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 on the playground, 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 those who 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 introverts will talk less. That’s why so many people equate introversion with shyness. For those 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 didn’t always know I was an introvert, but I certainly was one.
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 envying the popular girls who had no issues talking everyone’s ears off.
As time went by, I slowly added Social Anxiety to the mix. Unfortunately, I assumed those feelings came with being introverted, so I told myself I had to just “deal” with it.
I know exactly the moment that Social Anxiety got a hold of me. I was in the second grade, and I asked the girl sitting next to me to be friends. 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 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. I didn’t have any extracurricular activities to either practice my social skills, as I was training to be a professional tennis player at the time. Let me tell you that trying to be a professional athlete is an extremely isolating thing to go through.
I might as well have been walking with the word “outcast” on my forehead.
After 5 years of being home-schooled, traveling the world alone, and 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 the highest honors, completed 3 internships before 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 when I entered the workforce. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be promoted simply because I knew. I had to interact with colleagues and upper management to prove to them my worth as an employee. What’s that all about?
Here I was in my mid 20’s, and I was socially anxious in every area of my life. I didn’t have any close friends. I didn’t put myself out there to connect with people (I was scared they’d find me boring). The only light in my life was the relationship I had with my boyfriend (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. I enjoy nothing 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.
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 was done being debilitated and 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.
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, everyday embarrassment paid a visit. Yet, 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, 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’d 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.
Whenever 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.” And if I was scared 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 the socially awkward home-schooled wannabe professional tennis player who traveled the world alone can change, so can you.
I had everything going against me to overcome my Social Anxiety, but I kept forging forward, one actionable step at a time. It’s easy to remain frozen in place if you’re only looking at the big picture. Try to break it down into smaller pieces that are much more manageable to swallow. Keep in mind the end goal, but don’t focus so much on it because it takes a million tiny steps to get to it, so look right in front of what.
What’s the next right step you can take today, tomorrow, to stop being a socially anxious introvert?
Together we can overcome it.