Introversion, shyness, and social anxiety can sometimes get mixed up, but they’re quite different. In this post we’ll look at some of the similarities and differences.
Introversion is a personality trait, and appears in the Myers-Briggs personality typology. The opposite is extroversion, and individuals may fall at different points along the continuum between the two. I lean strongly in the introvert direction. One of the key elements that differentiates introverts from extroverts is the kinds of situations that drain and replenish mental energy.
Shyness involves feelings of discomfort and awkwardness, typically when meeting new people. It can be an enduring personality trait, or it can appear during certain phases of development. It tends to appear in people with low self-esteem. Shy people may develop social anxiety disorder, but not necessarily.
Social anxiety disorder is a form of mental illness that’s also known as social phobia. It involves a persistent fear of being scrutinized by others or doing things to humiliate themselves in front of others. It’s associated with significant cognitive distortions and avoidance behaviours. It can occur in introverts and extroverts.
That’s the basics of those three features, and next we’ll look at how different questions would be answered with respect to each of the three.
What are common problems they may experience?
Introvert: While extroverts gain energy from being around other people, for introverts spending time with others can be exhausting, and they need alone time to recharge their mental batteries. Being in larger group social settings is particularly draining. There is not necessarily anything distressing about being an introvert, although distress may result from social pressures to behave in a more extroverted manner.
Shy: People who are shy tend to struggle most with meeting new people.
Social anxiety: The level of anxiety often produces significant avoidance, and in severe cases people may become house-bound as a result.
Do they want to be around people?
Introvert: While the introvert may want to spend time around people they are close to, they still need time on their own. Introverts don’t necessarily feel anxious about socializing, unless they have an overlying anxiety disorder, but they may find it unpleasant, especially when there is a lot of small talk involved.
Shy: People who are shy may want to be around others, but not feel confident that they have the social skills to interact effectively in situations that may involve being around people they don’t know well.
Social anxiety: People with social anxiety may actually want to spend time with others, but their anxiety disorder poses an extreme barrier that may feel insurmountable at times.
Are they worried about what other people think?
Introvert: While introverts often feel pressured to live up to societal expectations of extroversion, this is a result of how society views introversion and extroversion rather than an inherent characteristic of introverts.
Shy: There is some concern over what others will think that’s associated with shyness, but it’s not to the same level as in social anxiety. This tends to stem from an underlying lack of self-esteem.
Social anxiety: In social anxiety disorder this worry about the perception of others is elevated to a pathological level.
How do they feel after spending time with people?
Introvert: Introverts will often feel worn out after spending time with others, unless it’s people they are particularly close to.
Shy: The discomfort associated with meeting new people may ease as the person gets to be more familiar. There may not be any unease associated with being around familiar people.
Social anxiety: Overcoming avoidance is often the biggest obstacle, and once actually in a social situation it may turn out better than the catastrophes that were anticipated, and may actually be enjoyable.
Does it change over time?
Introvert: Since introversion is a personality trait, it tends to be stable over time and across multiple contexts. My level of introversion has stayed pretty consistent, but when I was younger I pushed myself to behave in a more extroverted manner. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced my introversion more.
Shy: In youngsters it may vary over time depending on where they are developmentally, but it can be an enduring trait that’s relatively consistent over time.
Social anxiety: Social anxiety disorder is a treatable illness. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the first line treatment, and SSRI-type antidepressants may also be used. Acceptance and commitment therapy is an alternative form of talk therapy that may be helpful.
What impact does it have on functioning?
Introvert: Introverts may dislike social situations where extroversion is demanded, but it doesn’t negatively impact overall functioning.
Shy: Shyness in children is associated with decreased classroom functioning.
Social anxiety: Social anxiety disorder has a very significant effect on social, occupational, and other domains of functioning.
These are three distinct phenomena, but they may also overlap in a given individual. For me, the only one of the three that applies is introversion. I used to care more about what others thought of me, but I don’t think I ever experienced much anxiety in social contexts. As I’ve gotten older (and more cantankerous), I have no interest in pretending to be extroverted, and I don’t care what random other people think of me because I don’t particularly like people.
Are you an introvert, shy, or social phobic? How has it affected you?
Visit the Mental Health @ Home Store to find my books Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis and Psych Meds Made Simple, a mini-ebook collection focused on therapy, and plenty of free downloadable resources.