I have social anxiety. In my case, it's not a separately diagnosed condition (though it is in others), but part of my life with cyclothymia. Most people, I'd venture to guess, would be very surprised to hear I am socially anxious. I'm an extrovert, or at least always have been, and once I get going I have a ton of energy and enthusiasm. The thing is, it takes me a lot to get going. The worst are situations in which others know each other quite well and I am only somewhat acquainted with them. However, unless I'm with my closest friends and family, or oddly, sometimes complete strangers who also don't know each other either, the anxiety is quite awful.
For social events, I often have to prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically for several days. By physically prepare, I don't mean spending extra time doing my hair and choosing my outfit.
Rather it's the racing heart, nervous stomach, occasional shortness of breath, headaches or migraines, often the onset of a depressive cycle, which brings extreme fatigue and exhaustion. Then, I have to prepare for how to interact. If I don't know people well, especially if they're close to each other, will they think I'm leeching on if I try to join the conversation? Will they notice my anxiety? My depression? Or worse, as Howard mentioned, will I appear like a disinterested snob? Will they think I'm a drain, no fun, uptight? If I actually gain some confidence and my natural excitable personality surfaces, will I come across as loud, annoying, hyper?
But wait, there's more! Believe it or not, my anxiety isn't the most troubling. There's also the fact that my depressive spells make me completely unable to value my own worth, It appears to me that everyone is better at everything than me - more fun, more likable, more talented, better looking, more successful. As you can imagine, this doesn't make going into a social engagement that you're already nervous about better. A very important note here: this is NOT jealousy. It's not me moping around, thinking negatively, needing an attitude adjustment. It's that my brain is hard-wired to react this way. Plain and simple. Depression seems to siphon out the ability for positive self-thought. So when I'm sad, or aloof, or despondent, or teary-eyed for reasons others can't understand, when I don't want to interact or do something social, it's not that I'm a jealous, high-strung, uninterested grinch who wants to ruin your time.
Finally, there's the hypomania. Oh, my love-hate relationship with hypomania. Occassionally, it does help me to have the confidence of an averagely-confident person which, I'll admit, feels wonderful. And being not depressed, that feels wonderful too. But mostly, as I've described it so many times before, it makes me feel like a drank a whole pot - not cup, pot - of coffee on an empty stomach. I feel even more anxious than usual. I'm jittery, unable to sit still. I babble on, knowing I'll later be horribly embarrassed but feeling like physically I cannot stop. Trust me, as much as it may bother you, it bothers me more. Now, as with depression, let me tell you what hypomania is not. It is NOT attention-seeking activity. As you may have guessed from my description of social anxiety, I hate attention. I actually feel nervous when people, other than very close friends and loved ones, look at me. Yes, just looking at me makes me feel like I'm getting too much attention. I have to fight every instinct to not turn away, embarrassed. Hypomania might bring attention to me, for better or (more often) for worse, but it is not intentional attention-seeking behavior.
So next time you think someone with a mental health condition is snobbish, a stick in the mud, too uptight, too hyper, too jealous, trying to ruin your fun, attention-seeking.... please remember what I've just written above, and consider how much they're going through just to participate in a normal social situation. Perhaps, as Howard suggests in his post, one day I'll be able to say "I'm sorry, my mental health condition is acting up, I apologize for my social awkwardness, please don't take offense." But we are far from that day sadly, so please, try to understand what we might be dealing with.
Now, I bet you all can't wait to invite me to your next party!