“Social anxiety isn’t necessarily an illness, but a peculiar character type.”
Vincent Mars is a writer from Romania. In his articles, ‘Social Anxiety and What (Not) to Do About It’ and ‘The Benefits of Being an Introvert’, Vincent writes of his past experiences: how he hid from social anxiety, and the change in perception that instead allowed him to view it as a personal strength. This refreshing perspective interested me to know more, including how he came to that realisation, and any advice he would give to others who are experiencing the same.
This interview is conducted as part of a series of articles aiming to enlighten stories as well as strategies related to mental health.
How do you feel about the diagnosis or term ‘social anxiety’?
Social anxiety isn’t necessarily an illness, but a peculiar character type. When it’s so bad that it affects your relationship with other people, it should have a name. But the name itself can make it worse. Not all of us are as social as others. This itself isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is when we try to do things that don’t fit our character, in order to fit the mould. If there are no physical symptoms other than anxiety, the best treatment may be a deeper understanding of yourself. I recommend Susan Cain’s The Power of Introverts.
How did you first understand that you were socially anxious?
As a little boy, I felt dread at having to leave the house. Even if it was only to the hairdresser or to my grandparents outside the city. Even if someone went with me. As I grew up, I shunned social events. I used to have many friends at school, but I didn’t like to go places and do things in groups. It all got worse as I grew older and began questioning my place in the world.
Were you ever formally diagnosed with, or treated for, social anxiety?
No. If someone would have taken me to a doctor when I was a kid, it would have probably done me good. But you don’t think in terms of social anxiety when you’re growing up. Now I feel that trying to do something about my social anxiety would mean to turn a peculiarity of mine into a problem. I am fortunate in that my social anxiety is mild, without unpleasant physical symptoms. Okay, maybe it is a problem on certain days, but on others it is only a protection. Dwelling on it too much can make it worse. We should do the things we can and feel we should do, and don’t do the others. Especially if our body tells us not to.
“You have to watch your ego. Grapple a bit with it, if you have to.”
Did those feelings of anxiety arise only within social situations, or did they follow you elsewhere?
When I am by myself, I feel at peace. It has always been like this. I was always happy to be alone. I would count the days left until school was over. I would spend weeks, months in the house. I enjoyed it. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Looking back, that wasn’t healthy. Now as an adult, I am able to create new spaces of comfortable aloneness in nature and other places. It’s something that most of us can do as we grow up.
How did you come to realise that being introverted could actually be beneficial?
Once you realize you have to live with it, you start looking for ways to benefit from it. Books helped too — with them came the understanding that there is a whole world of sensible, shy, introverted people, and that they can live a good life, and even use their weaknesses and strengths to give something valuable to the world — a deeper awareness of life.
Was this something you realised entirely by yourself? Which tools did you have to help you?
Other introverted people I met along the way helped. Mostly people I met through books, but also lovers and friends. The only tools you really need are an open mind and the clarity not to feel sorry for yourself. You have to watch your ego. Grapple a bit with it, if you have to.
To what extent did this change in perspective alter your relationship with yourself and with others?
I am my own best friend. I like myself. There are many things I feel uneasy about about myself, but I can accept them. Now, I can also accept anyone, however difficult, strange, or flawed, without judgement and without trying to change them. I used to be very critical of others.
Why do you think there is so much pressure to be extroverted?
In Western society, achievement is seen as action, and often, as winning something or defeating someone, whether it’s bad odds or other players. It’s about fighting battles and winning them. The extrovert type fits the fighter mould far better than the introvert. But there’s another path in life, off the beaten track and through the woods, and even if it’s a lonely path at times, it’s an interesting one.
“…look not for a way out of your body, but for a deeper way in.”
Do you think there is a particular pressure on men to be extroverted?
It’s a pressure on both sexes. And quite often, it’s a pressure that we impose upon ourselves because of false notions of happiness or success. We think we need to be in a certain way to be successful or well liked. But many of the world’s successful people are actually introverts.
Is there anything you would want to change regarding your introversion?
I wouldn’t change my introversion, I’d change everything about myself, if I could. It would be wonderful for us all to be able to customize everything about our physical and mental make-up, and even choose our powers, like in some video games. But then we’re only human. It’s braver and wiser to accept things as they are and look not for a way out of your body, but for a deeper way in. We have a tendency to try to fix what we don’t understand. The problem is the tendency.
What advice would you give to someone who feels socially anxious?
Focus on the things you feel comfortable doing, not on the things you feel anxious about. Don’t look at social anxiety as an illness, but as a radar that tells you what to focus on. Your social anxiety can be a catalyst for good things and even fortunate relationships. It can provide the quiet aloneness that can help you become really good at what you do. It can also help you accept and feel more sympathy for others. The one thing you shouldn’t do is look for easy ways out, whether it’s a pill, a blade, or just denial. Don’t let your idea about who you think you should be rob you of the simple joys of just being who you are.