Social anxiety is not the same as hating people or being shy
When it comes to mental illness, we are surrounded by many stereotypes and unrealistic views where people identify depressions with “sadness” or anxiety with “stress”. Different organisations are trying to change the way people see mental illness. One of them is the neurodivergent or neurodiversity movement. Neurodiversity movement is an international civil rights movement that frames autism, bipolarity and other neurotypes as a natural human variation rather than a pathology or disorder, and this movement rejects the idea that neurological differences need to be cured, since neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
One of the myths we are fighting is the idea that social anxiety is the same as being shy or not wanting to hang out. Lately I’ve seen many people identifying social anxiety as hating being at parties or hating society and it really bothers me because they have nothing in common. Social anxiety is not the same that not liking parties or loving staying alone. Social anxiety is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an excessive fear of social situations. Basically, social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation and depression. This fear may be made worse by a lack of social skills or experience in social situations and it can end up turning into a panic attack.
So of course, social anxiety can lead you to be on your own and alone, but it’s not always a pleasant feeling. In my case, it has never been a pleasant feeling. What I feel is far from shyness or hate, but is rather close to sadness and despair. I want bust some myths and explain what social anxiety looks like and how it really feels, so we can get rid of the stigma and stereotypes.
1. Social anxiety is not hating people
Although I have to confess that when I didn’t know that I had social anxiety I used to convince myself that I hated people, so it was easier for me to not be involved in social situations. But it wasn’t true. I remember I had a group of friends and I used to convince my group we shouldn’t let anyone else to join us. I told them “I just don’t like people, we are good as a small group, we don’t need anyone else!” but deep inside what I was feeling was fear. I was afraid and I didn’t want to talk to anyone else but my friends. Even when my friends were not there I used to hang out alone, just by myself instead of hanging with different people because I just couldn’t handle it. I had the feeling that if I let more people to join my group I wouldn’t be able to even talk. Actually, I wasn’t. When it was a birthday party and I was in a place full of people I ended up in a corner just thinking “Please don’t talk to me,” but at the same time I wanted to have friends and it was really frustrating for me. I wanted to be like these groups of friends in the movies where a big group made sleepovers and that kind of stuffs. I think I’ve just been in one or two sleepovers in my whole life… and not because I didn’t want to, I just have terrible anxiety if I spend the night out of my house. I made up this “personality” where I was ‘antisocial’ and I said things like “Yeah, I just hate people, I’m so cool, I just want to be alone!” Also, when my friends wanted to go out and I was not ready (because I felt anxious and sometimes I even had thoughts that made me unable to leave the house), I made up something and I started fighting my friends. I didn’t want to have an argument with my friends, but I wasn’t ready to express how I felt. Little by little I was even lonelier and then, when I was 24, this isolation took me to depression and I spent a whole summer in my room just crying and feeling really lonely. I wanted to have friends; I didn’t want to be alone, but I was unable to express it. I had the feeling that everyone was going to be mean to me if I confessed that I had social anxiety and they weren’t going to take me seriously. I thought what I felt was unacceptable and I invalidated myself constantly.
2. Social anxiety is not being shy
I don’t consider myself a shy person. I swear I could run naked in the street and I would be okay, as long as I didn’t have to talk or face anyone. Of course you can be shy and you can have social anxiety at the same time, but not everyone with social anxiety is shy or an introvert. I don’t feel embarrassed or shy, what I feel when I am involved in a social situations it’s more like a compulsive feeling that I need to control everything because I have 0 social abilities and I don’t know how to handle these situations. For instance, a few months ago I went to a café with a friend. That’s the kind of situation I am anxious about, especially when I have to order. From the moment I left my house I was repeating myself “cheesecake and green tea” (because that’s what I wanted) over and over again. That’s something I always do, I tend to repeat what I’m going to say in my head over and over until I say it out loud. By the way, this is exhausting and not pleasant at all. When the bartender came, I became anxious so before he even asked me what I wanted I just yelled at him “CHEESECAKE AND GREEN TEA!” If I were shy I would probably just be quiet. But I wasn’t, I just wanted it to end as quickly as possible.
3. Social anxiety is not loving staying at home
And this is quite frequent. People tend to think we love staying at home. I used to lie a lot about how busy I was or how tired I was, or how I loved to stay at home. Well, the truth is, more than once and twice I’ve found myself crying in my room, feeling completely lonely and feeling that I was losing my friends because I was unable to go out. Not because I wanted to stay at home, but because I had this fear of leaving my house. I even had this recurring thought (very common amongst people with anxiety) where my house was on fire if I left my house. I knew it wasn’t real, but no one would like to be with friends while having these vivid images where your house is on fire. I didn’t love to stay at home, I just had no options. With time, I learned my feelings matter and I needed to listen to myself and accept myself.
I just wish people would stop using these situations and applying them to people with social anxiety as these situations. I don’t enjoy when I have to spend hours and hours locked in my room just because the idea of leaving it makes me feel anxious and shivering. I don’t have fun when I need help and I’m unable to ask for it. It’s not funny when you are with friends and they are having fun and suddenly you start having an anxiety attack.
Sometimes is confusing and you have mixed feelings. It took me years to tell the difference between when I really wanted to stay at home and when my anxiety makes me stay at home, but it does get better, I promise.