I enjoy dining out and exploring new places, and I’m fortunate enough to have a significant number of meaningful friendships with people whom I can call up in the middle of the night, who will have my back if push ever comes to shove. And contrary to the idea that it’s harder to make new friends as an adult, I’ve also made quite a few of these relationships in my 30s.
On the surface, those who watch my life but don’t know me well insist I’m extroverted.
Not so. I prefer to reserve energy for people in my inner circles, socializing one-on-one. More importantly, I’m excellent at entertaining myself and can easily lock myself in my apartment for days, having the time of my life. I guard my Me Time with the territoriality of a wolf. I am, for all intents and purposes, proudly introverted.
I’ve simply found the happy balance between the human need for connection and the way I’m wired to need loads of alone time.
But that wasn’t always the case. I knew the kind of company I loved but felt there was something wrong with me, so I’d beat myself up for not partying with the crowds. That meant I simply wasn’t present or making the most of the experience. That was me, uncomfortable as an introvert.
And, I’d get so anxious about how I’d perform in social settings, that I’d either avoid them or run the harshest critique for months. That was me, with social anxiety.
So let’s get one thing clear. An introvert is not synonymous with someone with social anxiety–or a misanthrope, meaning someone who hates other human beings.
What is an introvert?
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of London’s Oxford Circus or Manhattan’s Times Square. My extroverted friends love the buzz; they’ll become more incandescent and magnetic. The idea, however, gives me the creeps when I think about how overwhelmed I’ll be. As an introvert, I’ll shrink.
Similarly, the open-plan office where anyone can interrupt us or look over our shoulder is a nightmare.
Introverts recharge best on their own or in select company. The John Donne poem “No man is an island” also applies to them. They are proud homebodies who love beautifying their houses, tending to their pets and plants, and cozying up with the people they love. They love deep, meaningful conversations and loathe small talk with a passion. That, to introverts, is a weekend well-spent, whether indoors or outdoors.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is a fear of social situations, because we believe we aren’t competent enough and that everyone is evaluating every minutiae of our performance. So we avoid these situations, leading us to feel more helpless about our social skills. When we actually get ourselves in said situations, we judge ourselves mercilessly.
Imagine being so lost in your own head, you don’t pay attention to what’s going on. Naturally, you know you’re not at your best. This spirals into cruel taunts about your social competence; the vicious cycle feels overwhelming. As you replay every microsecond of each interaction on loop, you don’t ever want to socialize again. That’s social anxiety.
How to tell the difference between introversion and social anxiety
1. An introvert stays home because they love being at home. A socially anxious person out of avoidance.
The introvert is replenished and rejuvenated by their home and what they do within it. It is sanctuary, nourishment, and inspiration all at once, and they feel free to socialize outside anytime they want or to invite trusted folks in. Instead, the person with social anxiety imprisons themselves at home.
2. Socially anxious people constantly judge themselves, unlike introverts.
An introvert who’s comfortable in their own skin doesn’t second guess themselves when they are speaking with others, freely having deep and meaningful conversations. They might sometimes think about what they said after the event, but they don’t get obsessed with it and can see the highs and lows in their “social performance.” While a socially anxious person can still have such conversations, they are always judging themselves, on the lookout for every mistake they’ve made, whether real or imagined. And they can ruminate over it for a long time.
3. Introversion is a personality type, whereas social anxiety is a mental health challenge.
Introversion is a personality type— meaning the way you’re wired— that can be leveraged to help you shine. Because, why seek a personality transplant? That’s akin to being possessed by an alien, as I explain to my clients. Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a cage. It debilitates you. It is a recognized mental health challenge that depletes your energy, confidence and time.
Can you both be an introvert and have social anxiety?
Yes. As an introvert, we tend to overthink because of the way we’re wired.
In a social situation, the introverted brain takes the long acetylcholine pathway to process information, so a stimulus travels through many different parts of the brain. One of these is the right frontal insular cortex, the part of the brain that notices errors and details, which might make us self-conscious about possible mistakes. It also travels through the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that evaluates outcomes.
This explains why introverts have a busy mind, considering different outcomes. We also draw strongly from our long-term memory bank when we speak. An event is never just an event for us.
But being vulnerable to social anxiety is not an excuse to be a victim to that, letting that limit our lives.
You can also be an extrovert or an ambivert, and still have social anxiety.
How to heal your social anxiety – and embrace your introversion
1. Start socializing like an introvert
You have the power to choose where and when you’d like to socialize. Perhaps it’s during a weekday when it’s quieter, or when you can find the middle ground with your extroverted friend who also loves coffee and cake. When you network, set the goal of having deep conversations with 1-2 people rather than speaking to 50 strangers.
And maintain your tech boundaries. This means turning off all social media notifications, limiting who goes into your phone book, and muting most forms of direct messages unless they are from your inner circle or for professional reasons. And know that it’s okay not to have to answer everybody’s comments or pings.
2. Know that it gets easier, until it becomes muscle memory
This is the crux to healing from social anxiety. It’s painful when you start. You doubt yourself. Trust the system. It’s about sticking to proven baby steps, not an overnight miracle. Some of the most amazing conversationalists I’ve met have told me they grew up with crippling social anxiety. If they can do it, so can you.
Also, know that extroverts don’t necessarily have it better. For many, the idea of entertaining themselves, or being alone with their own thoughts, can scare them. That’s what you’re already an expert at!
3. Schedule in time to recharge
The introvert hangover is real. Instead of seeing it as a cause for shame, use it to your advantage. The time will pass anyway. Make a list of things that help you to reset (when overwhelmed), recharge (to fill up your proverbial battery), and rejuvenate (to breathe new life), and do these during your introvert hangovers.
For me, I know that when I’ve socialized more during busier seasons like birthdays and special holidays, I will have to schedule an entire day to sleep and feed my body with lighter food. That is the yin to the figurative yang of going out, enjoying the company and experiences. Experiment to discover what your nervous system can handle, and plan accordingly.
4. Learn the (very simple) rules of the game
For starters, get used to the fact that small talk is part of life. It’s like going to a fancy restaurant: you don’t gobble your food up, and you’ll have to sit back as somebody brushes crumbs off your table armed with a special dustpan.
But what you can do is make small talk less small. Instead of talking about the weather, ask questions like how someone knows their host, what’s the best thing that happened today, or what they’re really looking forward to today.
Other rules to keep in mind: People aren’t watching your every microexpression or hanging onto every word you utter. Chances are, they probably have a little anxiety too. Most of us do, especially because there’s things happening in the background of our lives that exhaust us. If you burn your energy by obsessing needlessly, you lose out in the long run because you don’t trust yourself to be in social situations. So, loosen up and drop the disclaimers you use in conversations— when your brain picks them up, it automatically puts you in an inferior stance.
Importantly, being excellent in social situations is not about uttering smart (or even snarky) comments or nosily prescribing suggestions like I Told You Sos and “Don’t do it next time.” It’s about being present.
5. Ground yourself, and take care of your mind and body
When anxious, the fear center in our brain hijacks us. It’s primitive, and only exists to protect you from threats. But this fear center has no idea if this threat is real or imagined. Meaning, if you visualize yourself walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night, hearing footsteps behind you, your fear center doesn’t know you might actually be sitting on your sofa in your comfy pyjamas.
An important thing I prescribe to every client is to learn to get your higher brain back online using breathwork. Simply take three deep breaths, making sure that when you breathe in, you are filling your belly up with air and not sucking it in. And when you breathe out, you slowly empty your body of air. If you’re breathing correctly, your attention will be so focused on the air entering and leaving you, you’ll not have any resources to judge yourself or overthink.
This is something to practice all the time— ideally first thing in the morning and last thing at night, so you know how to calm your brain and body down when anxious. Think about it this way: You don’t wait till you’re eyeballs-deep in debt to start learning how to save money. Likewise, regulating your brain starts now.
6. Inspire yourself with the situations you’re already competent at
Even at the height of my social anxiety, I knew I was always good professionally and at presentations. Somehow, they didn’t trigger any anxiety. In the same way, there’ll be things you already shine at. Figure out what they are, or ask your trusted circle for feedback. You’ll learn that you’re not as helpless as you think you are, and that’s one less thing to worry about.
7. Shut down all stories of victimhood
It’s one thing to understand what mental health difficulty you’re going through, or how you’re wired. It’s another to use these as an excuse for things to stay the way they are, because in actuality, we calcify into worse versions of ourselves over time when we do nothing. So don’t simply obsess about the nuances and intricacies of social anxiety or introversion— or of your Myer-Briggs type— when you’re actually playing victim. Commit to doing something about it. Harness your strengths, and mutate challenges into superpowers.
7. Start afresh
Perhaps it’s way less threatening to start your healing journey with total strangers, whether in a networking group or in a different location. This way, you might feel less judged or pressured to perform. Sometimes, our existing friends may unwittingly keep us in our proverbial boxes, always talking about how we feel challenged by a certain debilitation.
You can spin this as a challenge to make friends as an adult. And writing from the other side, I can tell you, that’s extremely possible, incredibly freeing, and quite possibly the best gift you can give yourself.