Introversion, shyness and social anxiety – What’s the difference?

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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?

IntrovertWhile 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?

IntrovertWhile 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?

 

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61 thoughts on “Introversion, shyness and social anxiety – What’s the difference?

  1. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    Introvert, hands down. I’m supposed togo to an 50th birthday party for a friend this Saturday at “Midieval Times” with a bus load of her friends and family.
    I am so not interested in being a part of this one bit. That evening is not going to go fast enough for me.

  2. Sharon says:

    From your examples- I think I definitely fall into the introvert, but there is underlying social anxiety. Being around others- especially those that have primarily negative attitudes, is extremely draining for me. I feel others pain and sadness, as though I am trying to absorb it from them so they don’t hurt anymore. The problem to that is, I don’t know how to clear myself of all their negative energy once out of their presence. Thanks as always for such a great, thought-provoking post!!

    • ashleyleia says:

      I’m not sure if it’s an innate thing or it comes from working in health care, but luckily I’m able to keep myself from taking on that kind of negative energy. I can imagine how that would be really hard to clear out.

  3. eirlysgwenllian says:

    This is a great post! 🙂 So many people confuse introversion with shyness! I am an introvert myself and like it this way mostly, and have developed social anxiety somewhere on the way, which is not as likeable, which strictly speaking now since I’ve got a diagnosis last year seems to be a part of avoidant personality disorder thing. I can relate to shy people very well however I’m not sure whether I’m shy myself. Social anxiety makes me act like I’m shy, but I wasn’t always shy as a child and my uneasiness in social situations isn’t only around new people definitely, it’s actually quite a changeable thing and relying on multiple factors so it’s hard to say whether I’m shy or not, but I rather don’t think about myself this way. 🙂

  4. Meg says:

    I’m a total introvert. Like, I took the test once (the Meyers’ Briggs?) and it pegged me as 96% introverted. One major, major blessing in my life has been interacting with people online. It doesn’t drain my energy much at all, versus being around people “in real life”. I don’t think I’m shy, and I don’t think I have social anxiety, but my introversion is so extreme that I avoid group dynamics and prefer one-on-one or maybe two or three-people interactions. Come to think of it, it’s less social anxiety and more social awkwardness, added to the introversion energy-suck factor. Like, this one time, I was at a party at Mother’s house (the one she moved out of when she fell) and I leaned against the back railing of her porch and balanced a glass on my head. No clue why, but Teri came over and said, “You’re someone I want to hang out with!” And I was like, “It’s the glass, isn’t it?” 😀 I have no clue.

    Great blog post!! Loads of food for thought.

  5. marandarussell says:

    I’m all three, but my introversion and social anxiety are way stronger than my shyness. I’ve grown a bit out of the shyness, but not the other two. In fact, they have strengthened with time, especially the social anxiety.

      • Liz says:

        Yes it does and when I think about me being introvert, it does go back to being when I was young where I was shy, but there was Introversion there, as I did like being on my own. When the shyness disappeared, the Introversion stayed.
        Now, I like how I am being introverted. It’s me and I can’t change that. I like my time and even when I am around a small group of people I know, I still look forward to that quiet time to myself. Depending how drained I may feel, I can crave for that alone time.

  6. Liz says:

    Reblogged this on My Wellbeing and Learning Journey and commented:
    A favourite post of mine that helps for those that are not sure of the difference between introversion, shyness and social anxiety.
    I know hands down I am an introvert, which I have blogged about in the past in how it affects me. But in the past people have mistaken it for shyness, when then at that time I wasn’t.

  7. aguycalledbloke says:

    What an excellent post Ashley ….

    So what’s the score for not liking people in real life and basically being selectively social?

    I am not an extrovert, or an introvert, l am not shy, and l don’t have a SAD.

  8. Jodie Paterson says:

    This is a brilliant post! So informative.

    I was a very shy child which held me back quite a lot. I now have social anxiety which I treat with an SSRI and don’t let it hold me back at all!

  9. seaofwordsx says:

    Very interesting to read as we often don’t know the right differences between these two. I’m between extrovert and introvert but my anxiety made me also be anxious in social situations. It’s hard but we will learn how to deal with it. Many times the thing planned in my head don’t happen. It’s all irrational but feels so real. Thank you for writing this important post ❤️

    • ashleyleia says:

      It’s so easy to get into that trap of planning things and then they don’t actually happen. I don’t do that much for group situations, but in one-to-one situations I do, and it drives me crazy.

  10. Jeanne says:

    Im a complicated mess. Bahaha!!! 🤔🤗 Seriously born an introvert, became shy with teasing. A social disorder then followed. Being in new places and faces, people who know nothing of me, are the best places to be. And a small group of trusted individuals over a large group of strangers any time. 😘❤️ Very informative article Ashley. 👏🏼

  11. Revenge of Eve says:

    Oh wow! This post is amazing. I had never thoughts about which one I belonged too but having this article I am able to compare. I would’ve never thought to do so. Now I need to reread so I can see where I fit in.

  12. HealingMeMyself says:

    I am not an introvert person,I go out and socialize easily but I had this anxiety issue of getting judge by the people,As of now I am recovering from my weakness & slowing Standing up for myself by not getting influence by negative people

  13. Nat says:

    I have all three, it seems. I do feel very worn out from being around people for hours and then need a few days to myself. The expectation of how I think I should be in social situations is why I have shyness, particularly if I am around unfamiliar people and I don’t exactly know what I am getting into. It is possible for me to relax more once I get to talk to someone more, but this takes time and is exacberated by my social anxiety, where I catastrophize or feel very distressed by my experiences to the point I avoid the situation when it comes up again, even if I had some positive things happen last time I was in the situation.

  14. Julie says:

    I’m an introvert who struggled with episodes of social anxiety. Up until now I can’t be sure if my spotty resume is a result of the residual effects of social anxiety. I think it is. It’s difficult to do a lot of things, even answering phonecalls daunts me. It’s difficult to find suitable work.

  15. Scanty Figures says:

    I am an introvert. I can spend days on end in my room with books, snacks and Netflix. I’m shy whenever I’m meeting new people. However, I am extremely terrified of presentations. One time I was asked to give a presentation in a science fair, I was so terrified of standing before 3 judges and an audience that I went blank (I couldn’t even remember my name) and even puked as soon as I ran of the stage. To date, I can’t stand presentations. Is that still social anxiety?

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