Are you a person who has been shy your whole life? Or, perhaps you’ve been singled out as the quiet one or told that you just need to speak up more. How do you know if what you are experiencing is shyness, social anxiety, or introversion? These three dimensions have some things in common and are often confused, so it’s worthwhile considering what each one means.
Shyness refers to the tendency of a person to withdraw when faced with new situations or people. Lots of children can be shy around unfamiliar adults, a behavior that’s considered to be a normal part of growing up. But, some people don’t outgrow their shyness and tend to always feel a bit apprehensive or uncertain when meeting new people. However, this shyness usually manifests as feeling a bit uncomfortable or awkward, without progressing into a state of anxiety.
On the other hand, social anxiety can be thought of as a severe sister of shyness. A person with social anxiety not only feels nervous or uncomfortable in certain social situations, such as being in crowded public places or being singled out or put in the spotlight, but also has many physical symptoms, irrational thoughts, and often patterns of avoidance. In other words, the socially anxious person might not leave the house when a neighbor is outside, while the shy person might go but feel awkward when saying hi.
Third, we have what is called introversion. A person who is an introvert is described as needing time alone to recharge. This is because their nervous system is more easily overstimulated. This type of person will tend to enjoy activities that involve a low level of stimulation, such as reading, because that is all that’s needed to light up their brain. While an introvert may be shy or have social anxiety, neither is a necessary characteristic of every introvert. Some introverts might even develop shyness or anxiety out of feeling “less than” in a society that values extroversion.
All of this is to say that in order to know whether any of these descriptions apply to you, you’d need to do a bit of digging either into your own psyche or by taking a personality test or going for a psychological assessment. It all depends on your particular concerns. If you have untamed anxiety that keeps you up at night, by all means, go for an assessment for social anxiety. If you just feel awkward being around people, more practice and some social skills training might help your shyness.
Finally, if alone time is what you crave but you don’t feel all that uncomfortable around people, it could be that your introverted nature just needs to be nurtured. And it’s entirely possible that you identify with more than one of these dimensions or even swing back and forth between introversion and extroversion, or shyness and being outgoing. We are all complex human beings for whom there is no quick fix or personality “type” into which we can be categorized.