“You must have changed, because you definitely weren’t an extrovert when I met you.”
That’s what one of my friends said when I referred to myself as an extrovert. I knew why he was confused. I was the person who locked up or gave painfully general responses when asked simple questions like “How are you?” or, God forbid, “What’s on your mind?” I distinctly remember one time when a ministry leader asked me what I was thinking about and, in a moment of fight-or-flight, I just said “That’s a really personal question.”
For years I considered myself more introverted because, even though I fantasized about having a circle of friends, I was too scared to approach people in real life. If someone struck up a conversation with me, I’d assume they were just doing it to be nice and they secretly couldn’t wait to close with the good old midwestern, “Well, it was good to see you.”
Those assumptions are really unfair to people. I’ll get into that in a bit, though.
Since I was too scared to just talk to people, being around them began to stress me out. It stressed me out so much that I wasted all my energy on being stressed out and spent none of it on being in the moment. People became triggers for my panic attacks. I became the person who couldn’t wait to close with “Well, it was good to see you.” I truly, sincerely dreaded being around people. I worked at an amazing coffee shop with a fantastic customer base and coworkers, and yet I would sit in my car before every shift, whispering to myself, “You can do this. It’s just six hours.”
Maybe you’re a socially anxious person and you’re reading this because you can connect with it. Maybe you have a loved one who clams up around people, so you just want to understand. Or maybe you saw the headline and clicked on it out of curiosity. Whatever you’re doing in this article, I want to share three thoughts I’ve learned to utilize over the past few years.
1. Insecurity makes us think we’re better off alone
It’s so much work to put yourself out there. I was the kid who sat with adult leaders in youth group because I was afraid. Afraid I was enigmatic and exempt from being included in a group of peers. Afraid that everyone already saw me as beneath them. Afraid that if someone greeted me, it was out of pity. I carried this mentality with me to my first years of college, to my jobs, to my relationships.
It was two years ago that I discovered I was an extrovert. I started asking myself, “If I wasn’t afraid, would I want to go to (insert event here)?” And I started accepting invitations. Every time I engaged in conversation and lived in the moment, I left feeling more energized. It was a weird discovery because I’d been too far down in my insecurity to enjoy the company of others. It’s no wonder I was such a lonely person!
It’s not just extroverts who need people, though; we all do. Humans were designed to be relational, to build each other up. I’ve always been told this, but the voice in my head would come back with, “Yeah, well, they have each other. They don’t need you.” Why do socially anxious people listen to that voice? I’m not sure. I theorize that our brains look for every tactic imaginable to make us feel unwanted and invisible. That’s where the struggle comes in. No matter how much we want others, we believe others couldn’t really want or need us. And because of this, we believe we don’t need others as much as we need to avoid being hurt.
2. Insecurity makes assumptions about us
Everyone is real, except for me. Everyone’s input is worthy, except for mine. Everyone has already thought of this thing that I want to say. I am the exception to humanity.
For someone with social anxiety, being surrounded by others can prompt us to overanalyze every single thing we do—from our breathing patterns, to the way we move our fingers, to our vocal inflections (or how much we hate the sound of our voice). We might forsake basic needs like using the restroom or eating because we’re afraid to draw unwanted attention.
When I auditioned for a play in college, my professor at the time said, “Don’t be afraid to take up space.” As obvious as that might sound, it’s something that I frequently remind myself. I spent my entire life trying to shrink myself down as small and unimposing as possible, all the while admiring those with strong, room-filling personalities.
If you have similar thoughts, just know this: You are not the exception to humanity. Everyone else experiences insecurity and nervousness at one point or another and we’re all equally capable of love, collaboration, connection, and pain. In the words of Peter Parker, “Punch me, I bleed.” That applies to all of us.
3. Insecurity makes assumptions about others
This might seem out of place because social anxiety isn’t about others, right? It’s about ourselves, about not feeling like we’re enough. Right? Well, yes and no. No man is an island. Our perceptions affect the people around us, even if we’re blaming ourselves.
Our brain tells us that we feel worthless and stupid, but what it might not tell us is that we’re discounting other people as much as we’re discounting ourselves. This pill was hard for me to swallow when I went to therapy, so I’m going to share it with you: We don’t have the capacity or the right to assume what anyone is feeling at any time. Each person is a vulnerable, complex individual. Unless their intentions have been clearly stated, we can’t decide what their body language means or what they’re thinking about us. Many of the people I feared would reject me were instead rejected by me. At the time, I didn’t see the hurt I was inflicting on them.
I picture this: Our socially anxious brains have created a game with a set of rigid rules to follow—sugarcoat your concerns, cut conversations short, avoid sharing intimate moments and details—because in this game, we’re the inferior damsels in distress and there is no hero. The damsel must choose between running away or getting burned by the external world.
But here’s a secret: Life is not a game and our brains are lame game makers. People are worth taking chances on.
Yes, people can be cruel. They can and do hurt us. Most of us are socially anxious because we’ve been hurt. But it’s important to remember that every time we let our insecurity sit in the driver’s seat, we’re perpetuating the cycle of harming others and ourselves.