The Mind of a Socially Awkward Introvert...
Convincing a stubborn 170 lb English Mastiff to expend the energy it takes to jump into the back of a Jeep Grand Cherokee is, at the very least, inconvenient- and at most, completely exhausting.
I was experiencing the latter a few weeks ago when I bumped into an acquaintance I haven’t seen since high school.
Have you ever been walking through a parking lot amid a bunch of regular everyday cars, and suddenly notice the brightly painted shimmering Porsche (or other fancy sports car- I don’t know, I am not a car person) that makes all the other cars seem sad and dirty in comparison? This girl was the Porsche. There she stood, in all of her stunning, shimmering, glory- and I suddenly felt like the beat up old Cadillac my grandpa used to drive.
She smiled her pearly smile, we made small talk (ugh) and she invited me to a “get together” she was having with a bunch of her friends the following weekend. This is what was going down in my brain, “I look awful. Why is she still talking to me? What on earth would I wear to something like that? She just feels sorry for me. WHY didn’t I wear my good jeans and do my makeup today?!” Meanwhile, I am beginning to sweat, and looking for an easy out. “Hey, that sounds fun! I’ll let you know.” I scurry into my car, knowing that I have no intention of attending.
You see, I don’t get out much. Not only do I enjoy my time at home, for an introvert like me, it’s a necessity. Pair that with the sad, socially anxious meltdown displayed above, add one cat, the aforementioned mastiff, a dash of literary predilection, an obscene amount of coffee, and a pinch of the need to people please- bake at 350 for 35 minutes (or until your toothpick comes out clean) and you have the anxious, furry, coffee flavored cake that is my life.
When I was much younger, my favorite place in the world was the sprawling acreage in Southern Missouri, purchased by my grandfather, that my family lovingly referred to as “the farm.” My favorite thing about the farm, was that I could set out with my notebook, a pen, and my little red and white Jack-Russell Terrier, and walk forever without seeing another soul.
Usually, we’d end up by the creek. Me, leaning against a tree, listening to the water gently moving over the rocks, my little dog galloping happily through the leaves, looking for squirrels to chase.
These memories ground me. They are an anchor for me, when the hustle and bustle of daily life pull at the arms of this introverted girl, who wants nothing more than to soak up the peaceful silence, beauty, and awe of the world around her. I go back to that place in my mind, and it helps me to remember who I am, and why. Isn’t that what all of us want; to refill our cup, feel centered, and at peace? This brings me to my first topic:
What is an Introvert?
An introvert is someone who, very simply, gains energy from being alone. When we are able to surround ourselves with things that bring us comfort in our own company, we feel recharged and rejuvenated. Social interaction depletes us. We are able to socialize for a time, and some of us are even quite good at it. However, we will eventually need to find some time for ourselves to be alone. Think of it this way. Social interaction, for an introvert, is like hiking on a very hot day. You start off quite energized, but the longer you go, the more tired you become and the more difficult it is to keep your pace. Soon enough, you’ll need to sit down, take a break, drink some water, and refuel. If not, you will become exhausted. This leads me to my next point:
Social Exhaustion is a Real Thing!
If an introvert, like the hiker, doesn’t take the time they need to recharge (they plan too many social interactions close together, they are at a social event for a long period of time, etc.) they can experience what’s called social exhaustion.
It’s when, for lack of a better explanation, our battery dies. We’ve given too much, have nothing left to contribute, and if we’re not already curled up in a ball in a very quiet place, we soon will be.
Something as simple as the grocery store can trigger this for me, (although I am an HSP, so that definitely doesn’t help.) I am running around, trying to figure out what I need, trying to avoid as much interaction as I can so I have the energy to shop and the ability to focus, and before I know it my body aches, my mouth is dry, and all I want to do is crawl into my comfy bed with my cat and hide from the world for a few hours. Too.Much.Stress. Hallelujah for the grocery delivery options of the big city.
The Working Introvert
As introverts, some days we wake up and feel like we just can’t. Our energy is depleted, and dragging ourselves out of bed to get ready for work seems like a fate worse than death. In a lot of circumstances, the energy it takes for an introvert to work a full time job will drain the tank and constantly drive the need to refuel. This is why a lot of time off, for the working introvert, is spent at home in our own space. It’s also why weekend plans might be cancelled on occasion. It’s not that we don’t want to see you. It’s not that we’re “flaky.” It’s just that we need, I repeat, NEED to refill our tank if we’re running on empty. What’s frustrating is that we can’t always anticipate this need. Know this, and try your best to be understanding if we need to reschedule or cancel plans.
It’s not you, we promise. It’s us.
What an Introvert Isn’t
I was at a dinner party a few nights ago, and after socializing for a few hours, one of the guests across the table from me said, “You are much more extroverted than your husband.” I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. This was based solely on the fact that I’d been engaged in most of the conversation, and cracked a few jokes. I smiled and chose not to correct him, for the sake of my sanity. However, for the non-introverts out there, there are some things you should know…
*Being an introvert has nothing to do with being shy or quiet. Are some introverts shy? Sure! However, introversion is based solely on the fact that we gain energy from being alone. What this means is that you probably can’t accurately pick out an introvert in regular social situations.
*Being an introvert doesn’t mean we spend all of our time at home, like some troll in a cave, until we’re forced to interact with the outside world. Lots of introverts enjoy being social, to an extent.
*Being an introvert doesn’t mean we dislike other people. Really. It doesn’t. Just because we gain energy from being alone, doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the company of others. Again, it all comes back to moderation.
The Socially Anxious Introvert
When I was in high school, I was riding in a car with a few of my friends. One of them suggested we go to a party that they’d heard about through the grapevine. Everyone agreed, and I was suddenly overcome with intense panic and dread.
What if nobody at the party likes me? What if I do something embarrassing that ruins my reputation forever? What if there’s nowhere to sit and I have to awkwardly stand there for an hour? What if someone makes fun of my outfit or hair or general appearance, etc.?
I rolled my eyes and made up some excuse about how it probably wouldn’t be any fun, and that I needed to get home anyways. Inside, I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. My heart rate sped up, and I could feel my palms begin to sweat. That is one of the first instances I can recall where my social anxiety really prevented me from doing something that I actually wanted to do.
Social anxiety is the intense fear of social situations. According to Goodtherapy social anxiety can affect people in the following ways:
Intense fear of social situations.
Self-consciousness on steroids: Kicks up persistent worries about being judged by others, a preoccupation about what others think.
Replay: Constantly reviewing interactions with others and negatively critiquing one’s performance.
All knowing: Believing others know one is anxious, either via noticing physical symptoms or by mind reading abilities. And believing one will be judged harshly for it.
Avoidance: Since social humiliation is obviously right around the corner, why go there?
Introversion is a trait. You are born either introverted or extroverted, just like you are born with different eye or hair color.
Social anxiety is a complex disorder that arises from a combination of genes and environment. Anxiety tends to run in families, but it takes the right combination of circumstances to bring it out in most people.
Both introverts and extroverts can be socially anxious.
Introversion and social anxiety often unfairly get lumped together because the extroverted world equates someone who may be quiet with someone who is afraid. Although not synonymous, In a way, introversion can feed social anxiety.
When you feel rejuvenated from being alone and you have a fear of social situations, it’s the perfect storm for creating that cave dwelling troll we talked about earlier. The cave feels safe. There are no people in the cave. The cave makes us feel energized and happy.
That is, unless you throw in a dash of depression.
That will completely botch the warm, fuzzy, hermit-y vibes. As an introvert who also struggles with social anxiety and depression, I can tell you that this triple threat can cause soul sucking damage.
When a social event is on my calendar, my anxiety causes me to stress (this word doesn’t seem adequate enough) about it up until it occurs. Sometimes, I can’t handle the stress, and I cancel altogether. The problem with this is that if I am not social for long periods of time, I get depressed and tell myself (in my own mind) that “normal” human beings should be social.
If I do attend the event, my anxiety drives the need for me to keep up appearances, so I am usually VERY good at playing the role of the “social butterfly.”
On the outside: I am cracking jokes, and telling stories. I can even be quite charming (or so I’m told).
On the inside: This display causes my energy to drain even faster. I am scrutinizing and tearing apart every single word that comes out of my mouth, and as time goes on, my body begins to hurt, my head feels fuzzy, I get headaches, etc. By the end of the night, I come home and collapse into bed and swear I’ll never leave the house, ever again.
Another problem with this cycle, is that if you choose to avoid a lot of social outings, eventually, people stop inviting you to things. This feeds the depression. So we’re left with these two options:
Fight through the anxiety, attend the event, deal with the self scrutiny, and feel exhausted after.
Don’t attend the event, feel comfortable and safe at home, risk offending others or coming across as anti-social, feed the depression.
I’ve found it’s all about balance. Honestly, one or two outings a week is enough to keep my depression at bay, and still leave me feeling energized without the anxiety of an overcrowded schedule.
With social anxiety, I find that the more I push myself, the more I am able to do. This doesn’t mean I won’t still be anxious about socializing. What it does mean, is that I will not always become so paralyzed with fear that I refuse to leave my home.
With the depression, pushing myself to socialize a bit helps me feel accomplished and helps to beat back the looming darkness. I also take an antidepressant that has literally worked miracles for me. It always kind of lurks in the corners of my consciousness. Some days it can sneak up on me before I ever see it coming. However, I am happy to say that I have many more good days than bad.
Anyone who struggles with anxiety and depression should know that there is hope. With time and proper treatment, it gets better.
To Sum Up
Introverts are as diverse in characteristics as any other group of people. The only common thread that ALL of us share, is the need to recharge from social events with quiet time. That is it. As the Myers Briggs test will tell you, we can be social or non-social, thinkers or feelers, reserved or outgoing, turbulent or calm, etc. We are an extremely assorted community. Labelling an introvert as “shy” or “anti-social” is not only incorrect- but can also be offensive.
Take the time to get to know the individual, outside of their label.
Also, if you are an introvert who struggles with anxiety and depression, I can tell you first hand that you are not alone. These struggles are as rampant in the introverted community as they are anywhere else in the world- maybe even more so.
Another saving grace for me was being asked to hop on as an assistant admin to The Mind of an Introvert page. Kris, Amanda & Robin reached out to me during a time when I felt like the world was crumbling down around me. I found refuge and support amidst this brilliant, witty, and like minded group of people. That page is a refuge for introverts, especially those that struggle. I encourage you to check it out, if you haven't already.
I promise future blogs will be geared more towards motherhood/introversion. I just felt like it was important to give you a bit of insight into who I was. If you're going to hop on board this crazy train, the least I could do was give you fair warning. :-)
If you’re struggling with depression and anxiety or you are contemplating suicide, you are not alone. Please reach out to someone who can help at: The Suicide Prevention Lifeline.