Summer Walker has never been shy about her experience with social anxiety. On Sunday, the Over It singer won Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards, giving her fans a brief and rare glimpse at her speaking publicly on live television. After the award show, Walker revealed that her social anxiety almost kept her from attending the show. "I wasn't even gonna go today cause I was [too] scared, I was literally asking @lvrngram to just get me a wrist band so I could sit in the back alone in my reg deg clothes," the singer shared on Instagram. "By the time my name was called I couldn't get a speech out like everyone else from being so nervous & was shaking BUT I pushed through my #socialanxiety today and I'm really glad I did ..cause the soul train experience is something any true music lover will never forget 🖤"
Last week, Summer Walker announced on social media she was ending her First and Last Tour early due to her public battle with social anxiety. Nearly 20 of the dates have been canceled, with the singer promising to finish up 9 more shows. "Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to finish this tour because it doesn't really coexist with my social anxiety and my introverted personality," she said. "But I really hope that people understand and respect that at the end of the day that I'm a person—I have feelings, I get tired, I get sad, and it's just a lot." But what is social anxiety, and how do you know it's not just a case of being shy?
Cognitive behavioral therapist Larry Cohen, LICSW says everyone has a little social anxiety but it can be classified as a disorder when the fear of judgment becomes debilitating in everyday life. "Social anxiety is simply the experience of feeling fear and other discomforts when we are concerned about being judged," he tells VICE. "Physical symptoms themselves may become intense. For some people, it's rapid heart rate, sweating, and being jittery in your voice or maybe your hands or legs. It frequently includes distraction because it's hard to focus when you're socially anxious. And finally, it tends to lead people to avoid things because they don't want to risk being judged whether its [a] public performance, or for ordinary people, socializing."
Walker mentioned she was sweating profusely just because people were looking at her at Sunday's show, but social anxiety, like a number of other mental health disorders, doesn't just look one way. The "Girls Need Love" singer's candor about her anxiety is an attempt to shatter the stigma around stigma around mental health, particularly in the Black community. Meanwhile she's balancing a budding music career, with Over It having the biggest opening week for a woman in R&B since Beyoncé dropped Lemonade.
Hours after canceling her tour, the singer posted a seemingly harmless video twerking on London on da Track, her boyfriend and executive producer of Over It. The comment section was filled with debates over whether or not Walker actually experiences social anxiety. "For all you 'Summer Walker Defense Attorney's' i think the issue 'skeptics' has is [if] she's 'socially awkward' to the point where she can't do shows but she'll put 'this version' of herself out on SOCIAL media," one comment read. "How [is] she that comfortable letting the WORLD see her doing this but not comfortable enough to sing her own music in a coliseum?"
There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about social anxiety and how that looks like in the internet age. "For some people who are socially anxious social media, as well as written communication, is relatively easy. If you think about it, it's control," Cohen says. "They can spend as much time as they want getting the words out, getting the pictures out, and presenting it exactly how they want. For other people, it's actually the opposite. They're afraid that no matter how much I put it out, what if the person doesn't like it?" According to Cohen, social media can be a trigger for someone who appears confident on social media because of the fear that they won't be able to keep up that image.
Criticism about Walker's withdrawn appearance placed the Atlanta singer under scrutiny before she canceled her tour. Her decision to do so came days after her distant demeanor was condemned online. A fan detailed her experience after buying tickets to a Meet & Greet. "Such an anticlimactic and disappointing experience meeting Summer Walker," the fan wrote in an Instagram caption. "Not only did she move the meet and greet last minute to after the show, the meet and greet itself was literally five seconds. We were informed to have our phones out, ready with flash, and not to sit too close or touch her. She barely spoke to anyone, every couple of people she'd say 'Hi' …It was a big hurt piece for me because I really idolised her and her work. I knew she was an introvert and kind of closed off but there was no effort in this at all, whatsoever. For a fan who supports you and your music!"
Although Walker identifies an introvert and socially anxious, Cohen says that both of the personality traits are often incorrectly thought to be the same thing. Both extroverts and introverts can be socially anxious, but Walker's case is especially unique. "It's hard to be both an introvert, socially anxious, and a performer because you're speaking or singing in front of crowds of people," Cohen says. "That's inherently an extroverted thing by definition. It doesn't mean they can't do it, but it doesn't come naturally. There are public speakers and performers who are introverted, it's just tiring for them—and that's just being introverted. But if you add also being socially anxious, it's not just tiring, it's also scary."
Another concertgoer's thread about his experience at the First and Last Tour echoing a similar sentiment went viral. "Y'all I love Summer Walker's music, but there needs to be some development and semblance that she cares," he wrote. Or she just shouldn't tour. Looking back… it was BAD. The Meet & Greet stuff is one thing, but she checked her phone onstage so many times. CHECKING HER PHONE!"
Walker has been pretty transparent about her struggle with social anxiety and even responded on social media immediately following the criticism. "I just want to say to all the fans who purchase meet & greets I really APPRECIATE y'all taking the extra time to meet me and share your stories. I tell everyone individually 'thank you', I spread love, we laugh & I give genuine compliments 🖤," she wrote. "[N]ow for those who're upset b/c I don't give hugs idk what to tell you… I'm an empath, and that transference of energy from that many people each day would literally KILL me…"
Ultimately, Cohen thinks the solution to overcoming social anxiety is treatment. "If the person learns how to focus mindfully on the conversation and the music while ignoring their anxious thoughts and feelings, fame and all those triggers will help them," he says. "It will be evidence that they're coming across well, so they have less to be scared of. If they're not getting help, then they're just getting battered down by more scary things." Walker's Over It is one of the best R&B albums of the year. But her transparency about her mental health is worth celebrating, too.