Introversion, Extraversion and their Surprising Relationships to Social Anxiety and Shyness
If you’re an Introvert, then chances are you’ve been called “shy” on more than one occasion. In fact, you may have referred to yourself as shy, to explain your reticence to attend parties or engage in casual conversations with coworkers or strangers.
While many Introverts can be classified as shy, however, the two concepts are not exactly the same. This is especially true if we’re talking about the more serious form of shyness known as social anxiety disorder (SAD), a condition that affects 15 million Americans (including this writer).
Shyness is a side effect of social anxiety, and when that anxiety reaches the clinically diagnosable level it is a life-changer. You would never use the word ‘suffer’ to describe the feelings of an Introvert. But you absolutely can use it to describe the personal difficulties that people with social anxiety disorder experience on a semi-regular basis.
Surface similarities aside, introversion is not shyness and shyness is not introversion. Social anxiety exists independently of introversion, and that means that every personality type, including those who fall under the extraversion umbrella, could conceivably suffer from its effects.
It may sound like a contradiction, but shy Extraverts do exist—in fact, you can find them everywhere. If we assume shyness is distributed evenly across the population, up to half of all shy or socially anxious people may actually be Extraverts, despite appearances to the contrary.
Shy Introverts: Where Introversion Ends and Social Anxiety Begins
If you’re introverted and also chronically shy, it may never have occurred to you to see the two as distinct. This is understandable, since people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and those who test out as Introverts on a personality type assessment do share numerous behaviors and characteristics.
Compare a person labeled ‘shy’ to the typical Introvert (I) and you’ll likely discover that:
- Each prefers to spend a good amount of time alone.
- Each was known as an unusually quiet child.
- Each generally avoids socializing with strangers at parties, in grocery store lines, on buses or anywhere else where they might encounter new people.
- Each has a tendency to blend silently into the background when they’re out in public.
- Each has a reputation for being mild-mannered, soft-spoken and better at listening than expressing their opinions.
- Each has solitary hobbies that don’t require others to participate or be present.
- Each has a relatively small circle of close friends or family members they speak to frequently.
Despite such similarities, there is one major difference. While Introverts choose their lifestyles and behaviors of their own free will, shy/socially anxious people are simply doing their best to cope with their stress and limit their exposure to situations where they fear being criticized or judged. Excessive self-consciousness is the number one hallmark of social anxiety, and that is not a trait associated with introversion.
Shyness and introversion may seem to be in harmony but they really aren’t. Even the most naturally introverted social anxiety sufferer will tell you they often withdraw from social situations not because they want to but because they have to, in order to protect themselves from disaster.
That sentiment may be hard to understand for those who’ve never experienced significant social anxiety. But if you suffer from any type of phobia—an extreme fear of heights, water, spiders, clowns, elevators, you name it—you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the same rush of frightening and disabling symptoms that social anxiety disorder victims experience in many social situations.
Sometimes it really is that bad, and this type of strong emotional reaction to other human beings has no connection to the personality trait of introversion.
Shy Extraverts: Living the Contradiction
Extraverts who suffer from shyness often carry a heavy burden, since social anxiety is clearly and irrevocably in conflict with an Extravert’s inclination to seek out other people as sources of joy, inspiration and energy.
One issue for shy Extraverts is actually realizing and acknowledging the truth about who they really are. Many shy Extraverts just assume they’re Introverts, buying into the societal myth that shyness and introversion are two sides of the same coin.
These men and women confuse their inhibitions with their desires, and they will remain alienated from their true natures as long as they continue to make this mistake. Depression often co-occurs with social anxiety disorder, and shy Extraverts may be especially at risk if they fail to understand how much they truly need social contact in order to find fulfillment.
During episodes where social anxiety takes control, Extraverts won’t suffer more than Introverts. The latter also desire meaningful human contact and a self-consciousness-free existence, and when they don’t feel safe or free to pursue new relationships or express their true feelings, they can hurt intensely because of it.
Nevertheless, shy Extraverts experience the frustrations of social anxiety in a broader range of situations than Introverts with the same condition. Their self-induced repression takes on a chameleon-like quality, changing colors to obstruct their chances for happiness in a variety of circumstances.
Shy Introverts vs. Shy Extraverts: Who Has it Worse?
Since Introverts have a tendency to avoid human contact, it would be easy to conclude that shy Extraverts are worse off than shy Introverts.
On the surface this view seems valid, but I don’t think it’s accurate. When people are forced to organize their lives around shyness, they’re aware of the limitations it places on them every single day, and they never stop wishing things could be different. This is the case whether you’re an Introvert seeking a few intimate relationships or an Extravert desiring a greater level of immersion in the social milieu.
Introverted or extraverted, when you find yourself in specific situations that trigger your social anxiety, you’ll be agonizingly aware of what’s happening and you’ll never stop hating it, no matter how many times you experience it.
If social anxiety is a part of your reality, you’ll never be at peace with it and you’ll always be looking for strategies to overcome it. You may:
- Take courses on self-esteem enhancement or public speaking.
- Experiment with all sorts of mind-body healing techniques (meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.) trying to learn how to manage your stress responses.
- Join Internet forums or sign up for online romance/friendship sites where you can meet people yet still preserve your anonymity, at least until you’re comfortable revealing more.
- Bring close friends (if you have any) or family members along to social events to boost your confidence level.
- Read numerous self-help books and search for real-world opportunities to apply the authors’ suggestions.
- Make appointments with therapists who specialize in social anxiety treatment, or even take medications for SAD prescribed by psychiatrists.
In the end, I doubt shy Extraverts have it worse than shy Introverts, or vice versa. No matter what your personality type, social anxiety is hard to live with. If you experience it strongly and chronically, you’ll spend years struggling to rise above it.
But escaping the clutches of social anxiety is always possible, if you’re patient, persistent and refuse to give in to self-doubt. Accept the fact that change takes time and time will be on your side, regardless of where you fall on the introversion/extraversion spectrum.