Anxiety, Social Anxiety or Introversion?

Another blog! The Guardian website has a lot to answer for!!

I read with interest yesterday an article on introversion by a writer who only recognised that they were themselves introverted after many years of forcing themselves to attend functions and go out to attend social events when they really did not want to.

Their way of managing this self-imposed socialisation was to drink heavily and become the antithesis of their actual self by being loud, brash and over bearing.

As someone who has experience of ‘social anxiety’ on both a professional and personal level this was really interesting to me. I have worked with many clients who experience social anxiety and the aim of the therapy or counselling has always been to overcome the anxiety and be able to go out and enjoy themselves as ‘normal’ people, most often their family and friends, do.

It took me a long time to recognise that I am naturally introverted. I am able to overcompensate for this introversion and appear larger than life and be the centre of attention at times, especially if I am working or in a situation related to my profession. However, my preferred way of being naturally moves me more towards isolation or small intimate groups of people rather than large social or professional gatherings. I can go to large gatherings and social events and indeed I will be going to at least three such large group events this year alone. That doesn’t mean I enjoy going to them though.

I would prefer to not go to them. I don’t get anxious around going to them. It is more a sense of dread, the awkward conversations at the bar with people I don’t know, the forced smile whilst having this conversation when all the while knowing I would be rather back in my front room reading a book and listening to a bit of Elgar or Bill Evans. I don’t dislike the person at the bar, I don’t dislike my friends or my wife’s friends and if there were three or four of them round our dining room table eating a meal I have cooked, I would really enjoy their company and the evening. But… I just don’t like being around hundreds of people, be they known or not known.

To be able to differentiate between what is anxiety and what is in my reality just a ‘not wanting to do something’ takes a lot of subtlety and patience I believe. I know anxiety, as we all do and it is harsh, guttural, almost physically painful. When I think about the upcoming social events, I do not feel anywhere near that level of discomfort, yet I quickly become grumpy and tetchy about going to them and feel something that could be associated with anxiety, for it exists in the same part of my body as my anxiety does (my stomach and abdomen if you are interested at all). Anxiety these feelings are not though, they are something else. I don’t know what or why, I just know, deep down, I don’t want to go to these things, and it will take effort or a large quantity of whisky or wine (or both) to even pretend that I am having fun when I am there.

I will go to all these aforementioned events, and I will likely enjoy parts of them and have some nice memories of being with my wife and step son. However, I would still rather have those nice memories of them both, watching Captain Marvel on blu ray at home, whilst the furry beasts snuggle in and make one great big furry/family baguette on our wonderfully comfortable settee. That to me is bliss, why would I, do I need to go anywhere else?

So, back to the original point! All of this made me wonder how many clients I had ‘helped’ by using CBT techniques, or similar, to manage their ‘anxiety’, then  push themselves through their discomfort to a place where they over adapt to other people’s expectations of them.

If their introversion is at the root of the ‘anxious’ feelings they experience, and this introversion is a natural part of their psyche and sense of self, then how useful is it to encourage them to over adapt and make changes to their behaviours to match societal expectations?

Would it be better to instead encourage them to listen to their inner self and get to know that part of them better and then encourage the client to make a decision based on what the discover. They may well decide that beyond the situations where they have limited options (work, school, family events), they do choose, as the author of the article did, to say no to the casual engagements they are invited to. Not because they are anxious about going or that they do not like the people there, it is just that they prefer to spend an evening at home, reading a book, watching tv, listening to music or just being around the people in their life they are closest to.

We are all different and we will all have different levels of extroversion and introversion in us. If I am in my office, talking about my work, training or teaching, I am very extrovert and will likely come across as confident and extroverted. This does not necessarily reflect how I feel around social occasions involving family and friends though, were I may feel much more introverted and uncomfortable (normally quite grumpy too!).

It makes sense to me that we, as individuals, can hold both things – being introverted and extroverted – at the same time, and also separately so as to have different expectations of ourselves in social, work and family situations dependant on whether we are naturally introverted or extroverted in those particular situations.

What seems clear is that we should not push our own, personal expectations of ourselves in these social situations, onto other people who are unique and different and experience things differently to us as a result.

I think this holds true also in terms of working with any person who comes into my office when they experience any form of social or even situational anxiety. If there is an obvious cause such as trauma, recent or historical negative experience then that will need processing, especially if before the event, the client enjoyed socialising or was naturally extroverted. But if the client has always been the same and experienced the same feelings and thoughts around social interactions since they were young children, then surely that indicates that this is a part of their psychological make up and should only be changed if it is causing them emotional or psychological distress, or means that they are struggling to enjoy or make the most of their life because of it.

We should be wary of encouraging people to make changes without being sure that they are doing so for themselves and not for the expectation or pressure of other people or their social groups.

I for one am going to feel no guilt or shame at all the next time I refuse a social invitation and shall very much enjoy the night spent lying on my settee at home, listening to music and reading a book with the furry monsters on my feet or lap, whilst my friends, wife and step son all enjoy themselves too.

A link to the Guardian (there are other newspapers and news sites! I just don’t read them!!) article is below:

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