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How to Tell the Difference Between an Introvert and Social Anxiety

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Is there a difference between being an introvert, having social anxiety, or just being shy?

Do these labels really matter anyway?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

It’s been a while since society began to recognize and embrace the concept of introverts versus extroverts. For some, this enlightenment has created a sense of power. Self-proclaiming our new labels gives us the opportunity to validate our most commonly misunderstood tendencies and behaviors. Unfortunately, these labels have also created some confusion.

The terms “introvert” and “social anxiety” are often used interchangeably. While they might look similar on the surface, they are far from being one and the same. Assuming all introverts have social anxiety or everyone with social anxiety is an introvert trivializes the unique needs of those who fall into each category.

So, how do know which is which? Here are four of the most important differences.

1. Nature vs. Nurture

In simplest terms, introversion is a personality trait you’re born with while social anxiety is a learned pattern of behavior.
Non-anxious introverts enjoy the comfort of solitude. They prefer to be alone with their thoughts and would usually rather stay at home with a book than go to a cocktail party or a bar. Social situations, group work and anything that involves small talk drains their energy. Although introverts require some amount of self-care to stay healthy, they usually manage their stress without too much trouble. If you’re an introvert by nature, don’t bother trying to change. It’s just the way you are.

Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a mental illness characterized by a phobia of being watched and judged by those around you. While there is a genetic predisposition to social anxiety, it’s triggered by life experiences. The irrational fears, preoccupation with what others think about you and intense self-criticism is often a result of a traumatic childhood experience, bullying or other forms of social rejection.

2. Fear vs. Preference

Those with social anxiety feel like the world is constantly judging them and truly believe they’ll always come up short. They convince themselves they sound “stupid” when they talk, they’ll forget what they wanted to say and that everybody will notice their red face and trembling hands. Sometimes, the thought of social interactions is enough to debilitate them with fear.

In contrast, non-anxious introverts typically have no fear of discovery. They tend to take a “what you see is what you get” attitude and don’t feel like they have anything to hide.

Introverts often avoid social situations because they find them physically and mentally draining. In some cases, when forced to socialize too much, it takes days of downtime to feel normal again. Although there may be some level of anxiety associated with social activities, it’s typically manageable.

3. Preparation vs. Panic

How you prepare for a social event says a lot about whether you struggle with social anxiety or are simply an introvert. While different situations may create varying levels of stress, introverts are often able to manage by mentally preparing themselves. Since dealing with strangers drains them of energy, planning for plenty of downtime before and after events gives a much-needed chance to recharge.

When people with social anxiety begin thinking about preparing for an event, the reaction is much different. They’re often confronted with physical symptoms like profuse sweating, rapid heartbeat and an upset stomach. They may feel tense or jittery, and in some cases could spiral into a full-blown panic attack.

4. Adapting vs. Suffering

Many introverts lead very successful lives by embracing their personalities and making lifestyle adjustments to accommodate their need to recharge. They may choose to leave a party early or skip the festivities, but it’s because they truly would rather be at home. They don’t beat themselves up over it or worry they’re being judged. They simply make the choices they do because that’s what feels right for them.

Those with social anxiety aren’t just drained by social situations; they’re terrified of them. They avoid parties and other events because they’re convinced they’ll embarrass themselves. They leave early, make excuses to stay home or are so wrapped-up in self-criticism that they’re never truly present. Social anxiety often disrupts day-to-day living and causes those living with it to miss out on some of life’s greatest moments.

The Bottom Line

Social anxiety is a serious condition that’s not to be taken lightly. While it can sometimes feel like a death sentence, take heart in knowing it’s a treatable condition. With the help of a qualified therapist or medical professional, many people living with social anxiety are able to overcome their condition and lead productive lives.

As a society, we can help by avoiding stereotypes and stopping the spread of inaccurate stigmas. This will make it easier for people in both categories to accept their situations and make the adjustments they need.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

Originally published: October 23, 2018
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