Here are some things that cause me a great deal of anxiety:
Ringing phones, ringing doorbells, being introduced to people, figuring out what to wear when I leave the house, driving in cars with anyone except immediate family, saying my name out loud in public (my voice kind of garbles it all up,) expecting guests (this includes the Orkin man or any other repair/service person), planning parties, figuring out what to use as my profile picture, going to the grocery store, the pool, the beach, the library, Starbucks, the post office, the DMV, the gas station, the park, the gym, my kid’s athletic events, parent-teacher conferences…
You get the idea.
If you have social anxiety, you’ll be reading this list muttering to yourself (because you will likely be alone), check, check and check!
On the other hand, here are some things that don’t cause me any anxiety at all:
Being alone. Reading.
I’m pretty sure that’s it.
And while I have, for the most part, managed to manage my unreasonable fears—I will answer the door if the Orkin guy knocks on it (probably)—I have never been able to sort out if I’m a legitimate introvert, a socially stunted freak or some funky combination of the two.
Fortunately for me, I recently spoke with a Northwestern University professor of clinical counseling who was finally able to explain the difference.
People with social anxiety, she said, struggle with the fear of others’ perceptions of them. People who are introverted are recharged by being alone. The first is (or can become at a certain point of dysfunction) a pathology, while the second is merely a character trait.
So my love of being alone is not necessarily a problem, but my panic about interacting with other people is. And while the two may appear to generate the same behavior outwardly, the motivations for that behavior are quite different.
An introvert needs to be alone like a tree needs sun and soil. She is nourished by alone-ness, she feels calmed and energized by it, and she looks forward to it joyfully. If she can’t be alone for some certain length of time, her skin begins to crawl, and she becomes angry and defiant, depressed, un-cooperative, sad and mean.
Someone with social anxiety may also choose to be alone—not because she enjoys it, but because it is (infinitely) easier than being with others. When alone, however, she feels lonely, and sad that she has succumbed once again to those murmurings in her head that tell her she will do/say/be something so irreparably stupid that it’s better to just never leave the house.
So why does it matter?
For me, it matters because, as it turns out, I am a funky combination of the two. Understanding that, I can begin to discern whether it’s fear that guides any particular decision (in which case I can push past it), or fulfilling the needs of my soul (in which case I can honor it.)
Knowing what drives us helps us get to where we really need to go.
So the next time the phone rings and my heart leaps up behind my eyeballs, I hope I have the presence of mind to ask myself: are you really craving this moment of solitude right now, or are you just afraid you’ll say something ridiculous?
And if it is the latter, perhaps I can victoriously answer, “Hello! Errricker Leibrrnadtt at your service!”
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography