Once in a while I read a book or story featuring a person with social anxiety. Sometimes it’s done brilliantly and other times…well, improvements could be made. I’d like to help out any writers who find themselves writing a character with anxiety. I’ll give a list of some characteristics of social anxiety and then some tips for portraying anxious people in stories. I am focusing on social anxiety since that is a largely misunderstood condition and the one which I am most familiar with.
1) They are all unique.
The most important thing to know about people with social anxiety is that they are not all the same. I know this seems obvious but it is human nature to generalize and this is something I have seen plenty of generalizing about. So keep that in mind with the rest of this list. One person could experience all, some, or none of these particular traits. And I will doubtless miss some characteristics that people with anxiety experience. Social anxiety also exists on a spectrum. Not everyone is paralyzed at the smallest conversation, but some are. Others feel mild discomfort at certain types of socializing. It’s all relative.
2) They don’t hate people.
Social anxiety does not mean that the person afflicted doesn’t like people or always craves solitude. One of the harshest aspects of social anxiety is that a person may want companionship and friends but still have uncontrollable discomfort when faced with making friends or spending time with the friends they already have. This constant tug-of-war between wanting friends and feeling the anxiety around people can cause a lot of internal pain and lead to other emotions and conditions such as depression.
3) They may handle crowds vs individuals in surprising ways.
It may seem that for a person suffering from social anxiety the more people they have to be around, the worse it will be. This isn’t always true however. If someone has to give a speech to a group of people they don’t know, there is always the comfort of knowing that they won’t ever have to see the crowd again. If they make mistakes, they won’t have to be held accountable to the crowd. But if they are talking with one or two colleagues, or chatting with friends, the stakes may be higher because they will have to see these people possibly every day. There is a greater pressure to impress friends and colleagues and seem “normal” and therefore the anxiety ramps up.
Its the same at a party or a crowded train. Crowds can lend anonymity and a break from socializing. If an anxious person had to make a trip with one person, they would be required to socialize with that person for most of the trip. Alone on a crowded train, though, the anxious person can ignore all the others and focus on whatever they want to do.
4) They hone observational skills.
A common behavior of people with social anxiety is to constantly observe others. Part of the anxiety stems from not always knowing how to/being good at socializing. Thus an anxious person will watch others closely for clues to their performance and acceptance. While it doesn’t always tell the person how they are doing, it does teach them a lot about the people around them and how they feel about each other.
The person in a group with social anxiety may actually have a better idea of who in the group are friends, enemies, annoyed with the others, think they are better, have crushes, and so on. Having social anxiety doesn’t mean that a person doesn’t know social cues, it means that they underestimate their ability to use them. Don’t confuse social anxiety with autism.
5) They make friends differently.
Someone with social anxiety can have friends. Even a lot of friends. As I said above, having social anxiety doesn’t mean one dislikes people and being around them. But certain factors may influence how a person with social anxiety chooses friends more than they influence others.
A major factor is how much effort the friend will require to remain a friend. Some people need constant contact with their friends. There is nothing wrong with that, but a person with social anxiety will want a friend who is lower maintenance. Only talk at work? Great! Can chat online once in a while and still remain friends? Even better! The level of contact is different for everyone and there will be some friends who can take up more time while not taking up more energy on the part of the anxious person.
6) It’s always there. Always.
This is a big one. A person with anxiety always thinks about their anxiety. Even when they are happily at home reading a book, sometimes they will think about an upcoming engagement, or wish they made friends like the characters in their book. Every time a person with social anxiety makes plans they have to run through a list of criteria before nailing anything down. Will they have time before and after to prep for and cool down from the experience? Is it something they have done before and feel comfortable doing? Can they back out at the last minute if they feel too overwhelmed that day? These are just a fraction of the things that go through an anxious person’s mind before committing to plans.
Again, this isn’t an absolute, but for many people with social anxiety it is a defining characteristic of who they are. They don’t talk to a single person, even a spouse sometimes, or make a doctor’s appointment without the anxiety affecting how they feel, think, and behave. It is always there. Always.
7) Outsiders can’t always tell.
This is one of the biggest misunderstandings about social anxiety. Just because a person feels awkward and uncomfortable about socializing doesn’t mean they are as bad at it as they assume. A lot of times even an anxious person’s closest friends and family don’t know they are suffering. They get really good at pretending things are okay. They feel like they are mimicking social proficiency but barely passing and could be discovered at any minute. It is easy for them to forget, or not realize at all, that if no one can tell, they are doing more than mimicking. But then, if it was that easy, no one would really suffer from it anymore would they?
1) Make them fail.
I read a book once with a character who was a timid girl from a rural estate who wasn’t allowed out to socialize. She was very nervous embarking on this grand journey alone, without the brothers who sheltered her, and the reader was constantly reminded how nervous she was. But she never failed. She would say to herself, “This is so unlike me,” and then just go do it right on the first try. Now, she had a lot at stake, the fate of her whole family, but anxiety doesn’t care about that. In fact, if anything, that would make the kinds of social activities she had to engage in harder.
If you are writing about a person with social anxiety and they are forced again and again to go outside their comfort zone, make them fail. Have them go to a meeting and then duck down a side corridor at the last minute and disappear. Have them talk to a person and then freeze up in the middle of a conversation, at a loss for words. The longer they go without knowing what to say the stronger the anxiety gets and the harder it is to think. Or have them execute the socializing brilliantly but then go into the bathroom and cry from the overwhelming sense of effort it took to look normal. And just because they have had a few successes doesn’t mean that they will start succeeding every time. Sometimes, the energy it takes, even when the interaction was a success, means that next time they are reluctant or too exhausted to do it again.
2) Don’t always give them tells.
Like a said above, anxious people can be very good at hiding it. In the example above of the person who socializes brilliantly and then cries in the bathroom, no one knows how hard it was. They only saw the brilliant “performance.” Keep that in mind. Not all people uncomfortable with socializing are bumbling awkward goofballs. Sometimes they actually appear very cool and collected.
3) Make it influence all decisions.
This is one you can do as the writer and not include every bit of internal dialogue. Just keep in mind that Every decision an anxious person makes is put through the anxiety filter first. Even if they are doing things by themselves, they have to evaluate the chances of meeting people, meeting people they know, having to talk to people when they are done. Keep that in mind when writing these characters in order to keep their personality consistent.
4) Give them other traits.
I know that I’ve said social anxiety is a defining characteristic, but it isn’t a person’s only characteristic. Make sure you give them other traits that influence their decisions and drive their motivations. Someone can have anxiety and also love adventure, want to save all the stray dogs, want to help orphans, want to be a basketball hero, etc, etc. One of the big problems with social anxiety is that it interferes with a person’s desires to do and be other things. It doesn’t always win though. And sometimes a person may decide that an awkward encounter or two is worth taking part in some other activity they love. Just remember to keep your characters balanced.
5) Let them find each other.
Social anxiety is probably more common than you’d think. Not everyone has a crippling case. You can have characters share their anxiety with each other and comfort each other and help each other through tough times. Social anxiety can make a person feel isolated but they don’t have to be, and often aren’t as isolated as they think. That observational skill can also help them find the right people to share their feelings with. Not all socializing is terrifying, it can often be cathartic.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list. Please feel free to leave comments with anything you think I missed. But I do hope that I shed some light on social anxiety and the way it actually influences people. I’m sure including some of these tips will make your characters more realistic and your writing deeper.
Photo credit: PracticalCures on Visual hunt / CC BY