I think my social anxiety comes from my fear of failing to maintain the image of a confident, happy and kind individual. I get anxious because I think my reputation balances on a razor’s edge with each social interaction. I don’t want people to know that inside, I’m insecure and shy.
My face is “on-stage” every time I’m engaged in conversation, and I worry that my insecurity will seep through to my facial expression, and I won’t be able to control it. The effort of maintaining that confident persona – including body language, facial expression and tone of voice – can be so difficult that I fear it’s only a matter of time before they know the truth – the truth that I’m socially awkward, boring and pessimistic; someone who wins friends through occasional bursts of enthusiasm when the topic of conversation strikes her fancy.
I’m blessed with an abundance of friends right now, but I’m terrified of losing them in an instant. I don’t want to be lonely again like I was in high school, and I carry that fear with me during almost every social interaction – perhaps to remind myself what’s at stake if I “screw up.”
I’m constantly self-monitoring. Am I smiling enough? Am I giving enough eye contact? Am I saying enough interesting things? When I do mess up, so to speak, the other person’s departure seems to confirm my fears that people like me only because of my sporadic confidence. I’m mistaking a “conversation-that-has-simply-run-its-course” for rejection. Do I really have proof that my friend ended the conversation in order to talk to those “more fun” people over yonder? No. I cannot read minds.
This is why Quiet, by Susan Cain, has made such an impact on my life. While I still struggle with self-acceptance, I am much more OK with being quiet and not saying random things to get attention as if every social acknowledgement is a nod of approval for being a cool, fun and lovable person. While I can’t make everyone absolutely enraptured by everything I have to say, I do know this: I am respected and loved for who I am even when I feel like the invisible one in the corner.
How do I know this? My friends, bless their hearts, have had to tell me dozens of times.
People are happy I’m there. People are aware I’m there. People see me there listening attentively, and they are glad that I am a part of the group – a diverse group of people with all different personalities: the listeners and the talkers; the serious and the goofy; the males and the females; the human beings who were each placed in my life for a reason. I serve a valuable purpose in each group of friends with which I surround myself. I’m heard when I need to be heard, and I’m silent when I prefer to listen.
Though talkative extroverts seem to get the most attention in our society, attention is not the equivalent of love and respect – and isn’t love really what I want? I think I want to be the “most fun” person in the room, but when I really think about it, I want to be loved for who I am rather than for who I can pretend to be.
I can’t say I’ll ever stop pretending completely – the pressure to do so is immense. However, I’ll make every effort to stop saying words just for the sake of gaining approval. People may ask me why I’m so quiet, and the voice of well-meaning grade school teachers may still ring in my ears, “She should talk more,” but I refuse to believe that quietness is a weakness. While failing to play the role of a pseudo-extrovert may be a roadblock to me becoming Miss Popular, I have nothing worthwhile to gain from pseudo-extroversion. Nothing.
On the contrary, I have everything to gain by being myself and taking advantage of the benefits of introversion. Both extroversion and introversion have their advantages. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, and both can accomplish many things worthwhile.