Introversion, shyness, and social anxiety can sometimes get mixed up and confused for one another, but they’re actually three distinct concepts. In this post, we’ll look at some of the similarities and differences.
The relevant constructs
Psychological constructs are representations of intangible thing that gives us a way to talk about those things and distinguish them from other intangible things. Introversion, shyness, and social anxiety are distinct constructs, so while they may have areas of overlap, the presence of one doesn’t automatically indicate the presence of another.
Introversion is a personality trait. The opposite is extraversion, and individuals may fall at different points along the continuum between the two. The introversion-extraversion spectrum is one of the factors in the five-factor model of personality, or the Big Five. I lean pretty strongly in the introvert direction.
One of the key distinctions between introverts and extraverts is the kinds of situations that drain and replenish mental energy. The APA Dictionary of Psychology describes “the range, or continuum, of self-orientation from introversion, characterized by inward and self-directed concerns and behaviors, to extraversion, characterized by outward and social-directed concerns and behaviors.” Most people don’t fall at either extreme of the continuum (you can read more about this in the post How Common Is Introversion?).
Introverts don’t necessarily want to be alone all the time; most introverts aren’t hermits like I am. They prefer socializing with a few people they know well rather than making small talk with a bunch of strangers at a party, and their mental batteries are recharged by having alone time afterwards, while extroverts are re-energized from being around people.
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. While people with social anxiety disorder experience anxiety around both familiar and unfamiliar people, the difficulty for shy people is with unfamiliar people.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder is a form of mental illness that causes significant distress and functional impairment. It involves a persistent fear of being scrutinized by others or doing things to humiliate themselves in front of others. It comes with significant cognitive distortions and avoidance behaviours. Both introverts and extraverts can experience social anxiety disorder. People may also experience milder social anxiety that doesn’t rise to the level of a disorder, but for this post, I’ll refer specifically to the disorder.
Loneliness is another distinct construct that may or may not coexist with introversion, shyness, or social anxiety. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as an “affective [i.e. emotional] and cognitive discomfort or uneasiness from being or perceiving oneself to be alone or otherwise solitary.” Just because someone is introverted doesn’t mean that they don’t get lonely.
Depending on the theoretical perspective, loneliness can arise from the emotional distress from unmet companionship or intimacy needs, or from the uncomfortable experience when there’s a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual social support. The UCLA Loneliness Scale is a self-report scale that can be used to measure loneliness.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, we’ll consider how different questions would be answered with respect to introversion, shyness, and social anxiety disorder.
What are common problems that may arise?
Introvert: While extraverts gain energy from being around other people, for introverts, spending time with others can be tiring, and they need alone time to recharge their mental batteries. Being in larger group social settings is particularly draining. There isn’t anything inherently distressing about being an introvert, although distress may result from social pressures to behave in a more extraverted manner.
Shy: People who are shy tend to struggle most with meeting new people.
Social anxiety disorder: The level of anxiety often produces significant avoidance, and in severe cases, people may become house-bound because their anxiety is so crippling.
Do they want to be around people?
Introvert: While the introvert may want to spend time around people they’re close to, they still need alone time. Introverts don’t necessarily feel anxious about socializing, unless they have a separate issue with anxiety, 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 disorder: 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 extraversion, this is a result of how society views introversion and extraversion 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 disorder: In social anxiety disorder, this worry about the perception of others is high intense enough that it becomes pathological.
How do they feel after spending time with people?
Introvert: Introverts will often feel worn out after spending time with groups of people, unless it’s a small group of 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 when around familiar people.
Social anxiety disorder: Overcoming avoidance is often the biggest obstacle. Once someone with social anxiety is actually in a social situation, it may turn out better than the catastrophes that were anticipated, and they may end up enjoying the social event in the end.
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 fairly consistent, but when I was younger, I pushed myself to behave in a more extraverted manner. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced my introversion more.
Shy: In youngsters, the level of shyness 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 disorder: Social anxiety disorder is a treatable illness. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the first-line treatment, and SSRI-type antidepressants may also be used.
What impact does it have on functioning?
Introvert: Introverts may dislike social situations where extraversion is demanded, but it doesn’t negatively impact overall functioning.
Shy: Shyness in children is associated with decreased classroom functioning.
Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety disorder, being an illness, has significant effects on social, occupational, and other domains of functioning.
Introversion, shyness, and social anxiety are three distinct phenomena, but they may also overlap in a given individual. Our natural cognitive biases can also feed into feelings of anxiety in social situations (you can read more about that in this post on cognitive biases and social anxiety).
For me, the only one of the three that applies is introversion, although I was somewhat shy as a young child. I used to care more about what others thought of me, but I’ve never experienced much anxiety in social contexts. As I’ve gotten older (and more cantankerous), I have no interest in pretending to be extraverted. I also don’t care what random people think of me, because I don’t particularly like people.
Are you an introvert, shy, or social phobic? How has it affected you?
- Self-Help Strategies for Social Anxiety from Anxiety Canada
- Social Anxiety: An NHS Self-Help Guide
- Social Anxiety Self-Help Guide from NHS Inform
- Social Anxiety/Shyness Coping Strategies from University of Alberta Mental Health Centre
- Stepping out of Social Anxiety Workbook from the Centre for Clinical Interventions
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.