If you're an introvert, you've probably already encountered the wisdom of Sophia Dembling. She's a prolific writer, a quiet sage, and an all-around cool chick.
I had a blast talking with her recently and learned:
- the best place for introverts to park themselves at parties
- how to decide whether to channel your inner extrovert or indulge your introversion
- what to do if you feel overlooked in conversation or at events
- when it's okay to hide in the bathroom or even turn on your heel and leave
- the importance of choosing social situations where you will succeed
- and more!
Press the "play" button to listen in on our conversation, or just read the transcript below!
Ellen Hendriksen: Hello everyone and welcome. I’m Ellen Hendriksen and today I have a real treat for you. We are here with author and self-described professional introvert, Sophia Dembling. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Sophia.
Sophia Dembling: I’m happy to be here.
EH: Great! I am a big fan of yours. Sophia Dembling is a writer in Dallas, Texas, and she is the author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World and Introverts in Love: The Way to Happily Ever After; she writes The Introvert’s Corner blog for Psychology Today, and is author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go and A Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas.
Texas happens to be my home state, so nice to talk to a fellow Texan. I grew up in Houston.
SD: Oh, cool. Well, I grew up in New York, but I’ve been here a long time.
EH: Oh, well we’ve switched – I’m now in New England.
So, between the two of us, we talk about two things – introversion and, for me, social anxiety – that have a lot of overlap, but are not the same thing. So, in your opinion, what is the difference between introversion and social anxiety?
SD: Well, I usually think more in terms of shyness, which – and you can correct me if I’m wrong – is sort of social anxiety, shyness on steroids, as I would see it, in a way.
EH: Yes, absolutely. I agree.
SD: And I think – and when I’ve talked to other researchers – the difference between them is that social anxiety and shyness are behaviors. They’re fear; they’re people who maybe want to engage with other people, but it frightens them.
Introversion is motivation. It’s how much you want and need all that interaction. What I find very interesting is that you can be a shy introvert – that’s obvious, and that’s sort of the way people think of introversion; you can be a not-shy introvert, like myself, where I’m perfectly comfortable interacting; I can speak in public; I can do all kinds of things that people say “You must not be an introvert!” – but I'm not shy. You can be obviously a not-shy extrovert, but you can also be a shy extrovert.
SD: And those are the ones who really struggle, because they're the ones who really crave, and extroverts need a certain level of interaction in order to feel whole and fully themselves, but it frightens them. And so there's actually four states of shyness versus introversion and extroversion that are very distinct.
EH: Yes, and that place of being a shy extrovert is, like you said, probably the most difficult because extroverts get their energy from being with people, but by nature if they're shy, then they are afraid to go there, so you end up either being lonely and sluggish because you're not getting your energy, or frightened, and so either way, it's a rock and a hard place.
SD: And the other thing that's important to note is that shyness and social anxiety can be overcome, and you know that, obviously, because that's what you do.
EH: That is my soapbox, yes.
SD: Introversion can not really be overcome, and nor does it need to.
EH: Nor do we want to, yes.
SD: It's not a problem. It's when it starts becoming a problem, when you're not getting your needs met because of some sort of anxiety, that you might want to fix it.
EH: I agree with you 100%.
So, many introverts have convinced themselves that they're hopeless at parties, or they don't know how to have a conversation, or they always get overlooked – so what is your advice to introverts who feel that they're hopeless or somehow their skills are lacking?
SD: Well, I mean most social skills are sort of a learned skill. To repeat, social skills are learned. You can train yourself. If you're struggling, it could be that you're dealing with shyness or social anxiety, and not so much introversion.
The other thing I suggest is: learn how to do parties your way. Figure out how it works for you to go to a party. I tend to prefer, for example, parties where I know almost everybody. I'm much more likely to have fun at a party where there's like 20 people, most of whom I know, than 150 people. I don't go to parties to make new friends, particularly; I go to parties to see friends I already know.
I'm also very likely, for example, to park myself somewhere, preferably somewhere where – you know, if you go by the food table, everybody goes by there, right? I liken myself to a sponge; sponges sit at the bottom of the ocean and eat whatever comes by. That's sort of how I am at parties socializing. I kind of stay put and let it come to me and that is a thousand times easier for me than working the room. Now, I will say I just came from a high school reunion where I realized I didn't talk to a lot of people I wish I had, because I did go into that sort of "I can't really do this." So take my advice with a grain of salt. I struggle with parties also and it kind of sometimes depends on where I'm at.
But if you've got yourself convinced that you're hopeless, I think that you're talking about social anxiety 'cause you're imagining that people are paying a lot more attention to you than they probably are, and you're feeling a lot more self-conscious than reality reflects. Most people are thinking about themselves and how they're behaving; how they're being perceived. And so if you can get that lodged in your brain, it can be helpful.
As far as being overlooked, I think this is one of those things that introverts can do to themselves. If you're feeling overlooked, you're expecting an awful lot of other people. If you don't want to be overlooked, you have to put out a little bit of effort. It's not enough to just show up if you really want some attention. And so if every time you go out, you think, "Well, nobody's paying attention to me," you want to start thinking about whether your expectations of what other people owe you, in terms of attention, are a little high. Maybe you're not putting out enough. You have to be generous with who you are to people in order to get something back. I think introverts do feel like, "Well, how come they haven't asked me any questions?" which is whole other problem, of being talked at. But sometimes you just have to get in there and say it yourself and I think we forget that and think, "Well people are supposed to draw us out," and that's not really other people's job.
EH: That makes sense 'cause conversation or social connection should be reciprocal, and so other people don't always have to start that. We can get it started too, and I think the more we practice that, and dip our toe into that pool, the easier it gets.
SD: And I find, too, if you look in the corners of every party, you'll find the other introverts, and you can go and sit and hang out with them. You can sit down and say, "Boy, I'm bad at parties!" and suddenly you have a conversation.
EH: Or you can find the socially anxious people scrolling through their phones and you can go talk to them, too.
SD: Talking to the dogs (laughter).
EH: Yes, exactly (laughter).
SD: And hiding in the bathrooms.
EH: Yes. Okay, so how do you know when to grit your teeth and channel your inner extrovert? How do you know when to do that versus when to honor your introversion?
SD: Well, in sort of a bigger picture, it depends on how important what you're doing is to you and/or how important the person – you know, right now I'm very involved in political activism and it's really important to me and it's requiring a huge amount of extroversion and I'd really rather just stop doing it, but it matters to me. Or you may be invited to a close friend's wedding, and you're like, "Oh, I hate weddings, I don't want to go – this is a close friend, this is important." You gotta nut up and do it because it does matter to other people.
I believe that friends go to friend's parties; if it's somebody you care about, then you nut up and do it even if it's just for a while. I tell introverts that the easiest way to get yourself to go to a party is to tell yourself you're allowed to leave when you've had enough.
Sometimes it's just a matter of showing up, and I think it's really important to start recognizing what those times are when showing up as an extrovert benefits you, benefits somebody you love, or is tied into something that's very important to you.
If it's a party that you're only going to because everybody's going and you fear missing out but you don't care that much, then it's okay to indulge that inner introvert. I really don't like Halloween. I don't like people in costumes; I like inhibitions. And so I'm looking at party pictures on Facebook and feeling that little twinge of fear of missing out, and then I thought, "You know, I would hate being there. I wouldn't have fun." And so it was okay that I indulged my introvert and let that go on without me. So, one by one, we figure out which things matter to us or to our loved ones and we let the other things go.
EH: So purposeful fake extroversion sounds like the answer. So if there's a larger purpose, if there’s something that’s important to us, it's important to someone we love, it's an important cause, then it's worth it to dig deep and to channel your inner extrovert.
EH: Got it. Okay, so what if we dig deep, and we show up, and then we feel anxious. Should we fight it? Do we proclaim it? Just own it and say, "I'm anxious"? Do you roll with it? What are your tips for being in a social situation and feeling awkward and anxious?
SD: Well, certainly, it'll depend on the social situation, and I think you're probably in a great place to address anxiety more than I am. I hate to address anxiety because it's such a huge continuum from a little twinge to positively crippling.
EH: All the way to panic, sure. But I ask the question because I want to learn more and I want to learn what other people think, as well.
SD: I think it depends on the situation. Sometimes it can help to just pull yourself out of it for a little bit and have a break and that's why people go to the bathroom and hide for a minute or take a walk around the block and talk yourself off the ledge a little bit, and say, "Look, this is not life or death; this is just a party."
Sometimes it can help to just admit your anxiety. Like I said, you find the other introvert in the corner and say, "Oh man, I'm bad at parties." And just that commiseration that will very likely occur can be helpful to bring you down.
If it's not important and it's just a party and you're not having fun, then leave. There's this feeling that once we've committed to these events, it's set in stone. I have left parties very shortly after arriving, where I walk in and realize I'm not feeling it, I don't care that much, it's okay at this moment to indulge my anxiety.
I would be more worried if it happened all the time. That's where you start talking about social anxiety and maybe there's something you can learn about managing that. I know introverts who would never go to a party; they don't want to go to parties. And that's fine too.
Again, it keeps coming back to this recognizing who you are as an introvert and recognizing what's important to you. If it's important to you to stay there and engage and you start drawing on what you've learned about managing your own anxiety, or you take a little break, or you find a sympathetic soul. My husband's really good; he knows when I'm feeling weird at a party or something. If it's something that doesn't matter to you, then you cut yourself slack and say, "The world will not end if I bail out of this and I'll have more fun next time," and leave.
EH: That makes sense. So it sounds like if you choose to stay home or choose to leave the party or choose to stay, then that's one thing, but if fear chooses for you, that's another.
SD: Yes, exactly right.
EH: Okay, so for my last question – this might sound a little bit like an oxymoron, but what are your favorite ways to be a social introvert? You talked about parties; what are some other ways to be a social introvert?
SD: One thing I really like is getting involved with classes or situations or organizations where I see the same people again and again, where I have time to get used to them, where I can get to know them on my own timetable. I can't go into a party and make a friend easily. It happens, but things like activism, where I'm meeting the same people again and again, and it grows into something deeper.
I'm horrible, horrible at networking events where you've got a cocktail and you're walking around meeting people. But if I go to a luncheon where I'm sitting at a table with a few people for a period of an hour or ninety minutes or whatever, I do pretty well. And so I try to pick those situations and I think this helps build your courage, if you're an anxious mingler. But I pick those situations where I know I can succeed. I will fail at a networking event; I will succeed with a luncheon, you know, a networking luncheon.
I love one-on-one time with friends or one-on-two, you know, small groups for me. I love really good conversation. These big gang events where everybody's dancing into the room – they're okay; I like watching extroverts. They have their place; it's sort of like watching theater. But when it comes to my social needs, it's very much one-on-one or very small groups, people I'm familiar with, and lots of really good conversation or an activity that we really enjoy together. Those are the ways I get my social needs met.
EH: Well that is great; I'm gonna use some of that advice. This all sounds fantastic. Thank you so much for talking today, Sophia.
SD: It was a pleasure; I enjoyed it.
EH: You can pick up a copy of any of Sophia's books, including The Introvert's Way and Introverts in Love, at your favorite place to buy books, and you can also find her at “Sophia Dembling – Professional Introvert” on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @sophiadembling. You can also follow me on Twitter @ellenhendriksen, and be sure to poke around on ellenhendriksen.com for more free resources to help beat social anxiety and be your true self. I post new and useful goodies every two weeks, and if you sign up for the mailing list, you will get those before anyone else. You can also let me know what you'd like those goodies to be – you can always contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much for listening, and I will see you in a couple of weeks!