My senior high school yearbook is a study in irony. Partly because half the yearbook staff were friends of mine (who kept handing me questionnaires throughout the year as they wrote it), I’m on—literally, no exaggeration—nearly every other page of the book. A quote from me here, an extra-curricular picture of me there: any stranger browsing that book would assume I was one of the prime movers and shakers of the class. Of course I made the “Senior Favorites Most-Likely” list, too. There’s me, right under… “shyest.”
My male “Shyest” counterpart had a small list of appropriately introverted spare time activities beside our picture. “I don’t think of myself as shy,” he said. My long list of extracurriculars included nearly every performing arts group in the school (and that “NFL” stands for forensics, i.e. public speaking, not football, by the way), but my feelings about being voted “Shyest” amounted to, “Good, I’d hate to think people thought I just didn’t like them.”
“Shy,” “quiet,” “introverted,” and “suffering from social anxiety” are words that are often used interchangeably, but they describe different characteristics. Some of those characteristics overlap, but sometimes they show up in completely unexpected combinations. A person can be quiet and introverted—preferring solitary activities and needing time alone to recharge—and not feel a bit uncomfortable about it, like the “Shyest”-but-was-he-really boy in my class. He had no problem interacting with other people. He just didn’t go out of his way to do so. Then there’s me, also quiet and introverted, but small talk makes me tongue-tied. I wanted to make friends, but the process of doing so was somewhat terrifying.
Being shy—nervous about socializing—is a subset of social anxiety. But social anxiety itself is multifaceted. Fear of public speaking is considered a form of social anxiety, but one I’ve never really dealt with, and was honestly just confused as a child when people conflated it with “shyness.” Over and over through the years I’ve witnessed the stunned looks from people who thought they knew me, when they suddenly witnessed me sing, or put on my proper “radio voice,” or lead a tour group or somewhat-raucous storytime. But performing uses a totally different set of social-emotional muscles than socializing. Even simply working with the public, being “yourself,” is a type of performance, because you’re filling a clear role. It has parameters, maybe even a script. I know where I’m at in front of an audience, and I’m okay with it.
Take me out of that performance and I clam up. I flounder. I may even become crabby. I don’t know what to do with myself besides personify various underwater creatures. And, yes, it’s generally irrational phobia, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
One of my weirdest social phobias is calling people on the phone. The process of picking up the phone and dialing makes me freeze, and I’ll do anything in my power to avoid it. I can answer the phone fine, though I am liable to glare at a ringing phone savagely and ask it (the phone itself, not the person on the other end), “Is that really necessary?” But in order to make a phone call I have to write a script, then I have to check social media, then I have to get a snack, then I have to wait until the good song that is on is over, and afterward I have to reward myself with probably another snack. It’s been a relief to discover, online, that there actually are a lot of other people who have this problem. Of course we congregate on social media, because we don’t have to call anybody there.
A friend from both real life and online once noted the differences between the two personas. “Online, you are wittier, more brazen. You’re willing to put yourself out there a good bit more…. You are brave, online.” I hadn’t noticed being brave. But it’s true, I speak my mind more online. I’m not afraid to share what I’m really thinking. So my in-person shyness doesn’t really have to do with being afraid of what people think about my thoughts, either.
In fact, it’s not my “online” persona as much as my “written” persona. In middle school we had journaling time in English class, and afterward our teacher would always ask if anyone wanted to share what they had journaled. My hand always shot up. It was my chance to be heard, to let my peers know the sort of thoughts running through my head! Because if I had tried to talk to my peers directly about any of those things? I never could have gotten them out.
So really, my social anxieties almost exclusively stem from my trouble verbalizing, connecting my brain to my mouth. It has nothing to do with being in front of people, or sharing my inner thoughts—it’s just about how hard it is for me to talk.
My oldest takes after me this way. Even his newborn wailing was relatively quiet. His loquacious paternal grandmother was convinced he started talking too late, and wasn’t talking enough, but I said, “Nah, he’s fine. He’s just not a talker.”
Then his sister came along, and was everything her grandmother had been expecting—newborn wailing included. That girl has lungs. At her baptism, in the middle of a speech about how the babies there could grow to serve the church and how maybe this boy here might be a priest, and… she let out such a powerful wail that the priest immediately ad-libbed, “…and she’ll be a cantor!” “Will,” not “might.” My mother had her pegged as an opera singer.
But it wasn’t just volume. Her babbles took the shape of outright witty conversation before they even took the shape of words. Once that flow of words started, it never stopped. And she loved to entertain. Her penchant for jokes and pranks changed the diagnosis from “opera singer” to “musical comedy, or even just a stand-up comedienne.”
So why did she duck and whisper instead of showing off those pipes at her school concerts? Why, when she did almost-as-predicted join the children’s choir at church, did she panic before each performance, even though she was mostly hidden from view in the choir loft? Why did she once come home crying because she’d been asked to speak in class but she just couldn’t do it?
Wasn’t she the family ham?
Maybe because she has such a fine-tuned sense of performance, it makes her care more, which makes her worry more, which makes her freeze in front of a large audience?
Or maybe social anxieties just really are that unpredictable?
I mean, even if she does get stage fright, she’s still a chatty extrovert. She still can’t bear to be alone, or not get attention. She’s still way more of a people-person than I ever was. People seek out her company. By the end of her first day in a new school, camp, or other activity where she has to meet new people, there are always kids calling out to her, specifically, by name. That never happens to me, and I had the second-most-common girls’ name of my generation. She would never have to deal with being shy.
And yet, at a school picnic the other week, she spent the first half hour in a meltdown because she was afraid the girl she considered her BFF, who called her on the phone all the time, might not want to play with her because she was playing with other kids.
“Did you ask?” I said.
“I CAN’T,” she insisted. “What if nobody recognizes me without my glasses?” She’s had glasses for less than a year.
“At least three people said ‘hi’ to you on our way in,” I pointed out.
“What if they were talking to a DIFFERENT Maddie?!” Look, it’s a fairly common name, but not the second-most-popular of your generation, and also they were looking right at you.
She was finally rescued by an allegedly somewhat-unpopular girl, who told her jokes and walked her over to the others until my supposedly-social-butterfly felt comfortable again. I looked at them, and then at her introverted, emotionally-unstable brother who hadn’t had a single problem finding a group and fitting in that evening, and could only think, “Kids are confusing.”
But it’s not just kids. It’s social situations in general. You never know which ones might trigger a bout of anxiety in a person, no matter what their general temperament.