How to live + work with shyness, introversion, and social anxiety

By Brittany Taylor

My brain is my greatest asset and my fiercest enemy. As a creative person, if my brain isn’t on board, I can’t do my best work. That’s the thing about creativity, right? It ebbs and flows with your mental and emotional states.

There are all sorts of reasons behind these ebbs and flows. Some of us battle depression. Others with fatigue. Still others with a host of mental and physical quirks and illnesses. While I can check each of these boxes from time to time, I also struggle to balance my work with my shyness, introversion, and social anxiety.

(And yes, Dad, they’re all different things.)

It doesn’t matter if you’re an employee, a boss, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with one or all three. Shyness, introversion, and social anxiety all have the ability to tank our creativity, our motivation, our productivity, and our ambition—if we don’t manage them well.

I won’t pretend to be perfect. Sometimes, I slip up. Here’s what I do to keep my shyness, introversion, and social anxiety under control most of the time.

but first...

The difference between shyness, introversion, and social anxiety

As a word person, I like to get my phrasing right. It particularly annoys me when people conflate shyness, introversion, and social anxiety because they don’t mean the same thing.

Each one is a unique mental quirk and must be managed in a different way. When we equate them, we’re communicating that you can treat them all together with a single plan of attack. That’s just not true.

Shyness is a fear

A shy person is someone who is afraid of meeting new people or interacting with them socially. Shyness is not a crippling fear, meaning that someone who is “just shy” generally doesn’t let that fear interfere with living their life. Shy people can acknowledge their fear and move past it in most situations.

Introversion is about energy

An introvert is someone who is drained by social interaction. They might enjoy it, they might not—that doesn’t matter. The opposite of an introvert is an extrovert. Extroverts gain energy from social interaction. There’s also a fence-sitter, called an ambivert. Ambiverts are drained by some social situations and energized by others.

Social anxiety is mental overwhelm

Anxiety is a diagnosable condition that affects how you live your life. Social anxious people tend to face overwhelming fears about everything surrounding a social event. They deal with worries like these continually, all at once:

Is what I’m wearing appropriate? What if I get lost? Where will I park? Should I have brought a gift? What if I’m the first one there? Should I wait outside? Why isn’t she texting me back? Is she bailing on me? What if Jake is there? What will I say to Ali? What’s a good excuse in case I need to leave early? Does my phone have enough juice in case I have to call an Uber? What if there’s only one bathroom? Will I be able to eat the food? What will I order if they’re only serving beer? Will anybody mind if I just drink Coke?

Anxiety is an escalating panic. Sometimes it’s tolerable. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it can turn into physical pain and illness.

action plan

How to deal with shyness, introversion, and social anxiety

I rag on my dad, but he’s a role model for perseverance and hard work for me, too.

He’s also Mr. Shy—or, he used to be. When he was a kid (or so he says), he hated making friends and talking to people. Today, though, he’s the Chatty Cathy in the elevator who engages you in conversation even when you’re actively staring at the wall.

My point is that these struggles ebb and flow, just like our creativity.

What shyness, introversion, and social anxiety look like in real life

I deal with shyness, introversion, and social anxiety constantly, but they don’t all impact my life the same way from day to day or week to week.

Sometimes, the phone call I need to make to my dentist sounds like the most painful task in the world. That’s the shyness kicking in.

Sometimes, I’m bubbly all weekend and need three days off to restore my energy level. That’s the introversion at work.

Sometimes, I’m driving to dinner with friends and I have to turn around and go home because I am freaking the fuck out. That’s the social anxiety.

Sometimes, they join forces and gang up on me. Sometimes, I’m golden. Sometimes, I just can’t deal with the world, and sometimes, I have to figure out a way to suck it up and get through the day, anyway.

How to deal with shyness

My shyness is a fear I can swallow if I have to, but it can still coax me into diversionary tactics like procrastination. Whether I’m dealing with shyness on a personal or a professional level, I like to have a few management methods in my back pocket to ensure that I’m going about my day productively:

  • Reward systems. Call my senator, talk to an aide, go for a walk. Get dressed up, attend happy hour, eat a bowl of tortilla chips. Drive to Staples, return the charger, spend 5 minutes on Instagram.
  • Timelines. I will give myself 30 minutes to do something I want to do, but after that 30 minutes is over, I will do that thing I’m dreading. Period.
  • Batching. I hate doing certain things like going to the tailor or ordering something by phone. I’ve found that if I lump them all together and do them all at once, I’m experiencing the fear once rather than multiple times spread over multiple days. And the feeling of relief at getting it over with rocks.

How to manage introversion

The older I become, the more impact introversion has on my life. I can be spending time with strangers or with family, and I’ll still experience what’s called an “introversion hangover.” I feel exhausted. My limbs are heavy and my mind is blank. Here’s how I handle it:

  • Schedule thoughtfully. My favorite events come in a cluster. A whole day at a conference, meeting new people and taking in information? It’s too much. Three weekends in a row going all-out with friends? I’ll be a miserable slug halfway through. To avoid that, I have to prioritize and keep my physical limits in mind.
  • Build in breathers. Even my favorite people can be exhausting. That’s why I plan out breaks as soon as I walk through the door. Can I sit in a bathroom or on a back patio for a few minutes by myself? Can I walk the dog solo or run to the grocery store? Moments of by-myself silence can help me recharge my batteries.
  • Add rest days. A weekend of go-go-go makes me crave a vacation after all the fun is over. When I have a few big days in a row, I’ve learned to build a day of chill into my schedule. That way, I’m not stressed about deadlines while I’m feeling braindead.

How to cope with social anxiety

When my ulcerative colitis flared up, my social anxiety sky-rocketed. I can be sitting in my comfy chair in my pajamas and feel it curled up at the base of my spine, cueing worries that something is wrong. There’s no defeating social anxiety. While I do take medication for it, I also rely on coping mechanisms to get me through the worst of it:

  • Deep breathing. Anxiety can send you into a panic attack. Sometimes heading one off can be as simple as controlling your inhales and exhales. Breathing on a five-count helps me stymie sudden bursts of social anxiety.
  • Creature comforts. There are some things that just calm me down. One is a blanket I’ve had since I was young. Another is heat—a warm sweater or heating pad or the heated seats in my car. The third is a CD I’ve listening to so many times, I’ve had to replace it (Sara Bareilles’ Little Voice).
  • Distractions. “Think about something else” is not a helpful thing to say to someone with social anxiety because there are only certain distractions that won’t make us worry more than we already are. For me, air moving across my face is a helpful sensory distraction. Fans, air conditioning, rolling down the window—those are all go-tos for me.

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- Brittany Taylor

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