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Introvert or social anxiety?

It is not this Guide’s intention to mess with any strongly held beliefs you have about being introverted. But as I’ve worked with people over the past 10 years on their mental health journeys, it’s become evident that many people who see themselves as introverts, have actually learned that as a protective measure. It’s not that they want to be introverted, it’s that they’ve had some painful experiences in social interactions, they haven’t learned how to build relationships in a healthy way, and there’s a lot of uncertainty when interacting with other people. So it seems easier, at first, to identify as an introvert, as wanting to be outside of social interactions, as not needing them. But in reality, we just end up spending our time wanting people to like us, wanting to connect with people, wanting to control uncertainty about what’s going on in other peoples’ heads. 

I used to say I was a solo traveler, that I didn’t really like people. I only travelled alone and made that very clear. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom and started working on my mental health, that I realized how much time I spent craving connection and thinking about other people. When I was off on my solo trips, I would spend so much time in my head having conversations with other people. Once, on a tiny Japanese island, while I was walking all alone from the ferry docks into town, I saw another guy up ahead, walking in the opposite direction. We were the only two people on the road. He’d seen me from far away and I’d seen him. But I was completely caught up in a conversation in my head, so when he was close to me, slowed down, smiled and said “hello”, I just kept on walking. All I ever wanted in my anxious mess of a brain, whenever I was on my solo trips, was for somebody to remove all of the effort by talking to me first. And there, in the middle of nowhere, somebody did it. In English no less. I speak Japanese. It wouldn’t have mattered which language he used. But I was so caught up ruminating, so occupied by the fake world in my head than the real world around me, that I kept on walking in silent panic. 

I wasn’t an introvert. I just struggled with social anxiety.

A shelf full of brightly colored alebrije figurines in Oaxaca. Each individual spike is carved from wood and hand painted. Each porcupine figure is painted in blues and pinks and yellows and reds. There must be fifty spikes on each of the tiny porcupines.
Porcupine alebrije figurines in Oaxaca, Mexico. Are you trying to go through life like this?

A quick introvert or social anxiety questionnaire:

  • Do you spend time having conversations in your head with other people? Reviewing conversations you had, engaging in arguments about things that might happen or could’ve happened but didn’t?
  • Do you check if people are looking at you? 
  • Do you want people to give you compliments on your work and see you as successful?
  • When you travel, do you really hope that people speak to you? Ask you to join them? Ask you out on a date? 
  • When you research the trip, do you research places where you hope to meet people? Do you partly judge accommodations based on the types of people you want to meet there?
  • Do you find yourself hoping to meet the “right” people, but when you’re hanging out in a social place, like the lounge of a hostel, you always decide that none of the people there are really your type?
  • Do you avoid asking people questions because you don’t know the language and you don’t want to bother people or embarrass yourself?

If you answered yes to a few of these, maybe you’re not as much of an introvert as you believe. You sure are spending a lot of time thinking about what other people are thinking about you and wanting other people to engage with you. Consider that you may enjoy connecting more with people. Learning how to interact differently with uncertainty around communication and relationships is just a skill.

Paved road between lush green rice paddies. The tiled roof of a traditional Japanese farmhouse is visible in the distance.
Somewhere in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. If we meet now on a road like this, I'll say hello to you.

Exercises to tackle social anxiety

Here are three exercises you can practice before your trip or on your trip to help build up those social skills:

1. Ask shop staff for things you don’t need.

The simplest way to do this is go into stores and instead of walking around to find what you want, right away go and ask a person working at the store where something is. Absolutely you could find it yourself. But that’s exactly why we do this exercise. It’s not about waiting for a reason to talk to people. The brain will always think of reasons NOT to talk to people while you’re out adventuring around. So we do this exercise to learn that we can talk to people and take up space (for NO reason).

If the pandemic makes this difficult where you are, you can practice this exercise with your phone. Call up a shop and ask them for some piece of information about their shop. For some people, this might be even more challenging than doing it in-person.

2. Send emails, texts, and social media posts without rereading them.

In the ways we write and read things like emails or make an Instagram post caption, we’re teaching our brains. If we reread and rewrite and recheck our messages because we want to control what others think about us or we’re afraid of saying the wrong things and people judging us, we’re teaching our brains to be afraid of other people. We’re elevating the importance of other peoples’ judgments of us. We’re letting them control our actions. 

So how to approach this differently? Before you write something, identify two or three things you want to give. Be present as you write a sentence or two to give what you want to give. And immediately hit the send/publish button. It’ll feel so daring and wild! You might feel very anxious. That’s ok. Trust in your values. Be curious about giving.

A major fuel for social anxiety is our desire to get something from our interactions. As long as we’re trying to get control of something we don’t control (like other peoples’ thoughts), we create tons of anxiety. So this exercise is about learning to focus on what we give instead of trying to get. 

3. Take a non-judgment walk in a busy place. 

As we walk in the world, the superpowered labelmakers in our brains love to slap judgments on everything we see. These judgments and cognitive distortions can get in the way of interacting with people. We start to believe the labels in our heads instead of the reality around us. 

To start unwinding this, a non-judgment walk is a useful to begin seeing this machinery in our heads. Simply go for a walk in a busy place and notice how you judge and label people, places, and experiences. What kinds of judgments do you make? What triggers them? What assumptions do you make? When did you learn those assumptions? 

From understanding these judgments, you can begin to dismantle them and learn new skills in their place. Seeing the world and the people in it as they are, not as our brains assume they are, is a valuable tool to bring in our backpacks. 

To see an example of where you can then take this practice, check out this post on practicing loving kindness in Granada, Spain.

Curiosity and openness are valuable as we explore relationships and building connection. This isn’t about doing anything dangerous. In fact, learning how to be active with building social connection, helps us be less vulnerable. We’re not going to wait around to be taken advantage of by somebody that spots our loneliness and exploits it. We’re not going to put ourselves at risk because we crave any kind of attention. Learning how to proactively nourish our social needs in line with our values, puts us in charge of our relationships. 

Enjoy building your network all around our tiny island!

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1 thought on “Introvert or social anxiety?”

  1. exepriced this over the weekend. i took myh truck offroading and got stuck in mud. i waved over for help and whjile the people that helped where tellin gme what i did wrong i felt this pressure of blaming everythjoing. i blamed my gilffriend that she is upset and i cant enjoy my day. but i shook that off and leaned towards what a great expernice thi is to find away out of the mud and contuine on with my day.

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