If I may, I’d like to start out by dispelling a rumour that’s been floating around about me that’s wildly inaccurate: I haven’t always been, nor do I necessarily identify myself as, an outgoing person.
It’s true. And the amount of disagreement I get when I tell people this usually isn’t worth saying something in the first place. Constant dismissals of how I’m “definitely outgoing” and that I “make friends easily” and blah blah blah. It’s frustrating for a number of reasons and I usually just let it slide; it’s easier to let people have their own false perceptions than talk about something as personal as social anxiety. However, a recent blog post from a friend of mine entitled “Social Anxiety Stories” finally inspired me to join the debate with my own perspective.
But first, allow me to take a jab at the terms introvert and extrovert and what they actually mean. Most commonly associated with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), introversion and extraversion refer to the different attitudes people have towards their world. Let’s use a party for our example: if you find yourself feeling more energized at the party, either from the attention or from the different interactions you’re having with the other attendees, you have an extraverted attitude; those who go to the party and experience the opposite, feeling drained and like they need to get away from the noise and socializing, have an introverted attitude. They sound simple enough, but it’s when you apply these terms to everything that it becomes less of a label and more of a crutch.
Sure, I love hanging out with my friends, going to parties, and I’ve actually taken the MBTI and scored overwhelmingly in favour of the extraversion category. Even after all that, I’m still reluctant to label myself an extrovert, if only because it enforces a dichotomy, divvying us up into seemingly opposite personality types.
People are so eager to self-identify as one or the other that it means they’re overlooking the obvious: people generally belong to both. Some people are better at making friends than others, while some prefer staying in over going out. They’re just preferences and they’re hardly defining characteristics.
But what resounded most with me about my friend’s blog post was instead of preaching the differences, she drew largely from her own experiences. So I’ll follow suit.
For the first 15 or so years of my life, I was a reclusive kid who spent his weekends watching discounted Rogers Video DVDs. It wasn’t until I entered high school and had the opportunity to expand my social circle that I began to crave friendship. But after that first year of multiple friend groups and attending parties semi-regularly, I was hooked. It became a sign of failure for me if I found myself home on the weekend without anything to do. I would heavily neglect my schoolwork and family, not out of choice, but a seeming obligation to go out with friends. While this behaviour might sound like a typical high school student, the compulsive need for human interaction carried on past the point of graduation. It hasn’t been until recent years that I’ve learned to simmer down on my socializing when I need to. Even now, if I’ve gone a few days without hanging out with friends, I’ll start to panic and reach for my phone and begin seeking out plans immediately.
What’s so debilitating about this need for constant companionship is it came with a snack bar of insecurities. I simultaneously needed to go out to parties and have as much fun as possible, but the fear of rejection by my peers would fuel my need to avoid these situations completely. An unfortunate reality is that if I’ve ever had to cancel plans on someone, there’s a 50 per cent chance it was because I became anxious and decided I couldn’t go at the last minute. Again, it’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a recurring issue.
Even the most mundane of situations can give me severe anxiety. Running into someone I know on the bus can result in me vacating at the next stop if I don’t think I can sustain an interesting enough conversation with them. Meeting new people can feel like I’ve just been dropped into a volcano, as I sweat my way through an otherwise pleasant exchange. These are the things I have to regularly deal with, despite being known as an “outgoing person.”
I don’t want anyone to misinterpret this as a call for sympathy; I just think it’s important that people be careful when they’re presumptuous about individuals who are “shy” or “outgoing.” Reading my friend’s article was the first time I ever took a moment to consider my anxieties and it helped me to better understand why I have them. As difficult as it may be to talk or write about these sorts of things, they may go neglected if we don’t. It certainly adds on another layer of complexity to the expectation cake known as social situations, but the sooner people stop using labels like introvert and extrovert, the better.
So it goes,