I was recently browsing Facebook when an ad caught my eye. It was for a company that wants to cure social anxiety. Interesting. As a doctor and someone who has social anxiety, I was intrigued. As I browsed through the website, I noticed myself getting angry. Uh oh. Now, there was a lot of thoughts behind the anger, but it mostly distilled down to this one thought: "I am an introvert and there is NOTHING wrong me. Quit trying to make me change."
As a society, we place high value on extroversion. And there is nothing wrong with extroversion. But often, placing value on extroversion comes at the cost of devaluing introversion. In fact, as a society, we are downright derogatory about introversion. We believe there is something wrong with people who don't do small talk, people who would rather read a book than go to a party, people who just want to be left alone with their own thoughts. Excuse my language, but this is bullshit. Just because you don't understand us, doesn't mean there is something wrong with us. And this is what got me riled up when I was exploring the company that wants to cure social anxiety. I cannot speak to this company's intentions, but while on their website, I was reminded of the idea that as a society, we believe we need to quell introversion. "Just be more extroverted and you will be better!" "If you don't like doing extroverted things, then you need help!" Oh, really?
By now, you have probably realized that this is a very personal issue for me. I have spent the majority of my life being told that I am not good enough because I am an introvert. I know that approximately 50% of the population are in the same boat. So, chances are that you, reading this now, are an introvert or know an introvert among your friends or family. I invite you to read on as I share my unique perspective on introversion and social anxiety.
Social anxiety is actually introversion shame.
Social anxiety is an interesting concept. To me, it is the epitome of pathologizing introversion. This is the way I see it. As a society, we have shamed introversion. We tell people in subtle, overt, intentional, and unintentional ways that they are not good enough being quiet, being introspective, being unsociable, being all the ways that introverts are. And when you are told over and over again that you are not good enough, you start to believe it. You start to believe that something is wrong with you. You start to believe that you need to be like everyone else. So you try. You try so hard to be like everyone else, but you can't and it is embarrassing, it is shameful. Thus begins the cycle of fear. Fear of being different, fear of being not enough, fear of embarrassment and mockery, fear of scrutiny and criticism. This is social anxiety. But do you know why we fear these things? Because we have experienced these things and it was terrible! So you see, social anxiety is a social construct. It is the product of shaming introverts and pushing them to be extroverts.
To "cure" social anxiety, we have to address the cause: shame.
The real cure for social anxiety would be for the world to recognize the value of introverts and to stop shaming us, but that isn't within our hands. What is in our hands is our shame. In order to "cure" social anxiety, we have to practice shame resilience around our introversion. The world will most likely continue to tell us that we are not enough, but we need to stop telling ourselves that. The minute I stopped fearing speaking to someone I didn't know or going out in public was the minute I stopped telling myself that I needed to be different. I am enough just the way I am. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that I now enjoy talking to strangers and strike up random conversations. No. Absolutely not.
By embracing my introversion, I was first able to give myself permission to say no to situations I don't like. I don't enjoy parties. That is just who I am. So I don't go to parties for the most part. And you know what? I couldn't be happier. Before embracing my introversion, I would have either said no out of fear and then felt terrible about myself for making that choice or I would have forced myself to go and felt even more terrible trying to be sociable. The idea here is to let go of the thought that you are missing out by not being a certain way or by not doing certain things. The idea is to say yes to the things that bring us joy as we truly are and to say no to the things that don't. And saying no without shame, without fear and without judgment. This is no small task and it is something that requires practice.
The second thing I was able to do by embracing my introversion was give myself permission to show up exactly as I am. Now, when I interact with people that I don't know well, I don't try to be extroverted. I don't try to be some version of their expectations of me. Of course, that means the interactions are short, to the point, and to an extrovert, awkward, but I don't care. When I interact with people, I no longer come from a place of fear, a place of not being enough. I now come from a place of enough and it makes all the difference to me. I will never be good at small talk because I think it is pointless, absurd, and energetically draining, but I no longer fear not being good at it. And the fear of having to do it no longer keeps me from going out into the world.
And while practicing shame resilience and embracing my introversion has served me well, I still do at times think that I should come with some sort of warning label when I interact with people. "I am an introvert. Do not take it personally." Embracing who we are and showing up is not a task easily done. It takes courage, conviction, and practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Now, this has been my personal experience with social anxiety and it may not be applicable to everyone. I know that these ideas will resonate with some people and not with others. Please take what you find valuable and leave what you don't. For more information about shame resilience, I invite you to explore the work of Brené Brown. For more information about introversion, I invite you to read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts. As to the company I referred to, which I will not name, I cannot speak to their work and my ranting should not be a reflection of the quality of their work. It just so happened that my thoughts were triggered while on their website.
I'm Dr. Carly and my mission is to create a health revolution. I believe that another prescription is not the answer. I believe in using natural therapies that go beyond the symptoms. And I believe that doctors should spend way more than 7 minutes with a patient.