Last week, when I wrote about reasons to homeschool introverts, I touched on the difference between “shy” and “introverted.” I said that shyness and introversion are often confused, but introversion is an inherited preference for how you recharge (alone, rather than with other people), while shyness is a fear response. We talked about how introverted children can become shy and insecure if they are told there’s something wrong with their preference for introversion, which reinforces a low self-confidence and increases feelings of shyness.
But looking at shyness this way doesn’t give a complete picture. It still assumes shyness is “bad,” while in reality the more mild forms of shyness might simply be traits of an introverted temperament. Also, for those of us who are both shy and introverted, being told that shyness and introversion aren’t the same thing is not very helpful. I agree with people who argue that introversion needs to be understood rather than overcome — introverts shouldn’t feet guilty for not being extroverts. But I’ve read articles that set out to prove introverts should be accepted just the way they are, and then turn around and start criticizing shy people for their fears and anxiety in social situations. It’s not very encouraging to be told that your introversion is okay, but you need to “get over” your shyness.
Is Shy Really So Bad?
While researching for this post, I cam across “A Quiet Rant About Introversion and Shyness” by Barbara Markway. Like this writer, I’m both an introvert and a highly sensitive person (HSP). We’re also both shy, though not as “painfully shy” as we once were. Like her , I worry that we risk hurting shy introverts when we focus the conversation about shyness and introversion on the idea that introverts are not shy. Because some of us actually are.
Shyness is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just viewed as bad in current American culture. Other cultures see shyness as a sign of modesty, and treat it as a virtue (Asian cultures are typically used as an example). So for those of us who are shy, quiet, and introverted, know that there’s not necessarily something “wrong” with you. Extreme shyness becomes a problem when your fear gets in the way of you choosing to move forward with things you want to do, but a little shyness can be a positive trait depending on how you look at it.
“the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.” — Susan Cain
Shyness vs. Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is where “shyness” becomes problematic. Both shyness and social anxiety disorder are motivated by a fear of social situations, but social anxiety is more of a phobia-level fear. It’s often accompanied by a physical response (nausea, sweating, heart racing), and a person with social anxiety disorder might not appear shy all the time. It’s much more complex than simply an exaggerated form of shyness, as illustrated in the essay “Social anxiety is not the same as excessive shyness” by Chris Alaimo. I recommend clicking over there and reading what he wrote if you’re interested in this topic.
“Many people are a little bit shy. If you’re shy, you might be somewhat uncomfortable in situations such as going to a party where you don’t know anyone, but you do it. You give yourself a push, you go to the party, after a while you relax and talk to people. The social phobic person, at the prospect of the same party, would be overwhelmed by such anxiety that [he or she] would have a physical reaction — perhaps nausea, sweating, heart racing, dizziness — and would avoid it if at all possible. It’s a matter of degree.” Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, MD, head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (as quoted on WebMD).
I actually didn’t know about this distinction until someone asked what the difference was and I did some research. Now, I’m not sure anymore whether I qualify as shy or socially anxious. Using the above example, I do experience the the heart-racing, nausea, and panic-attack reaction to going to an event, but I usually go anyway (often because a family member pushes me out of the house. Literally, sometimes). So do I have mild social anxiety, or extreme occasional shyness? I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since WebMD says the typical treatment is anti-depressants and I’m not going to do that for something that’s not having a more drastic impact on my life.
I think it’s something worth thinking about, though, for people who are very shy. One of the reasons I like type psychology is because when you know yourself, you are better able to plan for and cope with your weaknesses, as well as utilize your strengths. Along the same lines, wven if you don’t plan on seeking medical help for shyness or social anxiety, knowing there’s a name for what you’re dealing with can help make it seem more manageable, and it helps you track down information like Must-Have Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety.