“Introvert”, “shy”, and “socially anxious” are commonly used interchangeably to describe individuals who prefer to keep to themselves or who aren’t very outgoing and sociable. While they may have similar characteristics, the three terms mean different things. Being able to differentiate between them will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of others, helping you build a greater sensitivity towards individuals who do suffer from social anxiety in particular.
The terms introvert and extrovert were popularized by Carl Jung in the early 20th century. Introverts may only seem shy on the exterior because they are typically soft-spoken and reserved. However, not all are shy; introverts find other people and over-stimulating environments to be tiring, and regain energy by resting and being alone. They tend to prefer an evening with a good friend over attending a large party. They are thoughtful, thinking before they speak, and they also prefer to observe rather than participate in discussions.
Compared to shyness, introversion is not a characteristic that is outgrown or developed, but is rather a trait that is inherent in an individual. In contrast, extroverts are people who are energized when surrounded by others, and who enjoy social situations and interacting with others. They prefer to spend time with others than to be alone. At the same time, introversion and extraversion are on opposite ends of a spectrum; there are plenty of individuals who fall in between. Ambiversion is a term that describes people who feel comfortable with social interactions, but who may also talk less and treasure time alone.
People who are introverts often describe themselves (or are described) as shy, but shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness has, at its heart, a fear of negative judgment by others. Think of the difference this way: If asked to a party, an introvert might think about whether they wanted to expend their precious supply of social energy. A shy person, however, might think about how others at the party would perceive them. As author Susan Cain explained in “Quiet,” her landmark book on introverts: “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” One stays home from the party from preference, in other words, and the other from fear.
Unlike introversion, shyness is better understood as a response, rather than a state of being. It’s the social discomfort we feel whenever we worry about measuring up or appearing out of place or awkward. Nearly everyone has felt some degree of shyness at least once. However, severely shy individuals may have further issues with building relationships at school or at work, possibly leading to social anxiety.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, does have an element of shyness to it. However, the main difference between the two, is severity.
Severity in the level of anxiety:
Mild anxiety levels in social situations is in keeping with shyness. High anxiety levels in social situations is more in keeping with social anxiety disorder.
Severity in the degree of avoidance:
Little or no avoidance of social situations, is in keeping with shyness. However, avoidance which interferes with life is characteristic of social anxiety disorder. For example, a person suffering from social anxiety may avoid going out, or meeting people, or drop out of school, or avoid careers they are capable of. It interferes with their life now, and in what they want to do in the future.
Severity in the persistence of symptoms:
Generally someone who is shy will feel uncomfortable when meeting someone for the first time. This usually gets better with time, as they become more familiar and comfortable in that social setting. However, someone with social anxiety disorder may continue to be anxious even when they get to know the other person better.
The most distinguishing feature between social anxiety disorder and shyness is that social anxiety disorder debilitates one’s functioning, and not just socially. In adults, social anxiety can impair one’s work functioning and cause conflicts in family life. In children, social anxiety can interfere with academic achievement, school attendance, social hobbies, and making friends. Furthermore, the lack of self-confidence of social anxiety sufferers tends to result in poor assertiveness skills, and often leads to other psychiatric conditions, such as depression, other anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.
Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to be effective in treating social anxiety disorder. Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants can also help in some cases. If you are struggling with SAD, reach out for help from your doctor or a licensed mental health professional.