Shyness, Introversion, Social Anxiety, Social Anxiety Disorder: Which One? (Social Anxiety in the Classroom: Part 1)
Well then, class, who has the answer to this question? Hmm… no hands? …How about… you? What do you think?
If you read this quote and your mind immediately recoiled, know that you are not alone. In this three-part series, we will explore:
- The differences between shyness, introversion, social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder & the link between perfectionism and social anxiety disorder
- A personal story about the progression of my social anxiety and social anxiety disorder throughout early childhood, high school, and university (with a focus on their effects on my classroom experiences)
- Some evidence-based exercises that I have found effective to overcome social anxiety throughout my time in therapy and in counselling sessions
Today, we are going to get clear about the terminology! Hey, it is okay if you didn’t know the differences before. You’re here now and you can learn!
Photo by Jamakassi
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Shyness vs. Introversion vs. Social Anxiety vs. Social Anxiety Disorder
It is important to distinguish between shyness (a personality trait or a state of being), introversion (a personality trait), social anxiety (a more specific form of the feeling of anxiety), and social anxiety disorder (SAD) (a clinical mental disorder). These terms are often used inappropriately or interchangeably, when all of them have very different meanings and uses.
People who are shy often feel uncomfortable in most social situations, such as when they are meeting new people or in social gatherings (1). People may also not be shy overall, but may experience shyness in certain social scenarios (e.g., only when meeting new people) (1). Introverted individuals are more easily stimulated than extraverted individuals (2). They recharge their energy by spending time alone, and may feel drained if they remain around others for an extended period of time (2). Social anxiety describes discomfort in social situations, usually as a result of fears that one will be judged critically by others or that they will do something embarrassing or foolish (1). Individuals with SAD experience this discomfort to such a large degree that it becomes debilitating to their function in social situations (1).
One may experience any of these concurrently (or not)
It is possible to be both shy and struggle with SAD, but not all individuals with SAD are shy (1,3). It is also possible to be shy and introverted, but not have SAD (1,3). In fact, you can have any combination of shyness, introversion, and SAD, and all would be equally as possible and valid. Social anxiety on its own is something that many people may experience in certain situations, whether or not they are shy, introverted, or have SAD (1). It exists on a spectrum, meaning that one may experience anywhere between mild, medium, or severe intensities of social anxiety depending on the situation (1). Shyness, introversion and some degree of social anxiety is typical of most people’s experience.
Is the person significantly negatively impacted by their social anxiety?
One main distinguishing factor between typical social anxiety and social anxiety disorder is in whether or not the individual feels significant functional difficulties that inhibit the life they want to lead (3). An individual is not greatly functionally affected by shyness, introversion, or the occasional mild social anxiety (1). These aspects do not negatively impact their views of themselves, others, and the world to an extreme extent (3).
However, whether or not they are shy or introverted, an individual with SAD heavily self-berates and self-criticizes for the difficulties that they experience with various social situations (1). They will over-think, over-analyze, and worry excessively to the point where they feel overburdened with irrational thoughts and doubts (1). Their social anxiety will be intense, more frequent, and will often arise in a wider variety of social situations than those without SAD (1).
It is important to note that a person with SAD does not always feel anxiety in all social situations; sometimes it is only in certain circumstances (1). For example, one individual with SAD may feel very anxious and uncomfortable with professional settings (e.g., giving presentations or speaking with authority figures), but may feel more comfortable in casual situations (e.g., gatherings with friends) (2). For others, it may be the opposite. For still others, the social anxiety may stem from another scenario entirely. In all cases, SAD is characterized by social anxiety on a bothersome level that heavily interferes with typical function (2).
Hurtful misconception: “Just face your fear, don’t worry about it so much”
Incredibly demoralizing and unhelpful (yet often well-intentioned) pieces of advice those of us with SAD hear from others are to “just do it” or “don’t worry, be happy”. While it is true that avoidance is a large barrier and reinforcer for all anxiety disorders (2), these statements invalidate a person with SAD’s struggle. After all, if it were that simple, no one would suffer from SAD!
There are effective ways to overcome anxiety that include “facing your fears”, but often it is done in a methodical and intentional step-by-step procedure (2). For example, through therapy, an individual with SAD often works on creating an exposure ladder – and this is only after the individual finds self-acceptance of their struggle and builds their desire to overcome it (2). Even this first step is understandably a very difficult process.
The added element: perfectionism
Oftentimes, perfectionism is associated with SAD (2). Excessive perfectionism may cause an individual to fear that social situations may display their “shortcomings” or “flaws” and cause others to judge them negatively (2). This is definitely the case with my experience of SAD.
Though there are many areas where SAD has come up in my own life, the area where it was most debilitative in my life has been in the classroom. However, I did not always have SAD. I definitely feel shyness in certain situations since I was a young child, but I am not shy. I have always been introverted, and this has nothing to do with social anxiety. I’ve always felt social anxiety in the classroom, but it did not become debilitative until university. Even still, I was not diagnosed with SAD until third year.
Imperfectionism involves practicing recognition of things that are not effective for you
If you are wondering if you do suffer from SAD, do not try to self-diagnose – only a psychologist or psychiatrist has the training and qualification to diagnose mental disorders. You can make an appointment with your general physician to talk about your concerns and receive a referral. For those of you in school, you can also see your guidance counsellor and ask about mental health resources about social anxiety. I am familiar with the concern about stigma, and know that it is okay if you feel anxious about it. It is understandable, and actually is expected, given where our society is at with their views on mental health. I want to gently ask that you consider the value in seeking a professional to help you recognize your cognitive distortions and aid you in practicing to overcome your struggles.
Imperfectionism involves accepting all aspects of your behaviours in social situations
If you are shy and don’t mind, own it. If you are introverted, own it – it just means you recharge your batteries by being alone. If you experience social anxiety, label it as such and accept it. It should not be a stigmatized term because it is a common human experience. If you already have a diagnosis of SAD, be kind to yourself and accept it.
Be kind to yourself and embrace your imperfections by recognizing and accepting all parts of yourself – especially the ones you seek to change
If social anxiety or SAD are inhibiting you from living the life you want to lead, then the first steps are recognition and acceptance. The next time we meet for part 2 of this series, I will show you that you are not alone. Then, in part 3, I’ll help you get started with exercises and resources to work on overcoming social anxiety that I have found effective. Remember, there is no magical solution, and it will likely take lots of effort to overcome social anxiety (especially intense social anxiety), but it is possible to push back. Hey, nothing rewarding in life comes easy, right? 🙂
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
Books used in this post:
1. Antony MM, Swinson RP. The shyness and social anxiety workbook: proven, step-by-step techniques for overcoming your fear. Third edition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc; 2017.
2. Funder DC. The personality puzzle. New York: W.W. Norton; 2015.
3. Henry T. Social Anxiety Disorder is not Shyness | Social Anxiety Institute [Internet]. Social Anxiety Institute. 2013 [cited 2018 Apr 15]. Available from: https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/social-anxiety-not-shyness