‘I’m Good With Not Talking’: On Living With Social Anxiety

I don’t mind talking one-on-one about work related topics, but am very uncomfortable with small talk.

By my own admission, I am a hot mess. I am a quiet person, but love conversations with my family and close friends. I am comfortable giving a speech in front of a large group of strangers, but not in front of people I know. I do not mind walking into a large crowd of strangers, but get anxiety about walking into a crowd of people I know. I don’t mind talking one-on-one about work related topics, but am very uncomfortable with small talk.

Most people do not know that I have social anxiety because I am friendly and outgoing.

I recently attended a coaching conference with four other coaches whom I have worked with and known for at least 10 years. I was excited to attend the conference and work with our coaching staff on building our program. These are ladies who know me well and whom I would consider to be a group of friends. What would have been stressful to me, would have been a road trip one-on-one, but as a group it’s fine. It would also have been completely stressful to have had to share a hotel room. The thought of having to chit chat with one other person, or wondering if the other person would think badly of me in some way causes me extreme anxiety.

I have been researching what causes me to feel like this. I started looking at social anxiety and, as with anything, I am not a complete fit. What I did find very interesting was that social anxiety is a reaction to social situations. The reaction is most often in some form of anxiety attack. I didn’t know that anxiety attacks can be a bout of rage or irritability, nit-picking, hypersensitivity to disarray, chaos, or change, or to not talk at all.

As a teacher, I have other adults in and out of my classroom all the time. I don’t mind this at all. I am confident that I am doing my very best. I am not bothered by parent volunteers, other teachers, or even my principal coming in for a formal evaluation.

A few years ago, the Reading Specialist came into my classroom, interrupted my teaching, and asked to speak to me. In front of the entire class she said that I had not been letting the para-professional who was assigned to my class to service the Title 1 students. I was devastated. This was not true. The problem was that the para wanted to pull my students out and I wanted her to work with them in the classroom. The matter was handled in a very unprofessional way. For me it caused extreme anxiety about what was being said about me. I would go into an anxiety attack whenever either of them had to come into my classroom to the point that it was difficult to continue teaching. For a person with social anxiety, the thought of being judged or scrutinized is difficult. I struggled with anxiety of this situation for several years. I would avoid interaction with these coworkers as much as possible. It is typical for a person with social anxiety to distance themselves from others to avoid worry or drama.

I also started reading about being an introvert. Introversion describes a person’s basic temperament. Introversion can be looked at on a spectrum with extroversion and we all fall somewhere on that spectrum. I fall on the side of introversion. Sophia Dembling describes introverts as “Those people trying to live a quiet life in a noisy world.“ This is me. Introverts are people who need to retreat to a quiet place to recharge. They expend energy in social situations. They find small talk incredibly cumbersome. Introverts are overwhelmed by loud, noisy situations and too much talking. They enjoy a small intimate group of friends, and the idea of talking in front of 500 people is less stressful than mingling afterward.

So an introvert finds loud noisy situations and too much talking to be overwhelming. As a teacher, this is a challenge, and I teach kindergarten. I have been a teacher for 20 years. My drive home is my time to recharge. On my way home I keep the car very quiet, no radio, no phone calls, and no talking. I have done this for years, and just thought I was stressed and grumpy. But when I read about introverts, my thought was, “Hooray, I am not crazy!”

I have always been content to be a listener, and I have been accused of being too quiet. I’ve even been labeled as anti-social. But the truth is I just prefer to listen. I often feel that what I am about to say is insignificant. I often don’t share my thought for fear of wasting the other person’s time.

In doing my research on introverts and social anxiety, I came across a few quotes that made me laugh and feel very familiar:

I’m an introvert, not an asshole. Of course I want to be your friend, I just never want to see or talk to you.

I’m sorry. I know I said hi, but I wasn’t really prepared for any follow-up conversation.

I just changed my voicemail message to “Are you absolutely sure you can’t just text me?”

Hold on, I’ve got to over-think about it.

I know you tried to call me, but I don’t really use my phone for that.

My research has brought me great peace of mind. I have struggled for so long with social awkwardness. I have learned that I have social anxiety and that my anxiety is partly genetic and partly a result of who I am. My symptoms and reactions are a combination of all of my character traits, and I am just fine.

Albert Camus once said, “Some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”

But being “normal” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Just be you, whoever that is.

Shannon Fuller is a kindergarten teacher and has been teaching for 20 years. She is a graduate student at Michigan State University, studying Literacy.

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