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Why I’m OK With Being Quiet As Someone With Social Anxiety

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One extremely difficult aspect of dealing with mental illness is the reaction of other people in response to it. It’s not just people who are ignorant and insensitive to your feelings and your struggle who make things difficult. Sometimes it’s the loving, well-meaning and supportive people too.

Your loved ones see you struggling. They hear you vent and want to help you feel better. But instead of asking you what you need or want from them, some will proceed with what they think will help you. For me, these well-meaning attempts to help have actually caused extreme insecurity and a rise in my social anxiety.

In Europe and North America, society often has what is referred to as an “extrovert ideal.” This is the view that being very social, talkative, loud and bubbly is desirable, as opposed to being quiet, intuitive and intrapersonal. When dealing with social anxiety, one can be even more quiet, reserved and exhausted from social interaction than even the average neurotypical introvert. I am very self-conscious because of this. I feel I’m between a rock and a hard place because on one hand, I am afraid of social interaction and therefore want to avoid it out of fear of being negatively judged. But when I avoid it or just stay fairly quiet and listen, I feel I am also judged for not fitting the “extrovert ideal.”

Misunderstanding starts to arise when those who care for me assume I want to talk more and be more social. In reality, what I really want is to be comfortable with the fact that I am quiet. Their efforts tend to stem from wanting to get me to “come out of my shell” and share more. The thing is, I’m not really in a shell, at least in my opinion. I am just a private person and when I talk I get right to the point. I’d be that way even if I did not have anxiety.

Well meaning comments like, “I hope we can see you come out of your shell and let loose” only make me more anxious because that comment perpetuates this feeling that it is negative to be quiet. Thus my anxiety is fed because I am feeling negatively judged due to my social behavior.

I had a former boss who, of course, noticed how quiet I was and said, “I’m going to work on making it so you can socialize more.”

There were also continual comments made along the lines of, “Why don’t you talk more? We want to hear more from you.”

The thing was, I wasn’t being anti-social. I’d go to the office lunches. I’d say a quick recap of what I did on the weekend. But for the most part, I would nod along and listen to what the others talked about.

I came home from work feeling broken and crying because I thought there was something wrong with me — that there was something wrong with just wanting to listen. I felt like people were trying to change me. Again, this only fed my anxiety because it showed that when I was around people, they would judge me. I wasn’t inspired to walk into the office the next day and chat it up. I was inspired to quit and run away from those people.

On the flip side, someone in the office made a comment the other day to the tune of, “Oh Caitlyn, she’s too quiet. She never talks.”

When that person left the room, my boss said to me, “You don’t have to take that from people who try to criticize you. You should shoot back the opposite; tell them you think they talk too much and they are too loud.”

That reaction — that assertion that being quiet is OK and not something to be criticized — made me feel on top of the world. Things like that are what help my anxiety. Statements like that are what help me not dread going out for office lunches. Things like that are actually what make me feel safe and not anxious when I am at work.

What I and many others dealing with social anxiety need is social acceptance. We don’t need you to help push us to talk more — we need you to help us be comfortable and OK with being quiet. If it was more acceptable for me to be an observer and a listener in social situations, I wouldn’t be so afraid to be in social situations.

Even for those with social anxiety who do want to talk more and are biting their tongue about a lot of the things they want to say, it is a journey. Consider fostering their growth and helping to create opportunities for them to talk more. But don’t forget to instill confidence in who they currently are by setting a foundation that they are not being judged in social situations — and that it is OK to be quiet too.

Getty Images: AntonioGuillem

Originally published: September 24, 2019
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