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When Social Anxiety Makes You Seem Standoffish

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I recently went to a friend’s gathering in the park. I was feeling so much social anxiety and I just didn’t know what to say to people. Occasionally, I was able to say “hi” to someone, or someone would approach me and I was able to engage in a little bit of conversation, but “small talk” just isn’t my thing. I mostly tried to stay away from the crowd and just keep to myself.

Later on that day, my friend, who isn’t aware of my anxiety, texted me asking why I was so quiet at the gathering. I actually thought I held my own pretty well, engaging at least a little bit, which is even more than I feel I can usually do before panicking and needing to step back. But apparently, some of my friend’s other friends mentioned I was being standoffish — saying they had tried to talk to me, but it didn’t seem like I wanted to get to know them so they walked away.

This has happened to me many times before. Inside, I’m just trying to muster up the courage to talk to people and not feel overwhelmed with anxiety, or not come off as silly or feeling concerned about being judged. Hanging back with anxiety is often interpreted by other people as being disinterested and stand-offish.

As a mental health professional, I hear stories like this all the time. If you struggle with anxiety, odds are this may have happened to you at some point. You’re around a group of people and you try to stay back a little bit to hopefully avoid anxiety-inducing conversations. However, people don’t notice you’re struggling inside — they only see that you’re not engaging, and therefore don’t seem interested to engage. It’s a frustrating and a common misconception.

Unfortunately, social anxiety can be all-consuming — to the point that it’s difficult to be aware of how others may be perceiving you. In many instances, other people may honestly also be anxious about how they’re being perceived by you at social gatherings. Yet, it’s still easy and natural to become absorbed in the discomfort of our own internal experience, to the point that it ends up coming at the cost of what you’re putting forward on the outside.

Struggling with anxiety can become such a normalized experience for someone who deals with it daily. It can be hard to remember others don’t necessarily see what’s happening on the inside. In some ways, it may feel like you are hanging back and hiding. In those moments, people often quickly observe that you aren’t engaging. While many people have the capacity to recognize there’s more going on underneath the surface and aren’t judgmental of this; it can be valuable to recognize that what we perceive and experience for ourselves is not always the same as other peoples perception. This can also include more than anxiety — people may not always know someone is depressed, hurt or dealing with another internal issue.

But this does bring up the question, how do you handle this? If standing to the side can cause judgment, and talking to people induces anxiety, then what?

Ultimately, the answer is different for each person. Some people may choose to stay away from gatherings. Others may continue to go to social functions, talk when they are comfortable and hang back when they need a break. And others may challenge themselves to work on improving social conversation, even if it causes some initial discomfort.

Having a conversation with people you don’t know isn’t easy for everyone and can be downright terrifying for some. I have worked with many people to practice improving my social anxiety. For some, a handful of tools such as prepared questions or a conversation plan can be a helpful start. For others, understanding their internal wall that prevents connections or increases social anxiety makes a significant difference. Just because you’ve been socially anxious for many years doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it in the future.

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Thinkstock photo via Image Source White

Originally published: July 6, 2017
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