There are thousands of phobias and fears in the world. Most of us only have one or two, and they are as individual as we are. I once knew a woman who was petrified of cotton balls. I’m not joking. I witnessed one of her employees trap her in her office by simply putting a cotton ball on the office doorknob. All it took to free the woman was to remove the offending fluff ball. What’s the scariest thing of all for me? Social interaction. As I conclude this month’s frightening series on authenticity. I’m going to talk about my biggest fear and how social anxiety is different from being introverted or shy.
What exactly does it mean to be an introvert?
If you’ve read a few of my posts, or follow me on social media, you probably know that I’m an introvert. “Introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits. Their disposition is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia, or even avoidant personality disorder, but many introverts socialize easily; they just strongly prefer not to. In fact, the self-styled introvert can be more empathic and interpersonally connected than his or her outgoing counterparts.”
I don’t view my introversion as a problem. It’s just who I am and how I relate to the world. It really doesn’t interfere with life. I’m fortunate to be well-matched in my family. We all prefer a quiet night in, to the hustle and bustle of the social scene. There is something that does interfere with my life, though.
Social anxiety has become more of a buzzword lately. Some people think it’s the same as being shy or akin to being introverted. It’s more than that, though. And it can actually be crippling. Perhaps the most difficult thing is the effect it can have on relationships. Many people who suffer from social anxiety decline invitations so often that eventually their friends stop asking them to get together.
The root of social anxiety, fear of scrutiny and judgment by others, can impact your writing as well. Whenever I publish a blog post or a book, I experience anxiety similar to what I feel in social situations.
To give you a peek at what it’s like to have social anxiety disorder, and why it is so difficult to live with, I am going to walk you through a social experience in my shoes.
First, we make plans.
Someone invites me out for coffee or there is an event I want to do such as a mushroom foray (when a bunch of people hunts mushrooms in the woods). In this initial stage, I’m excited. I want to do this. This excitement quickly turns to dread as I realize that I’ve just committed to a social event. In the days leading up to the event, I think about it constantly. Is there a way out of it? Will I regret backing out? What will I wear? What do I need to know?
Do I have directions and reliable transportation? If I’ve never been there before, this can become a point of fear. What if I get lost on the way there or take a wrong turn and arrive late? This fear of tardiness means I almost always give myself twice as long to get there as I actually need. It’s something that frustrates my family members.
When I arrive, I’m petrified. What if I say something stupid? Or no one talks to me, because that’s embarrassing, too. Usually, people are very kind and I have a good time once I loosen up. Then comes the worst part…
The Post-Social-Activity Blues.
It starts on the drive home. I mentally rehash everything that I said. As I do, I parse out the things that could have been taken the wrong way, things I would say differently if I could do it over. I always find something. Then I replay those “mistakes” over and over in my mind. Why did I say that? I should have clarified…I must have sounded like an idiot.
These are the roots of my social anxiety.
I love the idea of meeting new people. I’m passionate about learning new things. It’s the feeling that I am making a fool of myself that really gets me. I know that this is going to happen because it always does. The real zingers are things that I never seem to be able to let go of. These conversations play out in my mind years later.
Before you write to me with advice about how to deal with this, let me tell you that the whole thing is irrational. You can logically deal with a rational problem, but when it’s irrational, there’s no reasoning your way out of it.
Social Anxiety Disorder, Defined
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association currently defines social anxiety disorder as follows:
- A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
- Exposure to the feared situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack.
- The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive.
- The feared situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety and distress.
- The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 or more months.
- The fear or avoidance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., drugs, medications) or a general medical condition not better accounted for by another mental disorder…
The disorder is very common,
Social anxiety disorder has a lifetime prevalence of 12%. It typically has onset by teenage years and is often chronic. For me, it began a bit later in life. My ex-husband was emotionally abusive towards me. When he began to have affairs, his excuse for leaving me home all the time as he went to social functions was that he was embarrassed by me. He said I had no social skills. He said some very cruel things that still linger in the recesses of my memory. While I’ve been able to overcome much of the damage he did during those years, I could never shake these things.
How do I deal with social anxiety?
I am really fortunate to have a wonderful husband, with whom I love doing things. He makes me feel completely safe. And I have a couple of other friends who get me out of the house with no problem. These positive experiences build a strong foundation of healing.
I also do things that don’t require intense conversation. The focus is on an activity (such as a mushroom foray or an educational conference). I can often get through those events without saying much, so there isn’t anything to mentally dissect later on. These types of things build on the foundation.
There are things I just don’t do, such as baby/wedding showers, those intimate gatherings where about 10 women sit around and make small talk while playing party games. Uh-uh…not for me. I don’t know if I will ever completely feel comfortable, socially, but it’s important that I don’t completely give in to it. I stayed home for a couple of months after having a joint removed from my foot. It was terrifying to leave the house at that point. I actually got sick to my stomach just thinking about it. That taught me that I have to find ways to be social without feeling overwhelmed.
In order to ease the anxiety I feel whenever I hit publish, I schedule my WordPress posts using a scheduler plugin. That way, I don’t have to think about it as much. I know my posts will be published and even posted to my social media accounts without me even having to turn on my laptop the day they go up. Sure, I still feel those butterflies when I realize a post is up, but it’s not nearly as bad.
Have you ever experienced social anxiety? How did you deal with it?
What Are YOUR Thoughts?
I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!
I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at Amazon.com:
I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.
 “Introversion.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/introversion.
 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
 Ruscio AM, Brown TA, Chiu WT, et al: Social fears and social phobia in the USA: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Psychol Med 38(1):15–28, 2008