When I was a kid, I was very outgoing. According to my mother, I would talk to strangers on park benches (with her anxiously watching, I’m sure). I would take the lead role amidst my friends and boss them around in dance productions. In fifth grade, I took the lead female role in our church play, and in early sixth grade, I tried out for the school play—wanting to perform in front of the whole school (though I didn’t get picked)!
By the end of middle school, being called up in front of my grade to accept a spelling award turned me redder than a tomato and embarrassed me for years.
So what changed? Simple puberty and hormones? An influx of new classmates to judge me? Growing into a sense of social awareness?
I don’t know if I’ll ever know why I changed, but what interests me more now is what that change truly means.
My fear of being in front of people made high school into hell, with every upcoming presentation turning me into a wreck begging my parents to homeschool me. It affected my choice of college, since I wanted big classes where I wouldn’t have to participate. It then made much of my college experience incredibly difficult, as I inadvertently (and so naively) chose a college with a party atmosphere that required constant socialization to be normal and which I worked desperately to avoid. And it makes choosing a job now into a challenge because almost every entry-level generic job is all about customer service.
I always assumed I had some form of social anxiety. While I could force myself into giving presentations or making phone calls, it always brought on pounding heartbeats and scorching blushes. And when I have some upcoming social event approaching, my mind fixates on it over and over again, running through every possible scenario and preparing escape plans. Classic anxiety.
Yet recently I’ve begun to think it may be more complicated than that. In theory, anxiety should be eased (if not ended) by repeated exposure to the source of that anxiety. But in my job, where customer service is a constant factor, I started feeling worse about work the longer I did it. I wasn’t anxious, per se; I knew what to expect and how to handle it. But I was annoyed, I dreaded it, I hated it. It has prompted me to switch to a different position at work with no customer service, and I can’t wait.
The point here is that I didn’t feel anxiety about social interaction, I simply felt… aversion. I’ve always believed that anxiety is often a case of things we want to do, but can’t because of overpowering anxious feelings. Maybe that’s a simplification; maybe “aversion” is simply another type of anxiety manifesting itself.
But I started to wonder if maybe it was simply an inherent trait: introversion.
Introverts derive their energy from the self, while interacting with others drains them. Extroverts derive their energy from others, and find being alone boring and even insufferable. Being an introvert is not a bad thing, though our society is run by extroverts and prizes extroversion in every arena (who will speak up to answer the question? Who will throw a party to celebrate an achievement?). It is simply a state of being, a natural preference, as much a part of who you are beyond your control as any other personality trait. And while introverts can act extroverted when they wish, and extroverts can spend time alone (and there is no doubt a continuum, as in everything), each type has their desires… and their aversions.
You see, I came across this link (and I’ve seen other things like it): http://www.tickld.com/x/30-problems-that-only-introverts-understand. And while I don’t necessarily identify with everything on the list, and tend to think I’m more of a hermit than even most introverts, this list tells me that some of the things I feel aren’t necessarily social anxiety—they’re introversion. And other people, who would not qualify themselves as having mental health issues, feel them too.
Does it really matter? Is there a difference? Could I have both? No, probably, and yes.
All of this long, self-indulgent exploration is just to say that I feel the way I feel, and I should choose to do and be what I want to, and not feel “weird” for doing so. Not all of my feelings are a potential disorder that I might need to medicate; some of them may just be who I am. When I feel like an issue is affecting me in a particularly damaging fashion, then I can address it—but if I’m happy, and healthy, but maybe a little strange (and antisocial), that’s okay. I think. For now. 🙂