It’s taken me twenty-six years and countless nausea-inducing occasions with friends to make me realise that I have social anxiety. The nerves associated with any social-interaction has been so attached to my identity and experience interacting with other people that I never even considered that it was abnormal. For as long as I could remember and even in my early childhood, anxiety has been a familiar presence in my life. New experiences and unexpected situations created a sense of immense discomfort for me, and seemingly mundane conversations with people always lead to over-analysis and worry about how I appeared to the other person. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I would rely on alcohol to mask my inner anxiety and the amount I consumed was always reflective of the levels of inner turmoil I was experiencing. As expected, this would often cause me to become inebriated at a rapid pace, resulting in often outrageous words and behaviours. What would ensue would be a dreadful sense of regret and terrible case of hangxiety which seemed to cut me to my core because of how much I cared about what other people thought about me.
All this probably sounds painstakingly familiar for people like myself who experience social anxiety, even if I didn’t realise it until in my mid-twenties. There are clearly universal characteristics of social anxiety, the obvious being the sickening feeling in your stomach when thinking about or actually being surrounded by other people. Indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychology describes the disorder as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” Here, it’s important to distinguish between the presence of a clinical disorder and the term as it’s more common used, and how it will be used in this article. For a diagnosis to occur, your anxious symptoms must have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, and must impair your daily functioning. It might prevent you from forming relationships, attending social events or even simply leaving the house. The avoidant behaviour perpetuates the symptoms and reinforces the belief that you are socially incompetent and that people should be feared and avoided. By contrast, “social anxiety” as it is used in laymen’s terms is often used to describe the sense of dread, stress and extreme nerves associated with social situations. People who experience this social anxiety may feel extremely uncomfortable and on-edge when surrounded by other people, particularly those they aren’t familiar with. However, their anxiety isn’t enough to impede on their day-day life for the most part, and they push through the heightened nerves, attending the parties and doing the video calls, despite the overarching sense of distress within.
In whatever way we characterise social anxiety, the key feature that springs to mind is a general sense of uneasiness in the presence of others. The friend that’s bouncing their leg during a group conversation at the party, the one who appears to be drinking an entire keg in ten minutes, or the one who’s stuttering their way through a conversation about work, all bring to mind relatable feelings of social anxiety. At the core of this intense uneasiness is an overwhelming fear that other people will perceive you in a negative or embarrassing light, or they will form a bleak opinion about you. It is through this focus on our desire to appear likeable where we can often come across as a fumbling, bumbling mess throughout social situations. Alternatively, we may just remain silent to avoid saying the wrong thing or having the attention on ourselves. All of this sounds pretty uncontroversial, and I am sure those with social anxiety, clinically or generally, can relate to these experiences. Despite this general understanding of social anxiety, however, I believe there are some common misconceptions floating around about that need to be dispelled.
- We are boring and unfunny
Those pesky extroverts can often be observed at parties animatedly re-telling a story to a huge group of captivated onlookers, mouths agape and totally transfixed, a bubble of laughter erupting every so often. These are the stereotypical funny and interesting people that receive a lot of credit for keeping parties and social gatherings entertaining. Meanwhile, the typical image of someone with social anxiety is the individual huddled at home in the dark playing Sims, the fluorescent light emanating from the computer screen creating a blue hinge on the pale freckly skin of the gawky nerd. You’ve got more of a chance getting a laugh from a corpse than from these awkward weirdos. Clearly, I am exaggerating the stereotype of socially anxious people, but I am allowed to say this because I am one of these people, by the way. But I am not one of the sim fanatics, but rather the one who struggles through social gatherings until the fourth beverage which finally sees me loosen up enough to not care how many times I use the word “fuck” in a sentence. I’m sure many can relate.
You see, despite these stereotypes about socially anxious people vs more socially-relaxed people, I find that the people who can appear awkward at the start of a social gathering, are often some of the funniest and quick-witted people you can meet. Often their self-effacing demeanour and propensity to be hyper-aware of their surroundings forms the basis for their dry humour and pinpoint observations. Due to their nerves, they can often blurt out surprisingly hilarious things that you were not expecting. Further, whilst socially anxious people might experience a heightened stress response when in a socially situation, this does not mean they lack intelligence or the ability to have good banter. Often after the awkward introductions have occurred and the night has progressed, socially anxious people become more relaxed and comfortable enough to make jokes and humorous observations. So in my experience, as someone who has been described as “funny” by my mother, it’s unfair to assume that just because someone is socially anxious, this means that are boring and devoid of humour.
We don’t like being around people
Whilst being in the presence of other people can cause our insides to squirm, it’s incorrect to say that as a blanket rule socially anxious people do not like being around others. Like everyone else, we crave and require human companionship and connection, and nothing is better than sharing a laugh with your mates. Socially anxious people might not like being around certain types of people, particularly ones they may feel will judge them or make them feel even more uncomfortable. Socially anxious people also have a harder time being around large swathes of people, or those they have barely met or don’t know at all. This can be a particularly daunting experience and can aggravate the tension and nerves within. However, often socially anxious people who do not have a clinical disorder will persevere through these extremely uncomfortable situations, because they know in the long run it’s important to improve social skills, and they might grow to like these people and become more comfortable around them.
The belief that socially anxious people don’t enjoy the company of others is erroneous because it conflates social anxiety with the personality trait of introversion. It’s important to distinguish between the two, because whilst there are certainly overlapping characteristics and someone with social anxiety can be an introvert, there are important disparities between the two. Introverts tend to enjoy solitude and isolation, and can feel drained if they are surrounded by other people for too long. Their ideal Friday night is often spent at home curled up in front of the heater and reading a novel. Those with social anxiety, on the other hand, do not necessarily enjoy solitude, and may have a genuine desire to go to the parties and hang out in large groups of people. Unlike introverts, socially anxious people have a fear of social situations, and this is often what precludes them from attending events and gatherings, as opposed to a desire to spend time alone. If you think your friend has social anxiety and isn’t merely an introvert that likes staying at home most weekends, it’s important that you gently encourage them to attend occasions and events, and perhaps even making it easier for them by offering to attend together.
We are rude
I had the unfortunate experience of viewing my reflection in a cafe window whilst I was simultaneously smiling to a stranger as I walked past them the other day. Rather than a bright, warm and welcoming smile that I thought I was projecting, I was confronted with what appeared to be a grumpy 26 year old glaring and grimacing at the other person. It made me wonder how often I had thought I had smiled kindly at people, or acted a certain way, only for them to interpret the situation completely differently. I would attribute my less than ecstatic welcomes and attitude to my social anxiety – a general feeling of discomfort and stress about what the other person might think of me has the combined effect of displaying a weary, and perhaps even pessimistic front. In my opinion, it’s a common misconception lumped at those who experience social anxiety – that is, our awkwardness and anxiety is often misconstrued as rudeness and abruptness. We may appear quiet in social situations because of our fear of being judged for what we say, and this may give off the impression that we don’t care about what other people might be saying. Moreover, our heightened nerves can cause us to blurt out things before considering the implications of the words being spoken, potentially saying unexpectedly rude things.
If you’re someone who doesn’t have social anxiety, it’s important to be understanding of your friends that you suspect are, particularly in these situations where they might come across as rude. Socially anxious people don’t intend to be rude by any means, in fact they are often excessively thoughtful and empathetic. It’s likely if they were aware about their comments or behaviour, they would feel terrible and apologetic, doing as much as they can to appear more friendly or kinder in the next social setting. Whilst rude comments and behaviour should be called-out, if you suspect your mate said what they said out of nerves and not cruelty, perhaps it might be worth letting the odd comment slip by. It’s likely that these comments will be very rare and will cease as the individual feels more comfortable and at ease hanging around you and the other people.
Arguably, we all have some levels of nerves in social situations, unless you’re a sociopath who genuinely gives zero fucks about what other people think of you. For those who are crippled with stress and nerves before every social event, or want to backflip into a hole if they bump into an acquaintance on the street, it can feel pretty daunting being around others. Whilst most of us have an understanding about what it means to have social anxiety, there are some common misconceptions floating around that give us socially-anxious people a bad wrap. Just because we are nervous around others does not mean we do not genuinely like the company of people, or are incapable of being hilarious and witty. Further, the awkwardness accompanied with the anxiety can often cause others to think socially-anxious people are rude, abrupt or uncaring. However, it’s important not to interpret anxiety or awkwardness as them being impolite or disrespectful. Give it a couple of more vodka’s and before you know it you’ll both be singing Bruce Springsteen at karaoke together, the tense introduction all but forgotten.