I come from a long line of people afflicted with social anxiety disorders. I heard the phrase “I’m not a people person” so many times growing up that I thought I was genetically destined to feel alienated and antisocial for the rest of my life. I believed the family lore and suffered stomachache-inducing anxiety in social situations. I spent a lot of my 20s in an alcoholic haze in order to cope with interactions with human beings. Sorry human beings. It was me, not you.
Once I sobered up, I compensated for my sense of alienation and insecurity by working hard to establish my imagined superiority in a group. I mentioned being in the military (I’m tougher than you), my college degree (I’m smarter than you) and used sarcasm as a weapon (I’m wittier than you). I was a jerk and not surprisingly, not a people magnet. I ended up just as I feared I would, standing next to the keg, the punchbowl, the creepy dude or the exit. Each time, I vowed to never go to another party or event where there was more than one other person. The stress was too much. But my “survival” skills were completely untenable for a happy life.
The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön advises: Lean into the sharp edges. If I’m not good at something, if I have a weakness, if I’m uncomfortable or insecure about something, I work to change it or rework it in my head until I have a better perspective. I practice, I read books, I turn a critical eye inward and really examine my thinking and motivation. It’s hard to separate who you have been told you were, from who you really are. Those early labels stick and sometimes it’s only experiencing complete misery that makes you challenge them.
I’ve come to realize that the need for solitude or being uncomfortable socializing for long periods of time, isn’t about a deficiency or disorder. It’s all a matter of degree. Some people are simply energized by being around other people and don’t particularly enjoy being alone. Others, like me, enjoy socializing for a limited amount of time as long as a requisite for solitude has been met. It isn’t about being a “people person”, it’s about understanding what your psyche needs. People often talk about “loners”, usually in interviews after horrible crimes. There’s being alone and there’s being lonely and isolated.
I need to be alone about 70% of the time and have set my life up in a way that I can meet that need. It can’t happen every day. I have a job, a family and responsibilities. Some days are 50/50. On some days when events conspire against my need for solitude, I find myself a bit desperate, shrieking “I just need 5 minutes to myself!” Apparently shrieking is antisocial behavior because everyone magically disappears.
True silence is the rest of the mind, and it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.
True solitude without distraction is energizing for me. I can come from a calmer, more grounded place and then socializing doesn’t cause me as much anxiety. I feel more comfortable and am able to discover amazing things about other people. They are tense or nervous or anxious, too. I find that my “objective” in social interactions is to do my part to make someone else comfortable, to connect and listen. I’ve discovered that just about everyone feels “different” or alienated. It’s like an after-school special, except it has taken me long beyond my teens to figure this out. I’m a slow learner.
Fortunately, once I’ve conquered one anxiety, another one bellies up to the bar. That’s part of the joy of living – knowing that you have an untapped well of neuroses to keep things fresh.