Introversion, Shyness & Social Anxiety: What’s the Difference?

Characteristics of introversion, shyness, and social anxiety disorder

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

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 fromย introversion, characterized by inward and self-directed concerns and behaviors, toย 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

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

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?

IntrovertWhile 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.

Getting personal

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?

Chart contrasting social anxiety disorder, shyness, and introversion

Resources

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

50 thoughts on “Introversion, Shyness & Social Anxiety: What’s the Difference?”

  1. 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.

    1. I have just come across your blog and I am finding your content very accessible and relatable. It really sets forward the ideas I aim to communicate in many of my own blogs – even though I take a more narrative approach. Would you mind if I add a reference to your blogs (like this one) when I approach topics like this in future? I believe the way you position the topics in an almost educational and explanatory fashion might prove invaluable. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. 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!!

    1. 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. Interesting post between the differences! I’m shy since my childhood and in my teen age I developed a social anxiety disorder. My best therapy is traveling in solo.

  4. This is a great post! ๐Ÿ™‚ 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. 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.

      1. 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. aguycalledbloke

    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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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 โค๏ธ

    1. 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.

  9. Im a complicated mess. Bahaha!!! ๐Ÿค”๐Ÿค— 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. ๐Ÿ˜˜โค๏ธ Very informative article Ashley. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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