Do You Have Social Anxiety Disorder, Or Are You Just An Introvert?

mbg Contributor By Sheryl Paul, M.A.
mbg Contributor
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has guided thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her best-selling books, her e-courses, and her website. She has her master's in Psychology Counseling from the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and is the author of The Wisdom of Anxiety: How Worry and Intrusive Thoughts Are Gifts to Help You Heal.
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We live in a diagnosis-happy era. We diagnose kids in school who have a hard time sitting still and focusing as having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We diagnose people who struggle with intrusive thoughts as having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And we diagnose people who shy away from large groups or prefer their own quiet company as having social anxiety disorder.

Do you hear the common word in all of these diagnoses? It's disorder. Disorder, meaning something out of order. Disorder, meaning something is wrong.

While a proper diagnosis is helpful when dealing with severe mental illness, for the vast majority of people receiving a diagnosis is confirmation that something is "wrong." And since most people already live with the sense that there's something wrong or broken inside, an unnecessary diagnosis only serves to corroborate an already false belief.

We're now learning that, in most cases where there's been a diagnosis, there's actually nothing wrong other than people being crammed into a system or way of being that is antithetical to who they naturally are.

For example, a kid who needs to move while learning can be called an "experiential learner" and moved into a classroom environment that honors his type of learning. Alternatively, he can be labeled, diagnosed and medicated, thereby disrupting and dishonoring his natural rhythm and learning type and communicating the belief that there's something wrong.

Likewise, someone who doesn't enjoy big groups and delights in their own company can be seen as an introvert, or they can be held up against the extroverted ideal of the culture, and diagnosed as having social anxiety disorder.

When clients come to me and say, " I have OCD," my skin bristles. But when they say, "I get nervous in big groups; I think I have social anxiety," my entire being balks. I will then ask a few poignant questions:

  1. Do you enjoy spending time with a close friend or a very small group of intimate friends? (Yes)
  2. Do you enjoy your own company? (Yes)
  3. Do you need time to recharge on your own, especially after spending time in a group? (Yes)
  4. Do you do your best thinking by yourself? (Yes)
  5. Do you enjoy shorter events out in the world? (Yes)

If this list describes you, there's nothing "wrong" with you. You're not disordered. You may not fit into the mainstream way, and you've likely spent a lifetime trying to contort yourself to fit into the mainstream way, but just because it's not your way doesn't mean there's anything wrong or disordered. You're an introvert. A beautiful, sensitive, thoughtful, analytical introvert. The only thing "wrong" is that you don't fit into the extroverted ideal of the culture.

Susan Cain describes the consequences of being an introvert living in a culture that reveres the extroverted ideal so beautifully in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Here she says:

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live in a value system of what I call the Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight ... Introversion, along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness, is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

What would happen if we stopped trying to squeeze people into one definition of "normal" — the one-size-fits-all approach that expects everyone to love big parties, drinking, and sporting events? What would happen if we honored each person's individual rhythm around how they learn, play, speak, spend their time, and socialize? What would happen if we recognized that there are many ways to thrive in this world and many ways to function socially?

We would bring a big and much-needed dose of acceptance to at least a third to half of the population, and the world would be a very different place, indeed.

Sheryl Paul, M.A.
Sheryl Paul, M.A.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has guided thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her...
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