by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
There are a certain number of people who label themselves as 'shy.' They experience times when all they want is to be alone, they are sometimes afraid of certain social situations, and they generally feel like they can't connect with people.
This is a double-edged sword in that it feels good and right, yet contributes to a lot of loneliness and self-judgment. People who are shy often feel left out and begin to cope in a variety of ways, ranging from secluding themselves at home to excessive substance use.
Being shy is something of a cloak for two underlying phenomena: anxiety and being introverted. These are two very different things, yet they are frequently confused.
First, let me tell you briefly what an introvert is. Being an introvert means that you recharge your energy by spending time alone. After a busy week of being with people or dealing with stress, introverts might enjoy an afternoon reading a book or taking a quiet, contemplative walk by themselves. I'm an introvert, and after a long week of being with people and talking, I enjoy time to myself - it's necessary. This includes quiet time alone or going out and sitting in a social situation watching people. I'm frequently seen out and about alone - this is the introverted side of me recharging my batteries. Introverts often think before they speak and, therefore, appear reserved or even standoffish. I've been accused many times of being intimidating as I'm sitting quietly. (People who know me know I'm anything but intimidating.)
Being an introvert does not mean we cannot socially interact or talk publicly (I talk all the time). It doesn't mean we don't have friends or we are antisocial. It doesn't mean we aren't interested in others or that we don't care (I spend a great deal of time with others, both professionally and socially). Being an introvert doesn't mean there is anything wrong with us, either. It simply means we come to the world in a way that requires us to get our energy back through quiet time.
People who don't understand they are introverts sometimes begin to think there is something wrong with them because they don't feel socially connected, or they feel people push them away. They begin to get down on themselves. Introverts can also become anxious if they've experienced too many episodes of wanting to connect but not feeling that they can.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. Anxiety is about fear, and there are a good number of people who are afraid of being judged and/or being rejected because, deep down inside, they feel they are undesirable and no one will ever like them. This level of fear causes anxious people to withdraw and pull back. This is different than re-energizing. They pull back in self-hatred or shame and they cope in a couple of different ways, either by literally secluding themselves or by using various substances to excess to dull down their anxiety and feel more confident.
Here's what to do. First, for introverts, you need to understand who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. You want alone time because that's how you get your energy back. You have to design your life in such a way that you have time for yourself. For example, if you have a big party to go to on a Saturday night, you need time to yourself on Friday night or Saturday morning rather than declining the invitation because you are too exhausted. Then you'll feel like you've got the energy you need to show up and enjoy. Also, you have to stop thinking there is something wrong with you. You have to inform people about how you come to the world so you aren't misunderstood. Let your friends/family know what and why you do what you do. When we have friendships/relationships, we contract with others. If we are giving the message that we want time alone, many people will try to honor that. If they don't understand what we are doing, they may go too far and pull away. Introverts experience this all the time when they say, 'People don't call me or ask me to parties anymore.' It's not because you aren't fun or they don't want you; it is because they are fulfilling the social contract that you've established about your alone time.
For people suffering from anxiety, you need to understand what the root of that anxiety is and begin the process of re-scripting any stories you have about your worthiness. Whatever pain you experienced from an earlier rejection, you have to look at that and deal with it, then get back out there. Anxiety is the anticipation that something will go wrong. When you stop worrying so much about what will go wrong, or you don't care as much about being rejected (because we've all been rejected), your anxiety will decrease and you'll show up in a more confident way. Confidence is one of the most attractive traits!
We are who we are. We have to understand our strengths and figure out how we are getting in our own way and not getting what we want. We are in complete control about how we appear to others and we have to find optimum ways of doing that. We can control our fears and no longer feel controlled by them. If you aren't sure whether you are an introvert or reacting to anxiety, contact a professional to help you sort out what is happening for you, then get strategies to work with where you are coming from.
Michael Raitt, M.A. LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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