Mental illness can make it hard to be around people for a few different reasons. One of the common ones is social phobia, but it’s not the only reason.
Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, can be a crippling condition that makes it extremely difficult to be around people. It affects around 13% of the population at some point during their lifetime. A key element of the condition is a fear of doing something that will result in humiliation. You can read more in this post about cognitive biases that feed into social anxiety.
That’s not me. Yet my depression makes it very hard to be around people. I’ve always found it hard to describe why that is, but I thought I’d give it a try in this post.
There are a few key factors that keep me from getting anxious in social situations. One is that, at least overall, my self-esteem has always been reasonably good. Another is that I recognize that I’m an introvert and am very comfortable with that aspect of my personality. Then there’s the fact that I just don’t particularly like people, so I don’t usually care what they think of me unless they have the power to make my life difficult.
When I’m depressed, there are a number of factors that can make it hard to be around people.
When I’m slow cognitively, it can be difficult to come up with responses, particularly if it’s a question that I’m not expecting. A little while back I was at the liquor store buying some rum. I expected the question about whether or not I wanted a bag, so that wasn’t difficult. Then the cashier asked if I was getting it to make rum and Coke. That was unexpected, so there was a considerable delay before I could come up with rum and eggnog as an answer.
Depending on how I’m doing with my depression, I may try to mask for the purpose of not appearing rude. Zero eye contact, flat affect (lack of facial expression of emotion), and silence tend to be considered rude. I prefer not to be rude, so I mask to some extent. I don’t mask to the point of trying to look “normal”, but still, it’s very tiring.
When I’m around my family I don’t mask. That doesn’t work out so well, though, because it translates to a lot of one-sided conversations – them talking, and me not even pretending to be interested in what they’re saying.
Back when I had a group of in-person friends, at times when I wasn’t well, it felt like they were on a whole different planet from me, and I had nothing at all in common with them.
The common factor, though, is that being around people when I’m depressed feels very heavy. The longer it lasts, the more exhausted I feel. Because I’m so introverted and am very content in my own company, there’s not a lot of incentive to put in the effort to be around people despite the heaviness. Connecting with others shouldn’t have to feel so hard.
Since originally writing this I was talking to my friends from We DID It about this subject, and came up with the explanation that when I get really isolative, it feels like I have a sunburn, and being around people is like being exposed to radiation that makes the burn hurt more. When I’m alone, it’s far more comfortable – a break from the pain.
Do you struggle to be around people? What makes it difficult?