The differences between introversion, shyness, and social anxiety.
I’m thrilled with all the attention introverts are getting in popular culture at the moment. The message that “quiet is okay” is finally being heard and the needs of introverts are being celebrated, not shamed. While I wholeheartedly celebrate this paradigm shift I think it’s equally important to be mindful that not all quiet people are introverts who relish in that solitude. That while for some, quiet is a conscious choice and preference, for others it is a response motivated by fear, worry, or anxiety.
There are three terms -- introversion, shyness, and social anxiety -- that often get thrown around as if synonymous when they actually represent three distinct ways of being in the world. For introverts quiet is a rejuvenating, healthy, and natural preference. For people who identify as shy, their quiet tendencies are often motivated by the fear of negative judgment or social disapproval. It is safer to be quiet, to go unnoticed, than to risk the possibility of rejection or disapproval. And for others still, the thought of being scrutinized by others or doing something embarrassing is so intense that it actively interferes with the daily tasks of living.
People who are shy and people who experience social anxiety both fear social disapproval or judgment. However, someone who is socially anxious will experience that fear much more intensely than their shy counterpart. Where a shy person might worry about meeting someone new, someone with social anxiety might agonize over the prospect of a social engagement for weeks before the event, beat themselves up over it, lose sleep, and experience physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, or shortness of breath in the moment. Someone who identifies as shy may experience some version of this but it is generally thought to be with less intensity.
There can be some overlap between the three. When working with folks who identify as 'quiet' it's important to assess what motivates or drives their quiet tendencies. Does it energize them or weigh them down? Do they genuinely seek out solitude or is it a result of avoidance and fear? Understanding this will help pave a path forward and serve as a guide for the wonderful work of therapy.
If you are wondering whether you may fall into the category of 'socially anxious' this short assessment may help: The Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale and to learn more about Social Anxiety Disorder the Anxiety and Depression Association of America is an excellent resource.