I spent a lot of this morning trying to explain to a friend what it’s like to be an introvert and have some social anxiety. It was a little frustrating, but I think helpful for me to clarify what it was that I liked and disliked about social interactions. However I think that many times extroverts tend to think that everyone wants to be social more, and that everyone feels the same benefits of being social that they do, especially because when I mention that I have a hard time socializing, people often try to give me advice about what to do differently or about how to change my behaviors to get more friends and be happier.
So first of all, that’s major things #1 to not say to an introvert. It’s also important not to assume that they have the same goals in socializing as you do. Many introverts are probably already aware that people have a variety of different goals when they try to socialize, because the predominant social experience is not necessarily friendly towards introverts and so they’re learned from experience that other people approach social interactions differently from the way they do. I’ve seen lots of lists of what it’s like to be an introvert or how to interact with an introvert, but I don’t think I’ve really ever seen an in-depth first person perspective on what it’s like to have social anxiety, be awkward, and have difficulty socializing. I’d like to try to put it into words so that those people that I’m friends with, and those people who want to be friend with me (or other introverts) can have some conception of what it’s like and perhaps not give suggestions that sound terrifying and horrible to us.
It’s been said before many, many times but it bears repeating: for introverts or those who are a bit socially awkward, we need time to recharge our batteries. Constant socializing sounds like a nightmare to us. People take energy. Now I didn’t think this required more explanation than that, but it might. WHY do people take energy? Well when you’re around other people you have to be spending a lot of your brain power trying to make sure you’re following proper social conventions, not stepping on any toes, censoring yourself appropriately, and adjusting how you behave to whoever you’re around. Some people are very good at doing this naturally with no thought. For those of us who aren’t, it’s exhausting and really fairly stressful.
In addition, for myself and probably for other introverts, social experiences can be anxiety provoking. I tend to take responsibility for all the happenings in my relationships. If something goes wrong, I think that it is my fault. This means that when I’m trying to talk to people (particularly people I don’t know well) I continually feel like I’m screwing up, making mistakes, and making myself look like a fool. Add in to this the fact that I’m kind of nerdy, a little weird (even odd looking: I have a buzz cut and only one ear pierced as well as a fairly odd sense of fashion), very intense about subjects I care about, very bad at small talk, and fairly intellectual, and I spend most of my basic social interactions feeling like a freak.
Another element of being somewhat socially anxious is that I have very different aims in socializing than a lot of people do. I often don’t just want to shoot the breeze with people. I am an extremely intellectual person, and in general I want relationships that allow for extreme emotional openness and good conversations. This is really off-putting to a lot of people. It significantly limits the number of people that I actually enjoy socializing with, and limits the types of interactions that I enjoy. This is REALLY different from a lot of other people. While many people might enjoy getting a few beers with a group of friends and just chatting, that sounds relatively horrible to me unless I know these people fairly well. When I’m just starting to get to know people, I want to be in a quiet and calm environment with something else going on so that conversation is not the only focus. I want there to be someone that I know very well around so that I feel like I have something to fall back on. Traditional avenues of socializing are not often open to me, and so I have to work doubly hard to find places that I actually want to be.
My interests are also not common. Trying to find someone you can engage in a conversation about the philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not easy. Many times I have to feign interest in what others are talking about despite really not giving a rip. This is not very fun, I only do it to be polite or to try to invest in relationships that I care about. I do try to be interested in things that my friends are interested in, but that’s not easy either. And so overall, I often like being on my own a lot better. I get to set my own activities, think and write about the things that I like, be in control of my own schedule and setting, I don’t have to try to anticipate someone else’s needs or wants or figure out any social rules or expectations, and I don’t have to make sure I’m continually pulling myself out of my own head. I like having control over my own schedule and my own actions, and this becomes significantly harder with others around. Yes, I get lonely. Yes I like to see people. But oftentimes the negatives of socializing outweigh the potential benefits. Often I’d rather be lonely, at least until I get to know people well.
None of this means that I don’t want to get to know you. None of this means I don’t want to see you. It means that it’s hard and it’s scary and it’s difficult and I am not always good at fighting against those things. It means that if you do a little more of the work on the front end of a relationship to get to know me, you’ll probably get a lot of bang for your buck. And it also means that when you try to tell me to adjust how I socialize by just brushing off bad interactions or by talking to more people or by seeking out people with similar interests, you’re telling me things I’ve either already tried, or things that are nearly impossible for me due to anxiety. It has taken me years of practicing skills to get to the point where I can have a proper conversation with someone I don’t know well. Telling me that if I simply try harder or adjust my attitude or smile more things would be easier is ignoring all of the hard work that I’ve already put in and ignores the needs that I have of my social interactions.
When I mention that I’m feeling lonely or having a hard time, there are great actions that you can take. You can offer to hang out with me one on one (if I know you well). You can offer to organize a small-ish gather of people I already know. You can just listen. You can text me or contact me online, where I feel more comfortable. You can ask if anything’s on my mind (because likely something is). You can suggest that we do something comforting and chill, like going to the humane society to play with animals, or taking a walk around the conservatory, or if you’re far away then google hangout. But if you’re friends with an introvert, the best advice I can give to you is to listen. We all have our reasons for shying away from people, and they’re all probably a little different. We all need different things, different amounts of space, different types of care. Ask us what we need. Ask us to hang out. Listen. I want to be your friend, but I might be a little more high maintenance sometimes. In return, you get a whole lot of thoughts and a whole lot of care, as well as a shit ton of loyalty. See the lovely lady in the featured pic? We took that picture 4 years ago. Since then I went to college and got a new job and dated a bunch of people, and she’s still my bestie and now we live together. I’ve known her for 15+ years. I like to keep my friends around 🙂