These three terms are often used interchangeably, or at least are a little confusing (especially to people who don’t fit into any of the three categories). And although they all deal with a person’s desire for solitude, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. But first off, what do they all mean, exactly, and why is it important to know the differences between them?
The most commonly confused terms, in my experience, are “shy” and “introverted.” An introvert is not necessarily shy, which can be a tough concept for many outgoing extroverts to grasp. An introvert is someone who becomes energized from their alone time, and feels the need to “recharge” after socializing for awhile. A shy person is someone who feels uncomfortable in social situations, and it has nothing to do with how they get their energy.
It’s definitely possible to be an outgoing introvert (or a shy extrovert)
I myself am both shy and introverted, so I feel nervous in social situations and feel like I need my alone time to recharge after a few hours of socializing. But I also have an “outgoing introvert” friend who isn’t shy at all, but still considers herself an introvert because she needs her solitude after awhile. She can talk to anyone with no nervousness or hesitation, and she loves parties and events–but only for a limited amount of time. People are often surprised when she tells them she’s an introvert, because they usually picture introverts as the ones sitting at home with their cats reading on a Friday night rather than at a party. And for some of us that’s true, but it’s far from being true for everyone. Similarly, someone can be nervous when first entering a social situation, but once they warm up to it, it gives them more energy than when they’re alone.
How does social anxiety fit in here?
“Social anxiety” is another term that sometimes gets thrown around in conversations, but the differences between Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and shyness are often blurred and confusing. SAD is defined as the “feeling of uneasiness, dread, or apprehension about social interaction and presentation,” and furthermore, “the primary concern fueling social anxiety is a concern that one will be (or is being) judged negatively by other people, regardless of whether this is actually the case.”
Now, that definition seems like it would make sense for people who are shy, but not socially anxious–which is why this can get so confusing. The biggest difference is that SAD is often debilitating, and those who suffer from it often feel like it controls their lives. For example, a shy person may be uncomfortable when meeting new people, but the feeling goes away after they warm up–whereas a socially anxious person may often go out of their way to avoid meeting new people because the nervousness is crippling. And when they do meet someone new, rather than just feeling nervous and awkward, they may start sweating, trembling, and feel short of breath.
What are the consequences of confusing these terms?
First of all, it can be annoying to people. Those who are socially anxious don’t want to be told they’re just shy. Outgoing introverts don’t want people assuming they’re nervous in social situations just because they’re introverts. But there are more serious consequences of not realizing the differences, especially when it comes to confusing shyness and SAD.
Social anxiety is an issue that isn’t often discussed, yet is still serious and important. If people don’t recognize the signs of SAD, those who experience it may not receive the help they need. Just like when a clinically depressed person is told to “get over it” because people assume they’re just feeling “the blues,” telling a socially anxious person to “stop being so quiet” because they assume it’s just a case of shyness can lead to disastrous results.
And just like people who say they’re feeling depressed when they’re simply having a bad day can feel like a punch in the face to those who actually experience depression, someone who claims they must have social anxiety because they don’t often enjoy being in social situations can do more harm than good for someone living with SAD.
Bottom line: shyness, introversion, and social anxiety can overlap (some people have one, two, or all three of them) but they shouldn’t be automatically lumped together just because they’re somewhat similar. Introversion and SAD are still often misunderstood mostly because for ages people just didn’t talk about them. But it’s awesome that now society is more open to discussing these issues and providing support–and most importantly, it helps make those of us who are shy, introverted, and/or socially anxious not feel like weird outsiders.