Introvert? Check. HSP? Check. Social Anxiety? Dunno.
I refill my cup of energy with alone time (introversion.) I am highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds (HSP.) But do I often fear being judged or negatively evaluated by other people (social anxiety)? If so, does that fear permeate most or all of my social interactions? Dunno.
I will admit:
- I often worry about what people think of me.
- I fear saying too much or too little.
- My nervous, frantic energy around people often causes me to say weird things, stumble over my words, ask strange questions, talk too much or completely clam up.
- I have trouble sustaining eye contact.
- I am flustered when introduced.
- I dread being the center of attention (although a part of me thrives off it, too!)
- I spend a lot of time during and after social interactions identifying flaws in my social performance.
- (More symptoms can be found here. )
So often, I feel frazzled inside. I feel a buzzing sensation in my body which makes it hard to even hold a conversation. I feel short of breath and my muscles tense. I dread that feeling. I also dread the criticism I give myself during and after the social interaction. I find myself wondering often, is this normal? Does everyone feel this way? And if not, can I just chalk it up to HSP or introversion?
Social anxiety wasn’t really on my radar until recently when I read the novel The Husband’s Secret. One of the characters, Tess, suffers from social anxiety, but covers it with humor, sarcasm, and faked confidence. Of course, the constant covering up begins to take it’s toll. I related to Tess’s quirks so profoundly that I started to wonder if I suffer from social anxiety.
Since social anxiety is a continuum, do I have enough of it to be considered a full-blown mental disorder?
I don’t feel socially anxious all the time. Certain people and situations bring the anxiety out of me more than others. I click with certain people right away. Others intimidate me immediately, and I don’t understand why. Most people would call me friendly, warm, enthusiastic, even social. I don’t usually avoid parties or people- I push through the anxiety and try to be present (See this post about party anxiety for proof!) I force myself because that’s the person I want to be. It’s inside me somewhere.
My therapist believes it’s impossible to completely separate HSP from introversion from social anxiety . They are overlapping circles- separate but related, influencing one another. A Venn diagram with me in the middle. Part of me wants to rule social anxiety out. After all, while introversion and HSP are neutral traits- good in some situations, unhelpful in others, social anxiety is always a bad thing: something to be cured. But then again, at least it can be “cured”.
Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, also believes it’s difficult to tease apart social anxiety from HSP. One of the FAQs on her website is “Do I have an anxiety disorder or am I just highly sensitive?” Dr. Aron answered that anxiety is only a disorder if the anxiety doesn’t make sense or is excessive for the particular situation. For an HSP, the anxiety often makes sense! We are programmed to be cautious, notice everything, try to predict the future, deeply process our mistakes, etc. This way of thinking often causes anxiety! To tell an HSP to stop worrying is like telling an HSP to stop being an HSP.
In social situations, we are very attuned to others’ facial expressions, sighs, yawns, subtle eye rolls, and tone of voice. If someone is indeed judging us, or offended, or bored by us, we are apt to pick up on it. We probably won’t forget it, either! The social “traumas” that everyone experiences during childhood and adolescence- awkward first dates, feeling left out, having fallouts, might make a deeper impression on an HSP, and might make us cautious of any situation resembling those past traumas.
Something else that blurs the line is that overstimulation feels a lot like anxiety. Overstimulation produces the same physical symptoms as anxiety- quick pulse, sweating, dry throat, headaches, muscle tension. Sometimes I can coach myself out of my feelings of social panic by telling myself, “It’s just overstimulation. There’s a lot going on right now. You are doing great. You’re fine.” I instantly feel better and find the strength to press on.
So I’m still not sure if I have social anxiety. My therapist told me the label is less important than the goal: RESILIENCY. What pep talks do I need to give myself to work myself out of these frazzled states? Sometimes I can blame it on overstimulation, and I feel better. Sometimes I can blame it on introversion and make sure I get more alone time, and that works. But sometimes I have to admit that I’m feeling anxious becauase I feel I’m not good enough, or not worthy enough. It’s humbling to admit. I’m trying to figure this stuff out pronto because I want to teach my kids what it means to be confident, authentic people.
Do you feel the need to label yourself? Do you find labels helpful or harmful?