A man parasailing off of a mountain

Is introversion social anxiety?

Many people confuse introversion with shyness— the hallmark of social anxiety. Introversion and social anxiety may coexist, sure, but they’re not one and the same. At a very basic level, introversion is an aversion to social interaction, whereas social anxiety is a fear of it.

Nature vs nurture

One thing to consider when comparing the two is that you’re born with one and develop the other. Social anxiety may be a byproduct of a mental illness you’re born with, but the illogical fear of judgement is often learned and reinforced over time.

On the other hand, introversion is just a way of thinking. Introverts’ brains work differently, but they’re not hindered. They don’t keep quiet during meetings because they’re afraid of saying something wrong– they’re just processing what they’re hearing. They don’t fumble nervously during speeches– their “ums” and “uhs” are placeholders while they think out what they want to say. Introverts aren’t worried about not being perfect, about saying or doing something stupid or not fitting in. They’re only worried about how much social energy they have in their reserves.

Introversion doesn’t need a treatment

I’ve experienced both social anxiety and introversion and they the way they make me feel is very, very different. Social anxiety, for starters, indicates mental illness. For some it’s full fledged social anxiety disorder, and for others it accompanies another illness (general anxiety disorder, PTSD, etc.). It comes with symptoms– the feelings of distress during social interactions the constant worry of being judged– can severely impact a person’s life. Socially anxious people may start to go out of their way to avoid doing because their fear of judgement is so intense. It can manifest as physical symptoms, like blushing, trembling or shortness of breath.

Whether it’s medication, talk therapy or as part of another mental health issue, social anxiety can– and should– be treated. Introversion, however, is simply a personality trait. Introverts don’t suffer like those with social anxiety because stimulation tires us out. Introversion doesn’t need to be treated because it’s not an illness.

FOMO

I’ve talked before about being a social introvert. I know it seems to counter everything I’ve disclosed about myself, but I enjoy going out and doing things and seeing friends. It’s just that sometimes, the very thought of it drains me. This is why I have a serious problem with FOMO (fear of missing out).

The eternal struggle

Forget Hamlet’s existential crisis; ”to go out or to stay in?” is the real question. There are some times when I just can’t. It’s been a long week, I’ve had plans accounting for most of my time and I just can’t bear any more, so my weekend plans consist of doing nothing. But, even when that while I’m soaking up every moment of alone time, I can’t help but channel Mindy Kaling (“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”). What am I missing out on? Shouldn’t I be having adventures and Instagramming brunches and getting my party on, like everyone else?

Make it count

Sometimes it’s not worth it to push yourself. It’s easy to be persuaded to “just come” even though you really and truly don’t want to. Every introvert knows that feeling– you’re sitting amongst your friends, thinking, “I’m tired. Can I go home now?” while they’re having the time of their lives. And it makes you feel miserable, and your friends say you look miserable and all you can think is, “I told you so.”Sometimes, though, giving into the FOMO is good. You just need to be in the right headspace.

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to make plans for a Friday evening. It had been a while since I’d gone out, though, and I thought “why not?” What I didn’t consider at the time, however, was that it happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. A few friends were going to a hockey game and suggested we meet up afterwards. The idea of going out later than I had planned, alone, and meeting at a crowded bar on the busiest pub night of the year was just too much. So, I politely passed and opted for a night to myself instead. I had a solo jaunt around the mall and had just come home, exhausted from the crowds and lights and loud, trendy music and settled down to a late dinner before a bath with a good book. And that’s when I got the text: “We’re going to the bar. You should meet us there.”

Here’s where my FOMO kicked in hard. It was going to be late, I was going to have to go alone, the streetcar ride would be long, it would be too crowded and we wouldn’t get a table or have space to move around. But…my friends were going to go out without me. The internal debate took a while, but I decided it was something I wanted to go and, more importantly, I had enough time to prepare. I used the hour and a half before I was to meet them to plug in my charger to get just enough energy to make it through the rest of the night. I ate my dinner, I watched a bit of tv, took my time getting ready and took an Uber instead of a long, noisy, crowded streetcar. And you know what? I had a great time!

Tips for the office introvert

It can be tough out there for the office introvert. The office is, by nature, a social place where people constantly stream in and out and talking. Whether you’ve got a private office, a semi-enclosed cubicle, or—gasp—the dreaded open concept set up, chances are if you’re in an office, you’re getting a lot of stimulation all day every day.

These environments certainly work for lots people and, in fact, are necessary for many jobs to be done effectively.  But they’re also incredibly taxing on people who need some peace and quiet to get their work done.

I, shock of all shocks, am the typical office introvert. Here are some things that help me get through it.

Own your introversion

You’re an introvert, and that’s ok! Letting the people you work with know that can go a long way. One of the most common pieces of feedback I received early in my career was, “You don’t speak up in meetings.” As any professional introvert has likely heard, I needed to prove not only that I was listening, but also that I had something to contribute. At the time, I was on a team full of talkers. I mean the type that doesn’t filter a single thought, whether it’s fully formed yet or not. When my manager asked me to speak up more, I told him that I was always fully mentally present, but couldn’t get a word in edgewise when I had a thought. From then on, he committed to making sure I had an opportunity to share when I wanted. He made space for my voice.

Invest in a pair of headphones

I work in cubicle in an office. It’s placed at the most crucial intersection of the whole floor—the point where the front door, two meeting rooms and the printer area converge. And I. Hear. Everything. When there’s a knock on the door when someone forgot their pass, when a meeting lets out and then continues directly in front of my desk, when someone has problems with the printer and dashes back and forth between it and their desk repeatedly. I hear it all. And it drives me crazy. That is, until I bust out the trusty headphones I keep at my desk and play something calm and mellow. Using them as earplugs, without any music is also encouraged.

Work from home

If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, even once in a while, take advantage of the opportunity! Of course, not all jobs can be done from the home office (or couch), but for the ones that can, the opportunity for silence is golden. While my job requires me to be in the office most days, I’m able to work from home when I need to. When I do work remotely, I find it refreshes me. Working in my pajamas is a plus, but having no noises, no people, no interruptions to contend with– that’s enough to push the reset button on my stimulation limits.

Find someone who gets it

If you suspect a coworker is an introvert, they probably are. And let me tell you—having someone to commiserate with when it all gets to be too much can help a lot. In my previous office, our set up went beyond open concept. The four members of our team each occupied a corner of one giant cubicle. I spent all day every day facing three other people, including some serious talkers. When the third colleague and I first discussed our mutual introversion, it made me feel so much better knowing someone else understood. We swapped knowing glances when the extroverts were doing their thing and basked in the silence when they weren’t there. These things are so small but they made me feel, well, less crazy! It helps to know you’re not the only one cringing at the loud conversations or feeling drained by the noise.

Chances are, you’re not a lone introvert in a sea of extroverts—so make your presence known and things should get a little easier to deal with.

A giant Scrabble board spells out "you've got a friend in me"

Resting introvert face

At first (or second…or third…) glance, introverts might look, well, rude. When we’re out in public, chances are that the looks on our faces are less than inviting. We seem to be scowling, appear cold or even come off as rude. But please know this: just because we don’t have the friendly countenance of someone who wants to engage with the world doesn’t make us angry monsters (not all the time, anyway). Behind the resting introvert face is usually a pretty friendly person and a very good friend.

The cold shoulder

I understand completely. You see someone reading on the bus and politely smile as you sit down next to them, only to be met by a cold glare. Or, someone comes into your shop and as you ask if they need help, they brush you off. How rude, right? We’re not trying to be.

Being inside our own heads all day means we’re, well, inside our own heads all day. If we’re in deep thought, we’re not paying attention to what’s happening around us. I’m not going to smile at you on the subway not because I’m being rude, but because I’m working on actively shutting the world out. I’ve got my head down, looking at my phone. Or I’m deep into a book. Or I’m focusing on the music I’m playing and thinking deep thoughts (like, “what’s the answer to this problem I have?” or “what should I cook for dinner tonight?”).

Friending

We’re not the best at making friends, but I’d hazard a guess that we are the best at keeping them. Once you get to know an introvert and that introvert lets you in, you’re in. The initial stages of any relationship with an introvert can be tough. For one thing, we hate small talk. We have precious few words and a limited amount of social energy to give throughout a day, we just hate to see it wasted on discussions about the weather. We’d much rather get straight to the good stuff and discuss a shared interest or trade funny stories.

Once you’ve drawn that introvert out of their turtle shell, you’ll probably find that they’re quick to establish a deep and lasting connection. My favourite way to enjoy time with my friends is one-on-one or in very small groups; my social energy lasts a lot longer when it’s divided by fewer people. This, coupled with my affinity for listening, leads to a more intimate friendship and a closer connection.

My social circle isn’t vast, but it’s held together by a solid bond. I’m just thankful for the friends who introduced themselves to the quiet girl.

 

A landscape of mountains and behind a river

Climbing Career Mountain

Being an introvert is not a detriment to your career. It is, in fact, possible to be successful in business while being an introvert. We just have to convince the rest of the world.

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain talks a lot about the fact that the world favours, and is set up for, extroverts. It seems there’s a need to be charismatic, outspoken and sociable to climb the corporate ladder. But introverts make some of the most inspiring leaders.

Born to lead

When I say “CEO,” you might envision a charismatic person, who’s more than happy to talk about their company anywhere and everywhere. And while extroverts can certainly make great leaders, it’s important to remember that introverts are built to embody leadership.

We listen. Our natural tendency to be quiet while others speak means we hear a lot. By listening more, introverts can hear what their colleagues, employees, clients and customers are saying. We hear all of the ideas in meetings and workshops—including the diamonds drowning in the rough.

We think. Introverts are much less likely to jump into an idea headfirst. No, we need to mull it over, weigh out any pros and cons, come up with a plan and act accordingly. We may take a bit longer to get to the action part than extroverts, but when we’re ready to act or speak, it’s always well thought out.

We’re calm. Our tendency to think carefully before every word and action means introverts are often more prepared than an extrovert may be. We’re ready to face the tough questions and probably have the answers written down (on paper or in our memories). People always mention how calm I am when faced with a crisis at work. It’s not that I’m not worried or have everything in control—it’s that my brain takes time to process what’s happening and all of the impacts. I don’t have time to panic, so I walk away, contemplate and try to come up with a solution.

Building a network

They don’t say “it’s not what you know, but who you know” for nothing. Without a doubt, networking is a crucial part of getting ahead in your career. Getting to know people in your field can be extremely helpful in finding out about opportunities, having someone vouch for you. It can also be extremely painful for introverts. All those events, all that small talk—it’s enough to drive one insane! That’s why I don’t network. Instead, I make lots of sincere connections to construct a network around me.

When I work with someone, I make a personal connection with them. By being friendly, professional and personable whenever I deal with anyone, I earn their trust. Very quickly, you start to get a feel for how a person prefers to interact—do they want quick, short and to-the-point responses every time, or are they always up for a quick laugh. Commiserating with an overworked colleague or always having the answer for someone who’s new to their role goes a long way in creating a relationship.

Introverts are much better in one-on-one situations than they are working a room, so use that to your advantage. I’m not saying you should put on a façade and pretend to care just to please everyone you deal with. What I’m saying is that if you’re an introvert, you’re probably pretty good at developing a deeper connection with colleagues, clients or customers. And who would you rather have in your corner—a name on a business card or someone who truly trusts you?

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There’s nothing wrong with me

Ok, I’m sure there’s plenty wrong with me. What I mean is: being an introvert is not an illness. We might not say much and we may be chronic plan cancelers, but we’re not just anti-social Debbie downers who sit in the corner of a crowded party, frowning. Well, usually.

Being quiet is ok

As Susan Cain discusses in her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts,” we’re told from the get go that introversion isn’t “normal” or “good.” It’s important for kids to learn how to socialize and know how to cooperate and work together, but it should also be emphasized that it’s ok for a kid to play alone or find a quiet spot to read. As a child, I would often call on the other kids in the neighbourhood and we would all play together and have a blast. But I also loved going to my room—my little sanctuary—and playing on my own. It allowed my imagination to run just as wild as it did playing with a refrigerator box with my friends, but it was slower. Calmer. Quieter.

The pros of introversion

Sure, constantly being in your head, getting annoyed easily by external stimulants and always being exhausted by socializing doesn’t always make things easy for the common introvert. But there are also many things that make introverts pretty special.

We make great connections. Because we tend to have fewer but closer friends and favour one-on-one time, the connections we make can be amazingly strong. We’re naturally good listeners and happy to let a friend talk out a problem. And because we’re so observant and reflective, we’ll probably give you excellent advice. It might take a while to gain our trust and affection, but once you have it, natures can make us some of kindest people who care deeply for the people in our lives.

We have great ideas. It should come as no surprise that introverts are introspective and when we make space for ourselves, it often means making space for deep thinking and creativity. Rather than saying everything that comes to minds, our thoughts go through an intense internal filter and come out polished. Pay attention when an introvert decides to speak up,  because it’s always meaningful.

Be proud of not being loud

Over the years, I’ve also had many people in my life who simply don’t get it. These are the people who ask “what’s wrong?” when I go quiet in a group or tell me to “suck it up” when I say I can’t handle social activity. But thankfully, I’ve also surrounded myself with people who either live it themselves or understand that while I have my share of problems, introversion isn’t one of them.

A teacup next to a water drop in the shape of a heart

Finding that someone (when you don’t want to talk to anyone)

I have a date tomorrow and I’m already dreading it. Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed looking for love. But the idea of going out after a long day at work, meeting a stranger and engaging in small talk—lots and lots of small talk— is less than my ideal evening (leftovers and Netflix, if you must know). Maybe I won’t like him, and this whole exercise will be for naught. Or worse—what if I like him and suddenly have a lot more socializing in my future?

Online dating: The good

It could be Tinder, Match, OKCupid or Farmersonly.com, but if you’re single and looking, you’re probably looking online. If you’re an introvert and looking, this probably makes it easier on you.

For one thing, you don’t have to go out to meet someone. You don’t have to endure a loud club full of loud people all shouting at each other to be heard. You don’t have to mingle at an event or party. You can simply log on from wherever you want whenever you want. You can search for your soul mate in your pajamas and that’s pretty great.

You also don’t have to talk to anyone and that’s even greater. Swiping left and right is a quiet experience, where I can learn about people without having to expend any social energy. It’s up to me if I want to send a message or read one that comes in. As an introvert, I like to think about what I’m going to say and find that especially important when talking to potential suitors. Sure, it’s technically hiding behind the internet, but it gives me some space to read, reflect and respond. There’s no pressure to go from zero to “on” immediately.

Online dating: The Bad

“You have to put yourself out there. It’s a numbers game. Just get out and meet people.” Thanks, well-meaning extrovert, but what you think is a pep talk is really our worst nightmare.

For many of us, meeting people while we’re out socializing can be pretty rare. Which is why it’s been so easy to say “I just haven’t met anyone.” Now, with 338934 dating apps in our pockets, there’s no excuse. And you have to consciously put yourself out there (well, on there); you don’t just bump into the person of your dreams on an app.

Choosing a date based on some photos, a brief profile and possibly a couple of messages also means you’re less likely to get a feel for the person right off the bat. It’s hard to get a vibe from your phone screen. This means you’ll likely end up going on more first dates than you normally would. First dates that are a minefield of small talk, awkward silences, loud environments and other such natural threats to the introvert.

Online dating: The “Whatever”

I think we’ve already established that dating is not an introvert’s favourite pastime. But let’s embrace technology for at least allowing us to socialize on our terms.

I won’t lie and say I haven’t been figuring out ways to postpone tomorrow or worrying about how drained I’ll be. But as long as I don’t open with, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’ve been dreading this all day. Shall we order?” I think it’ll be ok.