Once in a while, I’m afraid to leave my bedroom or my house. Sometimes I sit very still in my bed, listening for voices, footsteps, doors closing, or anything that might indicate that it’s not safe to leave.
Luckily, I don’t have agoraphobia, nor is my life in immediate physical danger if I do decide to leave. I’m afraid to leave the safety of the walls of my bedroom because the idea of having to interact with humans can be terrifying.
I am an introvert, but that’s not why I stay in my room for hours on end. Like about 20 million other Americans, I have social anxiety disorder, which means I have a fear of social situations.
This is not the same as introversion. Introverts are people who draw energy from within themselves, and therefore they prefer solitary activities instead of social gatherings. People with social anxiety prefer solitary activities because we are frightened by social gatherings. Basically, the stress that someone might feel when performing on stage is what I might feel when having dinner with a friend.
An introvert goes to a party, and then leaves early because they are exhausted from external stimulation. A socially anxious person, like me, goes to a party and then leaves because they are too self-conscious, or afraid of engaging in conversation. Only after trying to talk to other partygoers, freaking out while wondering what others will think of them, failing to have a successful conversation, giving up and feeling like shit, and then pretending to wait in line for the bathroom in order to have an excuse for not talking to anyone. (Yes, I’ve done this before. I know it’s pathetic.)
My nervousness stems from a fear, even paranoia, of being judged. When confronted with a social situation, like a party, I tend to have an internal dialogue that goes something like this:
OK, let’s try talking for once. Man, this is hard. This person must think I’m boring. Quick, say something to fill the silence. Fuck, I don’t know what to say. My body language probably gives away my discomfort. Perhaps I should unfold my arms. That’s better. But it feels so weird. I still have nothing to say. All I can do is nod my head. Man, why do I suck at this. Why can’t I just be a normal person who can just go out and have fun and have a fucking conversation? I suck, and I’m sure everyone here thinks I suck, so I’m just going to go home.
As you can see, I’m excessively worried about what the other person thinks of me. This worry fuels my anxiety, which makes me too nervous to interact normally, which makes me even more self-conscious, which only increases my anxiety.
I don’t remember when exactly my anxiety started, or why I became this way, so I like to think that it’s just the way I’ve always been, naturally. When I was in elementary school, they put me in speech class from kindergarten until second grade because I literally did not talk. Ever. I certainly knew how, as the smartest person in my classes, and I always read above my reading level. Talking was just something I didn’t do unless I needed to answer a question that couldn’t be answered by yes or no.
When I got older, I learned to have conversations the way that someone would learn to tie their shoes or solve a math problem: by practicing. I would observe conversations, take notes, and practice in my head. Every future conversation was a test, and I would grade myself on how I did. It all sounds silly, but for someone as socially inept as I was (or still am), learning how to have a conversation is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
I can feel anxious at any time, or with anyone: while walking down the street, sitting in class, being at work, talking to my family, hanging out with friends, talking to a stranger, buying something at the grocery store, ordering at a restaurant, sitting on the metro, or drinking in a bar. It comes in different degrees and forms. Sometimes I can maintain the illusion of an extrovert while doubting myself inside my head. Other times I might not be able to say a word.
Often, I’m good at starting conversations: the “hi how are yous” and the “what do you dos” and the basics, but past that point, things begin to get difficult for me. I run out of things to say, the person moves on, and consequently I feel inadequate. I remind myself that at least I tried, while wondering why I even try.
Because those of us with social anxiety know how social interactions make us feel, we try to avoid them. This explains why I stay in my room with the door closed for many hours on end. Sometimes I might go hours without eating, drinking water, or using the bathroom in order to avoid running into roommates. They’re cool people, but I’m willing to temporarily sacrifice physical comfort in order to avoid psychological discomfort that comes from something as simple as, “Hey, how's it going?”
As you can probably imagine, having this anxiety disorder has affected my ability to form relationships with people. Even after living with roommates for months, for example, I may barely get to know them at all. Ever had that strange roommate who just stays in their room all the time and never talks to you? Yeah, that’s me. Sorry.
Or perhaps you’ve had a coworker who just keeps to herself all the time and barely talks to anyone. Again, that’s me. As a result of my anxiety, I’m sure I’ve missed out on many personal and professional relationships and opportunities.
Since I have difficulty making friends, there have been years in my life when I had none at all. Not only did it make me feel like a total loser, but it has contributed to depression and suicidal thoughts. Also, dating is out of the question. It’s so anxiety provoking that the very thought of it almost makes me want to cry. In fact, the only relationship I’ve ever had ended because of my anxiety.
What I really want people to know is that I do apologize, but also, I really can’t help it. Social anxiety disorder is a real, incredibly painful condition. Even though you might think I’m rude, a bitch, that I don’t like you, that I’m stuck up, all because I choose not to interact with you, it’s important for you to understand that it’s not about you. If I don’t seem interested in talking to you, it’s more than likely just because of me and my issues.
You may know someone like me. They may decline your invitations to go out. They might be really shy in public. They may not talk a whole lot. They’re probably a little awkward. Please don’t make fun of them, make them feel ashamed, think less of them, or totally dismiss them as potential acquaintances. They’re having a really hard time just being who they are as it is. Give them a break, and try to meet them where they are. Don’t be offended if they decline your invitation to a social gathering. Talk to them one-on-one instead of in groups. Do check in once in a while to see how they’re doing. Don’t make them feel bad about keeping to themselves. Socially anxious people may seem strange, boring, or just awkward, but know that they are fighting internal battles that you will never know of.
I also want to people to know that those of us with social anxiety are actually really awesome people when you get to know us. We can be funny, insightful, joyful, intelligent, creative, and so much more. If you’re patient, understanding, and respectful of our condition, we might just feel relaxed enough around you to open up to you, and you might just make a new friend.