With the flutter of unsaid words in my mouth, I watched as he headed towards the door. There was something else I wanted, but anxiety cemented me to the dinner table chair. - Mandy in Summer Nightmares
For a long time, I've been okay with people saying that I am a “shy person.” I am on the quiet side. Even my voice is soft. However, more and more, I've come to see how inaccurate being called a “shy person” is.
Shyness is a feeling. I experience feelings of shyness often, just how some people experience happiness or anger often. Although I often feel shy, it does not exclude me from moments of not feeling shy, the same as how a person described as “a happy person” is not immune to feeling sad at times. We cannot be labeled by our feelings, because feelings are always changing. They are not static and do not make a stable personal identity.
When I'm comfortable in a social setting, I don't feel shy. When I'm uncomfortable, I do. So in light of this, I've decided to let go of the label “a shy person.” I try not to think of other people as shy, and I really try not to apply it to myself. With that judgment of being a “shy person,” I miss out on the moments where I do feel comfortable and can fully be myself.
When I call others shy, I discount who they are and what they have to offer. When I think instead, “Oh, they're feeling shy,” I'm more likely to do something that would make them more comfortable in the moment, because shyness is an indicator of discomfort.
Social discomfort is not weird. Everyone feels it sometimes, even the most outgoing. Although looking at my shyness as an emotion has been freeing, accepting it isn't always easy.
However, as I learned more about sensory perception sensitivity, I also discovered that what I thought of before as social anxiety, was actually over-stimulation and distraction.
I moaned and laid back on the bed. I was so tired. The idea of going into a store full of obnoxious people with their kids made my stomach ache. “Is it okay if I sit this one out? I'm way too tired for the zoo.” - Mandy in Jellyfish Dreams
Environments that are too loud and distracting, visually and audibly, make it hard for me to formulate my thoughts and keep up with conversation. As a result, I feel frustrated, which is also distracting because then I can only think about what a loser I am because I can't seem to come up with anything to say, and I can't focus on the conversation. Turns out though, I'm just in the wrong place, like a fish wondering why it's having such a hard time breathing out of the water. Social environments with a lot going on are not the best fit for me because my brain is working overtime with trying to keep track of it all–“all” being the other stuff I see, hear, and feel. When I'm tired, this effect is even worse.
In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine N. Aron has an exercise where you reframe unpleasant social experiences in the light of being a sensitive person. Basically, you write down all of the awkward social moments you've experienced that have impacted your life, and then rewrite them focusing on what you learned about sensory perception sensitivity.
I found that many of my worst social experiences happened in areas where there is a lot of visual stimulation and people walking around, such as malls, large parties, etc… It also explained why when I go to theme parks, I'm so irritable by the end of the day.
The number of people involved in social interactions is crucial too. Being with someone else one-on-one is ideal. I love it when I can fully focus on another person. Groups of four are also great. However, groups of three are killer. They're my poison. I believe it's because with groups of three, it's hard to focus on one person.
One person can be talking to me, but then I can't help but notice the actions of the other person. Why are they making that face? What are they thinking? Then there's the whole three is a crowd thing. I feel stretched thin when I feel like it's my responsibility to entertain two people with conversation, and I feel crowded when two people want to know more about me and are throwing questions at me from both sides. Then there is the typical, these two are friends with each other but not you, creating the annoying third wheel affect. There are exceptions to this, but in general I do not like groups of three!
With groups of 6 people and larger, I tend to feel lost. I feel like I'm not there—just a shadow barely present. That feeling comes from there being too much for me to take in and absorb in my environment. It's not that I don't enjoy activities with a lot of people. I enjoy them in limited amounts, and I like people watching. Still, I have a hard time with holding conversations in those kinds of settings. For me to engage with people, it needs to be low-key. In the past I have had a lot of fun hanging out with one friend at the beach, a restaurant, or a movie, or even at home. Those are the types of environments that work for me.
Coping with the Physical Discomfort of Overstimulation
When I have to be somewhere that is not the ideal social environment for me, I cope by:
Limiting exposure. I feel so much better when I do half days at theme parks. In other environments, it's not unusual for me to find a moment of peace by taking a walk outside, checking my phone in the bathroom, or sneaking away to other quiet corners. I come back to the chaos when I'm ready.
Drinking water. When I first read this in The Highly Sensitive Person as a suggestion of how to deal with anxiety inducing over-stimulation, I thought it was ridiculous. How can drinking water help me when I'm in a social environment that is causing me emotional distress?
Well, I decided to give it a try, and it worked. When I'm in an overwhelming social situation, I feel the blood rush to my cheeks, like I'm blushing, and I start to sweat. As soon as those physical things start to happen, pulling out a cool bottle of water and taking a drink is unbelievably comforting. Once I feel comfort, I'm able to rejoin the conversation and sometimes forget about the physical discomfort. This worked so well, that for a while I carried a water bottle with me every time I knew I was going somewhere with a lot of people.
People didn't give any special attention to me when I would take a sip of water during conversation, because it's a very natural thing. I think drinking water taught my body there's nothing to be alarmed about, so now the physical reactions aren't as bad. I don't even have to carry a water bottle with me anymore. Now after conversations, I step away to get a drink at a water fountain to regain my composure.
Getting plenty of rest before hand. If I know I'm going somewhere highly stimulating, I try to take a nap before I go. Things feel more intense when I'm tired, and that's what I want to avoid.
So those are my thoughts on shyness, social anxiety and how it relates to being highly sensitive. Any questions? Thoughts? Comments? I'd love to hear what you think.
If you liked this post, then you'll enjoy my current story The Altered Realities of a Dream-maker: Jellyfish Dreams. Click here to learn more.