I used to feel bad about being alone. I felt like there was something wrong with me. That I should be hanging out with friends like everyone else. But when I was with people I felt just as bad because I was so uncomfortable. There was no way for me to win.
When I realized I had social anxiety and it was something that could be treated, I thought, “Great. I’ll fix this, then have lots of friends and never be alone.”
So I spent months and years working on overcoming my social anxiety through cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and meditation. I made real progress. It was like taking the red pill in The Matrix and seeing myself and the world from a totally different perspective. I’d still feel nervous in certain social situations, but I wouldn’t let my nerves stop me. I learned how to battle through them.
Eventually, I felt like I was more or less over social anxiety. Yet I still found myself alone most of the time. I still felt like something was wrong.
It was then that I realized I was an introvert and had social anxiety—two separate things. Introversion, you are born with. About half the population are introverts (gain energy and recharge by being alone) while the other half are extroverts (gain energy and recharge by being with others). It doesn’t mean that introverts can’t be with people or won’t enjoy being with people. It just means that after being with people, introverts need time alone to recharge.
Social anxiety is different from introversion in that it’s developed. Social anxiety is a fear and discomfort in social situations, which usually worsens with avoidance. Both introverts and extroverts can feel social anxiety, though it’s probably more common in introverts because they are predisposed to spend more time alone and avoid social situations that would cause discomfort. But not all introverts have social anxiety. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, does a great job explaining introversion and the benefits thereof.
Once I learned more about introversion and its distinction from social anxiety, I realized I like being an introvert and wouldn’t want to be any other way. I love spending time alone to read, write, and watch movies. In fact, as a writer, I need time alone every day because if I don’t get any writing done, I feel terrible. So now when I am alone, I no longer feel like there’s something wrong with me. I am at peace with my solitude because I know it is necessary to both my mental and physical well-being.
At the same time I am aware that, even for introverts, it’s not healthy to always be alone. I’ve overcome my social anxiety to the degree that I can go out and talk to people when I need to. Then after, I can return to my solitude to recharge. It’s a balance I’m still trying to figure out. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m avoiding a social situation because of introversion or social anxiety. An easy way to find out is this: 1) If it’s something you deep-down have no interest in doing, then that’s probably introversion, so skip it. But, 2) If deep-down, you want to do the thing but are afraid to, that’s social anxiety. In which case, you should question your fears and try to fight through them.
Learning about introversion and social anxiety and the differences between them have helped me understand myself. I am a happy and proud introvert working to overcome my social anxiety.