College Tips for the Socially Anxious
In my 35 rotations around the sun, I’ve learned that much of life exists on a spectrum. One such spectrum applies to personality traits called introversion and extroversion.
In short, introverts enjoy socializing but lose energy in engaging and need alone time to refuel. In contrast, an extrovert is energized by socializing and doesn’t have as much need for alone time.
Individuals have varying degrees of introverted and extroverted traits. And to be clear, introversion is not the same thing as being “shy” or socially anxious.
My own personal life experience has taught me that one can possess both an extremely introverted personality and social anxiety, and this combination I have labeled for myself as “pathological introversion.” Yes, that’s me. A pathological introvert.
I was about to begin my graduate career in a new town at a new school and the department offered a social event for those of us beginning our graduate studies in psychology. This was a prime opportunity to meet my cohort and make friends. An opportunity to park in an unfamiliar parking lot, walk into an unfamiliar building and make painfully awkward small talk with strangers.
This is akin to torture for me.
My inner monologue went something like, “OK, I’ll walk over there and get a drink. Now I’ll stand here. This is uncomfortable. Should I put my drink on the floor or hold it in the other hand? Should I put my purse down? Am I standing naturally? This doesn’t feel natural. Does everyone wonder this much about posture? I want to leave. I need to get out of here. No, I can do this. Nope. I can’t do this. She’s walking this way. Should I initiate conversation?! Maybe just a head nod or wave? Maybe she’s going to walk past me. Oh no. I think she’s walking straight to me. What do I say? What do I say? Am I standing oddly?”
This stranger interrupted my inner monologue and introduced herself. I honestly don’t remember much of that brief exchange but I’m sure I responded in monosyllabic answers.
We saw each other often as classmates and ended up developing a close friendship. She later told me that at our first meeting at the painful meet-and-greet she thought I was “stuck-up” because of my seeming lack of interest in conversation.
Fortunately, she didn’t allow her first impression to be her last. I’m thankful for her patience and openness to the idea that I may be more than that awkward first impression.
I wholeheartedly believe that the world needs both extroverts and introverts. This means extroverts may need to give introverts space and time to open up, and introverts need to understand that an extrovert may seem pushy, but that is their way of saying, “I want to get to know you. I’d like to be your friend.”
So for the introverts and extroverts, here are five reminders:
Meeting New People
- Be aware of the spectrum of personality traits and allow for personality differences. Think compassionately toward yourself and others.
- Don’t make a judgment from one meeting. Take time to form an impression of another.
- Introverts, it’s OK to say, “I’m not ready to attend an event like that yet, but keep asking me. I like to know I’m included and one day I’ll be comfortable enough to say yes.”
- Extroverts, please be yourself — we appreciate that you can carry the conversation when needed!
- A good rule for all as we navigate developing new relationships comes from Saint Francis of Assisi: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.”
As I always add, come visit the ASU Health Clinic and Counseling Services if anxiety is preventing you from participating in activities and opportunities to develop friendships. The staff are here to support, encourage and help.