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The Anxieties of Introversion

Have you internalized negative messages about introversion?

Nick Demou/Stocksnap
Source: Nick Demou/Stocksnap

Are you an anxious introvert? I suspect many of us are.

I don’t suggest that introversion automatically leads to anxiety, nor do I mean to downplay anxiety disorders. I know anxiety is a real and serious condition that can’t be solved with facile advice.

But I do believe that some of the garden-variety anxiety introverts suffer comes from internalizing negative messages we have received our whole lives about introversion. In other words, our anxiety is manufactured by a reaction between external and internal forces.

Some to consider:

1. We feel like we’re doing it “wrong.”

There are all kinds of messages out there telling us that an extroverted approach to life is “better,” “healthier,” or “more productive” than our introverted ways. We’re told that if we don’t work the room at a party, we’re doing it “wrong”; that if we don’t get out there and network hard, we will “fail”; and that if we spend too much time in our heads, we are “depressed.”

Even when we know, intellectually, that these messages are mostly misguided,** it’s hard not to take them in at an almost cellular level. They’ve come at us our entire life—and the introvert-positive movement, with messages countering them, is pretty new.

The solution is to consciously and frequently push back on these messages in our own minds. I recently attended a party (and had to talk myself into going the entire drive there!) where I did a terrible job meeting most of the many cool people who were there. However, I did a great job at partying introvert style. I had two in-depth conversations, resulting in two new Facebook friends—and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a win. So I remind myself of that over and over to reinforce the information. We can define success for ourselves, then we must reprogram ourselves to believe it.

2. We offend people just by being ourselves.

I shared my last post, about being sick and yet overwhelmed by the interest and concern of others, on a Facebook support group for my disease. I thought it might be helpful to other sick introverts. The group administrator took the post down without explanation, and when I griped (admittedly publicly, not my best decision), she threw me out of the group. (Yeah, I was booted from a support group. I must be the worst person in the world.)

I can't swear she removed the post because of the content, but I have my suspicions. After all, how many of us are made to feel that our boundaries are an insult to other people? How often are we subjected to guilt trips when we need time for ourselves? How many times have we had to explain ourselves to people whose approval sometimes feels conditional on living their way?

The solution to this is not easy since I see the offense taken as the other person's problem. The best we can do is be explicit with people about our introversion, and then develop a very thick skin—which is easier said than done. But you know that your introversion is not about liking or not liking individuals. It’s about self-care and making sure you don’t get overextended. (Because this is what happens when we do.)

I also find that reaching out to people more often when I am in the mood makes it easier for me (probably them, too) when I need to say no. Don’t always wait for people to come to you. If they always have to do the asking and accepting or declining is always up to you, they may eventually grow to resent your introversion.

3. FOMO is real.

I would love to banish FOMO from my brain forever. Of all the gazillion things I see other people doing, I know I would truly enjoy only a few of them, and only for a little while. And yet I still have moments of searing FOMO, feeling like everyone else is living an AWESOME life and I am a toadstool. Do you know what I mean?

My solution is to drag myself to some of those things I imagine I would enjoy if only I would go. Sometimes I do have more fun than expected—but not all that often. I’ve gone to plenty of events where I stayed for less time than I spent dressing for them. And so the next time FOMO hits, I ask myself if whatever is happening is really worth putting on makeup for. (That's what works for me; you'll have to come up with an equivalent for yourself.)

Another solution: When I see something I know I would enjoy, I commit to going and go. The trick is not talking yourself out of it when the time comes. You need to prove to yourself that you are capable of having fun under the right circumstances, and you know what those circumstances are. Go by yourself, or invite a friend. Take control of your fun.

4. We try to be someone we’re not.

Introversion is not the same as social anxiety, but I believe that we can become socially anxious by trying to be different from how we are and then feeling like failures if we don’t do it well. For example, we go to a party, work the room (as we're told is necessary), feel weird and awkward, maybe talk too much or not enough, then leave the party feeling like a capital-L loser. Is it any wonder the next invitation that comes along makes us anxious?

Self-knowledge and self-acceptance are the solutions to this. We have to know who we are, what our strengths are, what brings us joy and give ourselves permission to be that person.

The first thing I did when I arrived at that party described above, aside from fighting the urge to flee, was to approach a woman standing alone and say, “You look like you don’t know anyone here either.” We had a nice chat that helped us both ease into the party when others joined the conversation. I felt good about myself, she seemed pleased, and it was nice all around. Then, after two substantial conversations—one with a new person, one with someone I’d met once or twice before—I left that party (early) feeling successful.

Allowing yourself to be you is an anti-anxiety exercise. Remind yourself that you may be a lousy extrovert, but you’re one hell of an introvert. Succeed at that and remind yourself as often as possible of those successes.

Also, remember: If you give yourself permission to leave a social event when you are ready, it’s a lot easier to say “yes” to the next invitation.

**While thinking a lot is not bad for you, ruminating—chewing over the same thoughts or problems without ever arriving at a solution or destination—can lead to depression. And networking is important for professional and often personal success, so you’re wise to find ways you can do it comfortably. I have found that getting on the phone sometimes, much as every cell in my body objects, is good for both personal and professional relationships, and that face time with real live human beings on a regular basis is good for me. Your results may vary, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

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