You walk into a room full of people feeling a bit overwhelmed—not necessarily because of the numbers—because you are afraid of the eyes that are staring at you. Then you’d gaze down avoiding eye contacts because you are afraid of being judged, hoping that you would find someone you know. Then you found your friend! Alhamdulillah/Thank God!
Then you said to her/him “Ugh, why was everyone staring at me?”
(I mean… not that there’s anything wrong with lowering your gaze—keep it halal, bruh.)
Perhaps, you’ve been in a situation where you’d think many times before you’d have the guts to ask a new, random person an important question because well… new people are intimidating! Sometimes, you’d rather do it on your own because you don’t really want to be embarrassed by asking a stupid question. Am I right?
Relatable? I know.
Well, I used to anyway.
Hear me out.
One of the reasons why I thought I’d share this story is because recently I’ve acquainted a person who confessed to me that she was struggling with social anxiety.
I thought this was brave of her to admit a kind of vulnerability—one that we wouldn’t be readily admit to a person you’d just met. So I felt even more determined to tell you my story and why it is important to talk about this.
Just getting some things straight
A lot of the times people misconceive social anxiety as a form of introversion. There’s a huge difference between social anxiety and introversion.
Introversion is natural—you are born with this personality and there’s nothing wrong about it. You feel comfortable with being alone and you don’t have a problem with being social. You just choose to do it less than extroverts.
Social anxiety is rooted by fear. It affects the way you live and the way you think. But that also means you can get rid of it to live a more content life.
There is a science why introverts are the way they are and why they may be more prone to anxiety; but again, the two don’t complement each other nor do they define each other. So if you experience social anxiety, that doesn’t make you an introvert. So, it’s crucial to differentiate these two so you’ll understand yourself a lot better. In fact, one way to start understanding your nature is to go back to when you were just a child. What were you like?
In an extrovert ideal world, an introvert is prone to social anxiety just because they feel out of place and misunderstood. So, bear with me when I interchange introvert and quiet with socially anxious and social anxiety.
My social anxiety story
When I’d replay my moments of being a child in my head, or when I’d hear stories from my mother… it was like I was so comfortable being quiet—playing by myself and not even caring if I had any friends.
Yeah, I was the weird kid who’d quietly go off to the streets—lost in her own imaginary world. As a kid, it was a lot easier because everyone was nice to each other—to a certain extent. Basically, there were not a lot of feelings involved and there wasn’t really any peer pressure.
As I’ve grown up, being quiet was just not ideal.
People ask you questions like “why are you quiet?” or “why can’t you talk?”. A lot of my anxiety came from having the mind-set that being quiet and alone are not okay, even when I was happy.
It’s like you have to be all out there—loud and gregarious—to prove what you’ve got and conform to societal norms. I was kind of losing myself when I was a teen while playing a pseudo-extrovert mask, hoping to fit into the social mold with hopes to have as many friends as I could as a teen would dream to have.
Yeap. I hate to say this but I wanted to be known (excuse me as I cringe). I wanted be on top of the game all the time.
Because it wasn’t seen as “cool” if you do things alone and on your own. It wasn’t “cool” to be quiet.
But some things changed.
I’ve become socially anxious…
I often see so much of the social media posts saying something along this: “I am usually quiet when I am around people I don’t know, but when I am close with someone, I am super loud and talkative” as if there is a stigma attached to being quiet.
On the contrary of being happily quiet when I was a child, I actually felt like it was a curse to be born quiet when I was a teen and coming into adulthood—that I would never be comfortable being that way.
I remember sweating when random people would ask me questions because I felt attacked when it wasn’t their intention to do so.
My face would turn red and my heart would palpitate as I’d try to walk away from an awkward situation.
I hated crowded places—no compromise whatsoever—not because I felt comfortable with the decision of not going, but I just couldn’t imagine going and having to deal with my social trauma.
Let’s be honest, people would give you the sympathy card just because you’re seen alone especially, as a teen.
I felt anxious around people who I feel are superior in some way; I would avoid talking to them because I was afraid that I would say something embarrassing.
I also remember feeling nervous just checking out at a till or asking a sales girl for a shoe size. Or asking a waitress to get me something.
I’ve always had the impression that I look “calm” or “mellow” but what happened within me—only God knows.
On top of naturally being quiet, I would become even more quiet (if that even makes any sense) because I was avoiding anything that made me feel anxious.
I remember exactly what it felt like.
The consequences of social anxiety was that it stopped me from fully accepting myself and my social preferences. I focused so much on forcing myself to be out there all the time without knowing where to set the boundaries.
I constantly had the fear of not “being accepted” or whatever it was whenever I would be in a new social setting or being around people I didn’t know.
Anyway, that was years ago.
And Praise the Almighty for that was a brief phase of my life—of our lives.
“Coming out of my shell” story
Oddly enough, I started to feel a lot more comfortable doing things alone as I’ve grown older because that’s what adults do, right?
But more importantly, I’ve started even becoming more comfortable with myself.
I am not going to go into details about why, how and what yet.
But I will say this:
Being truly alone will inevitably set you on a journey to discover your innate self.
Regardless of whether you’re dominantly an introvert or extrovert.
Becoming more committed to my faith has helped me ease my struggles and have made things a lot more sense.
Acquiring knowledge have been the only way to combat my insecurities because they empower you.
Experiencing hardships and enduring them have been the only way to test my innate self—my purpose, my nature and getting the best out of myself while understanding what I can improve on.
Being aware of my extrovert threshold saved me from being burnt out and seemingly annoyed as well as rude to other people. (Yes, I admit that I can be rude when I am mentally and emotionally exhausted—something to work on!).
In a way, I’ve become a lot more like when I was a child but of course with an adult twist.
Do I get anxious nowadays? Yes, absolutely. But I’ve learned my own ways on how to deal with them rather than punishing myself for it like I used to when I was a teen. And that may be because it has a lot to do with my brain make-up as an introvert.
In fact, just recently, I couldn’t sleep peacefully the night before a social event and ended up experiencing some bowel discomfort.
(I know. Ew.)
But it’s okay.
Here’s a quick pep-talk for my fellow socially-anxious friends.
Nowadays, I tend to notice quiet young people and those who don’t seem to be okay with being alone. I wish I’ve had the guts to tell them that:
“It’s okay to be alone. You’re not anti-social.”
You don’t have to stand awkwardly or check your phone just because you’re not seen with a friend.
Own. That. Stand.
(a bit melodramatic for a mundane scene, but… you know why I am going with this)
If you are a quiet teen, or a quiet child as you are reading this now, trust me: things will be a lot—I mean, extremely a lot—easier when you grow up as an adult. (Hard-core reminder: But please don’t rush into adulthood, just enjoy being a child.)
But if you do still struggle anxiety and fear of being judged when put in a social setting as an adult, it’s important to make sure that you’re willing to deal with this. It’s important because only by dealing it, you’ll be able to truly know your potential and do what you do best.
This is so that you’ll know how to deal with them rather than shoving them under the rug with the mindset that “there’s something wrong with you”, or “you were made that way” when you could’ve been or done more.
Overcoming the fear doesn’t happen overnight but it’s possible. I’ve done it and it was one of the best things that I’ve done for myself. If you relate to any part of my story, know that you can too.
I will talk about how in the coming weeks.
So, what’s the point of all this?
I know my posts so far are biased towards introverts and highly-sensitive people because well… I know what it feels like to be one. I grew up thinking that being quiet is problematic and that there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t settle with the fact that I was socially awkward and anxious.
And I’m glad I didn’t settle for this mindset.
Regardless of your personality and temperament, I wholeheartedly believe that there’ll never be a point where we’d stop learning and improving ourselves in every aspect of our being: spiritually, emotionally and mentally.
And that starts from within especially your mindset.
I’ve always believed that if you know yourself enough, you wouldn’t need to always go out of your way to be “accepted” and fit in. To me, it’s always a lot more important to grow within.
In the end, you’ll gravitate towards positivity and people who would appreciate your best self without you having to chase other people such that you have to stoop low for them.
All of those external gains will gravitate towards you, just because other people feel them from you.
Now that I’ve overcome my social anxiety, my external social experience doesn’t affect me the way that it did before.
I don’t mind being in a crowd. But I also choose not to when I don’t feel like it. I no longer feel that people are staring at me out of judgment or because they have an opinion about me. I still feel considerably nervous for a social event but my night or day doesn’t revolve around it.
I feel a lot more comfortable talking about things that matter to me, rather than thinking that people might judge me for it. I also feel a lot more comfortable expressing myself; I’ve become less tense.
I feel a lot more comfortable falling into “awkward” silence purely because I love silence sometimes.
More importantly, I am comfortable being quiet; I get to choose to be quiet without feeling guilty. I am comfortable that you don’t have to show what you can do by being loud and out there all the time.
Nowadays, when I do get anxious going into a room with full of people, it was simply because I felt overwhelmed by the numbers, as if I’d need to claim my territory (yeah, like a cat) . So, I’d usually come earlier to avoid that feeling. And I could feel a difference than coming in late. And, the anxiety wasn’t as intense as before.
This is not to say that you have to enjoy these to overcome social anxiety.
I guess my point is: social anxiety doesn’t define you nor should it stop you from wanting what you want to achieve.
It’s time to take that first step just like how my friend—who told me she was struggling with social anxiety—took the step anyway despite feeling uncomfortable. The fact that she recognised that she was struggling with social anxiety was the first step towards making a change.
Oh, the social event that I talked about just now? That’s how we ended up meeting each other.
You might never know what might come out of your little courage.
PS/ There's a whole range of things I want to say self-growth/self-care over the past few weeks. So, be sure to subscribe below if you'd like to stay updated!