I recently went out to a social event — a friend’s gathering in the park. I was feeling so socially anxious that 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. Mostly, I tried to back off to the side, 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. For me, I actually thought I held my own pretty well, engaging at least a little bit, and even more than I usually feel I can do before slightly panicking and needing to step back. But apparently, some of my friend’s other friends mentioned that I was being stand-offish — that 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 stupid or feeling concerned about being judged. But my hanging back with anxiety is often interpreted by other people as being disinterested and stand-offish.
If you struggle with anxiety, odds are it’s probably 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 that you’re struggling inside — they only see that you’re not engaging and don’t seem interested to engage. It’s a frustrating and common misconception.
Unfortunately, social anxiety can be all-consuming to the point that it’s difficult to be aware of what other people may be perceiving about you. In many instances at social gatherings, other people may honestly also be anxious about how they’re being perceived by you! 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 we’re putting forward on the outside.
Struggling with anxiety can become such a normal experience for someone who deals with it daily that it can be hard to remember that others don’t necessarily see from the outside what is happening on the inside. In some ways, it almost may feel like we are hanging back and hiding. However, what people quickly observe those moments is that we are standing there and not engaging. While many people have the capacity to recognize that there is more going on underneath the surface and are non-judgmental of this, it can be valuable to recognize that what we perceive and experience of ourselves is not always in line with what other people perceive of us. (This can also include more than anxiety — people may not always know someone is depressed, hurt, or in some other way dealing with an issue internally).
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 may choose to stay away from gatherings, but then become isolated, which causes other problems. Others may continue to go to social functions and 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.
Obviously, having a conversation with people you don’t know well or at all isn’t easy for everyone, and can be downright terrifying for some. I have worked with many people in my practice on improving social anxiety. For some, a handful of tools (such as prepared questions, or a conversation plan) can be helpful to at least have some sort of engagement and not fully avoid connection. For most others, learning about their own internal wall that prevents connection with others often makes a significant difference. Just because you’ve been socially anxious for many years doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it for your future.
*Nathan Feiles also runs a social anxiety group in Manhattan. Contact Nathan for details and availability.