One common error when it comes to social phobia is assuming it’s the same as shyness. (See: This survey from NIMH.) When I tell people I have social phobia, they often look amused, like I’ve told a joke. I can almost see their brains turning inside out as they try to reconcile their ideas about “social phobia” with me…a loud, talkative, friendly—if socially awkward—person who talks to just about anybody.
Let’s start with the definition of social phobia at PubMed:
People with social phobia become very anxious and self-conscious in everyday social situations. They have an intense, persistent, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others, and of doing things that will embarrass them. They can worry for days or weeks before a dreaded situation. This fear may become so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities, and can make it hard to make and keep friends.
Yeah, pretty much. I’m frequently convinced that everyone is judging me and after a social occasion I tend to rip apart every single thing I said, sure that I’ve offended everyone and they think I’m stupid, etc. and so on.
Or rather, I should say that I used to do that. A great many years of therapy and some wonderful drugs have gotten it to the point where I only writhe in embarrassment when I’ve actually said or done something stupid. Okay, I then take that embarrassment far beyond where it should go, but at least I don’t spend hours agonizing over everything I said.
But even now, with great improvement, it can be difficult. A few months ago I wasn’t thinking and said something stupid during a work phone call. I apologized immediately and…well, I hope everybody else has forgotten what I said, but I’m still incredibly anxious about it. I can barely talk during the phone calls now because I’m afraid I’ll do it again.
The mere sound of the voice of the person I accidentally insulted makes me writhe inside. I could barely talk to anyone else in the office for days, because I was so sure that they thought I was awful and stupid for saying it. I know that’s not true, but I have difficulty convincing my unconscious of that.
I’m never going to be a hard-driving successful employee because I’m pretty darn afraid of talking to people. My current job situation is ideal because I have very little social contact (which means I don’t have to worry about my lack of a brain/mouth filter) and can just do my work without having to phone people and talk to them in the hallways and all those anxiety-producing things. I can do most of my socializing at home or in places where I’m more comfortable, with the people I’ve known forever and a day.
Making and keeping friends. Hell. The Internet has been the greatest boon to the social phobic ever. But I’ve also benefited from some amazing people who have put up with my shit for decades. People who’ve put up with the fact that I’m never going to call and invite them to something. I’m never going to call just to chat, although I’m happy to chat if they call. Seriously, there aren’t words for how much I appreciate the people who’ve been willing to put up with my neuroses for so long and with so much patience.
(The phone call thing? It’s a bunch of problems, but one is that I’m afraid I might call when the person is busy and then they’ll be annoyed with me and I won’t know what to say and…Yeah, I’m sure normal people are thinking at this point “So…if they’re busy, so what? They’ll call you back later.” And if I could think that rationally, would I have social phobia? No, I would not.)
And the fact that I’ll happily sit and talk with complete strangers—say, at a preschool event—seems counter to what people think social phobia is. However, if you watch me, you’ll notice that I never approach someone. Heck, I barely approach people I actually know already! If someone comes to talk to me, that’s one thing, but…walk up to a stranger and introduce myself? You must be kidding! What if they hate me? What if they think I’m rude for bugging them? What if they’re mean to me?
There’s also the sheer quantity and volume of my speech. People think social phobics are shy and introverted, so the fact that I talk A LOT (Really, a whole lot.) and I’m not shy about personal topics makes social phobia seem unlikely to them.
But I talk a lot for a number of reasons. The big one is that, when I’m nervous, I talk to fill any possible uncomfortable gaps. And I’m at least slightly nervous pretty much 100% of the time when I’m talking to a human being over the age of 9 or 10. (Yes, even you. And you, believe it or not.) I like kids because they’re not secretly judging you. If they think you’re dumb, they’ll say so. If they think you’re smart, they’ll say that too. You don’t have to wonder how they feel or if they’re faking.
Another reason I talk a lot is that I’m not an introvert. As I’ve noted before, I’m an ambivert, which means I have some aspects of introversion and some aspects of extraversion. Paradoxically, even though I’m nervous when talking to people (even people I know well), I also get energized by talking to people (like an extrovert)! I may worry afterward that I talked too much or monopolized the conversation or said something I shouldn’t have, but I also need a certain amount of human contact (at least in situations I can control).
Like an introvert, I also positively must have time alone to recharge. I can’t handle a constant stream of social activities, because then I don’t have time to process my fears and my anxiety just builds and builds.
I think if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that human beings are complicated and very hard to put into boxes 🙂