tude, I have learned to embrace odd ..can get up on stage and recite nonsense verse, but not engaging with others afterward, Luckily everyone at my work is weird. Wish I had the math skills. Great post, thanks.

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  4. Happy B-day to your daughter! In 95 years she’ll be as old as the professor.

    I think I’m odd in all the social stuff. I get nervous about it, but I love interacting. And then I kinda go crazy.

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  5. Although possibly painful for you to write, Walt, I enjoyed reading every word of your post. I understand because I’ve made a recent discovery about myself that’s similar to yours. “How did I not put all this together before?” I asked. Nonetheless, I realize all of what I’ve discovered is not true across the board for me, neither has all the info come to light. But what I have learned will help me better understand and prepare myself for the future social/professional places I MUST be in, when I’d rather be fishing by a quiet stream with no one else around (except fish, hopefully).

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  6. Not painful to write at all, actually. I did sit on it for a while before clicking publish, though, because I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to do so. I’m still not sure, actually. I do regret posting a few weeks ago how I don’t like writing about myself, then turning around and writing about myself. But this was where my head was for the week. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  7. It’s weird, but I’m mostly extroverted (with some introvertial tendencies, and yes I did make that up, but in my defense it’s accurate) and have zero problems meeting new people. Now, put me on stage to make a speech in front of a group of as little as five and I freeze, gulp, stutter, stammer and painfully make my way through it, my face as red as a fire truck the whole time. No amount of rehearsing has ever helped. I like people. All kinds of people. I just don’t like being the center of attention. At all. I would think it would be the opposite, that an extrovert could get through public speaking just fine. I’ve only had to do it a couple of times, and every time truly sucked.

    Anyway, I’m glad you posted this. The whole introvert/extrovert thing keeps coming up in random conversations and I love hearing the different perspectives.

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  8. Well, you and I have got things reversed, it seems. That’s weird. I will trade with you, because your trick is much handier.

    So it’s not just me, then, it really is the topic du jour, every jour, isn’t it?

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  9. I hate Phobias they suck!! And I don’t that Social Phobia of yours didn’t get the memo that you are AWESOME and it needs to get the HELL OUT NOW!! Just give me the word and I’ll come over and kick that Social Phobia ASS!!!! 🙂

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  10. Great post. Found a lot of me too in it. But I think there is a another term that fits: social inhibition. Let’s see if I get it out right. It’s a long time since my undergraduate courses. I remember it had to do with practice. If you’re very good at something – maybe because you practiced a lot – an audience can be facilitating. If you’re not so good at something other people make it more probable that you will fail. Since you – and me – are not practicing meeting new people (going outside the comfort zone) we gradually lose that “meet new people skills”. Because social skills need to be trained like muscles. Now said that. I know what I should do: Meet new people every day. But I won’t do that in the same way I never do sports.I know it’s good for me but, really, I loath pointless repetitions. Wait, I sound like an asshole… 😉

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    • Yes, this makes sense to me. Social skills need to be trained like muscles…not doing it regularly ensures you will fall out of practice. And the bit about failing in front of an audience when not good at something…that’s what happens whenever I play golf. You’re definitely on to something here!

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  11. They always tell me not to worry. Small talk is easy they say. And then they invite me to make small talk, and I find out I’ve been invited to a leprechaun convention and they tell me, for God’s sake, don’t call them midgets or talk about the price of gold, or four-leaf clovers. So I talk about Celts frightened by little people hiding in caves and popping out, and about ancient giants. Does it look like rain to you, I say, and then there’s a thunderstorm. I think lightning may show where the pot of gold is. They’re insulted. How tall are you I say…ooops.

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  12. Reading your text was like reading something another me would have written in a paralell universe.. We are the exact same, seriously. I’ve never seen anybody else identifying with the ability to deliver a killer speech, like you described, yet at the same time suffer so egregiously in any other social situation! I hate to know you struggle with this, but still I’m glad I am not alone. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Hi Ken, nice to know I’m not the only one. Thank you, too! Surely there must be others, though, don’t ya think? We should all get together and have a party. A real awkward, uncomfortable party? 🙂

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      • ‘It’ll be fine’ (it won’t) ‘You’ll know everyone there’ (as if that makes it better) ‘it’s just drinks you won’t need to talk, just smile & nod’ (like some sort of marionette) ‘They’re really nice people’ (I’m sure they are – I just don’t want to meet them – can we do this on-line, just text – please?) To be called – ‘the quiet one’ ‘boring one’ ‘antisocial one’ like it’s a joke. Being bombarded with questions at a cocktail inquisition – Doyouwatch soaps/readgossipfashionmagazinesbeentothenewhair/nail/tanningsalons? Me – ‘No’ – end of conversation.- awkward silence ensues – leave stage right

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  13. *Don’t mind me, just a year late.*

    Just one inquisition: How did you finally overcome this social fear (because I STILL HAVE IT)? If you did at all, I mean to say.

    Um, does it coincide that I feel the same every time I’m at a social gathering? Hellooo, people, my phone distracts me from the fact that I AM ALIEN IN THIS WORLD. I AM AN INTROVERT. Don’t mind me, ignore me, walk awaayyyy.

    Ah, I suppose it doesn’t. I would call myself erratic—but not when it comes to socializing, when which I become totally pathetic. I observe the patterns and talk of the people milling around, planning my next move, and when I finally do the gathering is over. Simple as that.

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    • I can’t say I’ve overcome it. But I understand it better, and although it will always be a challenge, and I will always rewind my performance afterwards and judge it, I perform a little bit better each time and care a little bit less each time about how I performed. That’s kind of a pretty big deal, when you stop and give it some thinks.

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  14. Pingback: Social Anxiety Sucks | So let me tell you about my life

  15. Well, now, that sounds awfully familiar. I was relieved that my husband changed careers because that meant I wouldn’t have to socialize with people I barely know. That’s a terrible thing to say, to think. None of those people could ever know who I really am because there is no way I could ever be anything around them but incredibly awkward. But ask anyone I work with…I’m the life of the party. This space is comfy, though, ain’t it? All tucked away in my cave feeding my introversion and nicely avoiding my anxiety. Thanks for posting.

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    • Ah, you’ve found the most-viewed post on my whole little blog. This one has more views than any other, I guess because the topic gets googled. Most of the googlers don’t leave comments, probably because they aren’t bloggers using WordPress. I had to type googlers three times before the auto-correct would tolerate it. I don’t think it’s terrible to say what you said. It’s the way some people are wired. Plus if it’s terrible you said it, it’s terrible that I say it. which we can’t have, of course. This space is comfy now, for me. Clicking “publish” or “post comment” used to be stressful, but that’s just silly. So is the other stuff too, by extension. You would think. Something to think about. I would argue it’s not the same, but now I’m thinking that must be wrong. You’ve got me thinking. Post comment.

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  16. Pingback: Visual Narratives | digitaldesignsean

  17. Wow, I love the truthiness in this. Do you ever feel introvertish when it comes to writing or doesn’t it work that way? Is it only in person? Even extroverts have social anxiety except when it comes to children’s parties. They are worse than thistles, turning up to work naked and sunburn. So much social pressure because it’s not just the parents, it’s also the children who can shout loudly if they’re having a stink time.

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    • Eeek! It seems I never responded to this comment, which I came across again just now. I do remember seeing it back then, and shame on me for not replying, and so sorry. You probably don’t care anymore, but I will answer your question anyway. The short answer is no, I don’t feel introvertish when it comes to writing, or posting my writing. Perfectionism is the battle there, I hate to post something that’s not perfect. But then of course, what is perfect? It’s not the same from person to person. So learning that what’s perfect for me may be imperfect to someone else, and vice-versa, has been huge in terms of my being able to put my stuff out there. And gads, we were just talking about 6’s upcoming birthday party tonite, and what the plans will be. Not looking forward to it, but I will do it for her, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. 🙂

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  18. I’m the same way with all these hollywood stars coming out saying they have social anxiety. “Pfffsht F off you do…”

    Like you, I’m okay in my comfort zone. So as my therapist always tells me…. expand it !! It’s uncomfortable and awkward as hell but… its possible.

    ps. great job on doing the best man speech. Thankfully, my brother knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it so even though he named me best man, someone else got to do the speech.

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  19. Pingback: Effort ! – SOCIAL ANXIETY

  20. How do you think social anxiety interfaces with energy level? I find low energy makes it more difficult for me to socialize. I’m definitely an introvert. I’m even avoiding the phone nowadays. I can blabber for hours on my blog, however.

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