Introvert Mondays: Starting to Tease Out the Differences Between Introversion and Shyness

As I have mentioned before, introverts aren’t necessarily shy.  Introversion means that a person prefers a less stimulating environment, meaning that they may not like raucous parties and boisterous get togethers (or at least not all the time).  Shyness is when a person fears being humiliated and disapproved of in social situations.  Simply put, introversion relates to preference and shyness relates to fear.

While extroverts can be shy as well, there is some correlation between shyness and introverts.  Susan Cain writes in Quiet, “Many shy people turn inward, partly as a refuge from the socializing that causes them such anxiety.  And many introverts are shy, partly as a result of receiving the message that there’s something wrong with their preference for reflection, and partly because their physiologies, as we’ll see, compel them to withdraw from high-stimulation environments,” (pg. 12).  Additionally, there are several traits of introversion that overlap with shyness:  the tendency to be quieter in a large crowd, needing breaks from parties (and sometimes choosing not to attend), uncomfortable physical sensations when in over-stimulating environments.

Who I Am
I am a shy introvert.  I know that some of you who have known me for years and years are probably thinking, “Really, you’re shy?”  Well, I’m not always shy–I can be quiet boisterous if I’m in the right mood with familiar people.  When I was younger, I don’t think I was shy.  I don’t remember feeling constantly uncomfortable when around strangers.  I don’t recall feeling an overwhelming urge to hide when talking to unfamiliar people.  I believe I showed signs of introversion–developing reading as a hobby, having a small group of close friends–but I wasn’t shy.  My camp experience is a good example of being introverted but not shy.  Starting in fourth grade, my parents let me go to a week-long overnight camp.  I looked forward to attending every year and didn’t feel any apprehension about spending the week with a group of strangers.  Generally I spent the first couple days of camp observing my cabin mates, learning how they interacted with the others.  Apparently I didn’t talk much during this time because by the time Wednesday arrived and I started getting comfortable with my group, my counselors often commented that they didn’t realize I could be chatty and that I had “come out of my shell.”  But I wasn’t shy during my quiet days–I never felt upset by being around  unfamiliar girls, I was content with the way I adapted to the group.

While the introversion has been a life-long trait, the shyness is something that started developing as an adult.  Nobody had ever referred to me as shy until I went to my high school boyfriend’s brother’s wedding the summer I went to college (got that mouthful figured out?  Good).  After spending the reception quietly following my boyfriend around and not saying much to the millions of relatives that were attending the wedding, he commented, “You’re kinda shy around new people, aren’t you?”  As I progressed through college, my introversion started feeding into my shyness.  I didn’t want to expend my energy talking to random people in my classes, but there is a social expectation that if an extrovert decides to chitchat with you one day that you best chitchat right back (not that I never made any friends in classes, but generally only after we were well into the semester).  I was accused of being rude my freshman year by a floormate because I didn’t talk much to her shallow, immature friends when we had lunch together one day–I found them not to be worth the effort to befriend (I’m sorry, they were very inconsiderate boys who refused to talk to me when she left the table–most awkward lunch ever!).  After getting married and moving into the seminary community, the socialization pressures heightened.  Friendships needed to be made quickly before one of us moved away.  Congregation members always focused intently on my presence the first week I attended and I never got the time to quietly sit in my pew without anyone knowing who I was.  Everything socially related has moved quickly and intensely the last few years, changing my uncertainty with adult interactions into anxiety.  This year I have begun medical treatment for anxiety that mostly relates to social situations (call it social anxiety if you want–I’m not really sure of the nuances of diagnosing an official anxiety disorder vs. treating anxiety symptoms).  Gone are the days of childhood when I could observe new situations before jumping in.  Now I feel pressure to make new friends everywhere I go, to be gregarious and outgoing whenever I set foot in a new church, and to network with everyone around me.  It’s overwhelming for a person who just wants to have a chance to calmly take in a new situation and slowly meet people on a one-on-one basis.  So yes, I am introverted and shy.

Where Does Introversion End and Shyness Start?
However, I’ve started to do some research on shyness and how to cope with it.  I have only begun my reading about shyness but already I have found some fascinating ideas about what shyness is.  Mainly, what is described as acting shy in one book is described as being introverted in another.

For example, here is a section from The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook:

If you are attending a party, do you purposely stay close to your spouse so that you won’t have to talk to other people?  Do you have a drink or two as soon as you get to the party so that your anxiety stays in check?  Do you offer to help serve food or clean dishes so you won’t have to talk to the other guests?  Do you take frequent bathroom breaks to avoid being with everyone else?  When you are talking to other guests at the party, do you ask the other person lots of questions to keep the focus of the conversation away from you?

All of these are examples of subtle avoidance strategies that people sometimes use in social situations [. . .] these behaviors may decrease your anxiety in the short term by helping you to feel safer.  However, in the long term, they typically have the effect of preventing your anxiety from decreasing naturally over time because they prevent you from learning that the situation can be safe and manageable even without relying on subtle avoidance strategies.” (pg. 52)

Now take some excerpts from The Introvert’s Way in the chapter entitled “The Bathroom and Other Party Survival Skills”:

You are alone.  The din is muffled.  Nobody is in your personal space.  Nobody is talking.  The bathroom offers quiet sanctuary, a moment to let your overstimulated brain relax, a moment of blissful solitude.  You may or may not need to use the facilities, but you definitely needed to go to the bathroom,” (pg. 93).

“Escape is one survival tactic, keeping busy is another.  Some introverts like to be kitchen elves, finding glasses and wiping down counters and serving drinks.  You meet a lot of people that way, but with purpose.  Plus, at most parties, guests tend to gravitate toward the kitchen, so you can find yourself in the midst of the action without having to exert any mingling effort,” (pg. 94).

Finally, read this part from The Introvert Advantage:

“The room is a sea of people.  The loud voices hurt my ears.  I scan the room for a safe nook.  My stomach tightens.  My breath quickens.  I feel like retreating.  My husband, Mike, sees friends he wants to say hello to.  He’s excited.  He loves parties.  He threads his way through the huddled groups, smiling and nodding all the way.  That’s when I make a beeline for the bathroom.  I stay in there, checking out the wallpaper, the hand towels, and the soap.  I really appreciate a well-appointed bathroom.  I begin to relax.  My stomach unclenches.  My breathing returns to normal.  After a while, I feel prepared to leave the sanctuary of the bathroom.  I locate Mike’s bald spot in one of the huddled groups.  I slip in beside him.  He hands me a Pepsi.  I chat with people.  I enjoy hearing what they have to say.  It’s fun to laugh and talk.  Every once in a while I feel that old familiar urge to retreat, so I revisit the powder room.  Occasionally I’ll pass another bathroom lurker.  We recognize each other and smile.  I know she’s counting the minutes until she can leave without appearing rude.  Dinner is served, then dessert.  Two bites into the Peach Melba I turn to Mike and whisper: ‘I’d like to leave in five minutes,'” (pg. 159).

What can be viewed as “subtle avoidance strategies” is also just being an introvert in a large crowd.  The last passage could easily be mistaken for a description of symptoms of social anxiety, but the author is trying explain what many introverts feel when walking into a loud room (some of this might stem from being a  Highly Sensitive Person, but I plan to go into this more in another post).  In one book my behaviors make me have an illness and the other books my behaviors make me seem like a perfectly normal introvert.

Now, I’m not trying to imply that social anxiety isn’t a real disorder.  I know how it is to face a social situation with a pounding heart, tense muscles, and fear so overwhelming that the room starts to spin–it’s quite unpleasant and can quickly become debilitating.  But sometimes I wonder if our society was a little more accepting of introverted personality traits, would some of my anxiety lessen?  Would some of my uncomfortable feelings dissipate if I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to behave in a way contrary to my nature?  I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hopeful that my continued research into introversion and shyness will help me understand what I can and cannot change about myself.

Are you a shy introvert?  If so, how do you feel your introversion relates to your shyness?  Are you a shy extrovert?  If so, how does your experiences compare to what I’ve mentioned in this post?

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4 Comments on “Introvert Mondays: Starting to Tease Out the Differences Between Introversion and Shyness”

  1. RPW says:

    I'm definitely a shy introvert…with some social anxiety, at least, in a group of people where small talk is required. If I have something I'm supposed to talk about, I'm fine, but I need alone time afterward. Is that introverted (hates small talk, feels alone in a large room) or social anxiety (dislikes it so much that I utilize negative reinforcement techniques like escape and avoidance to not be in those situations)?The difference between a psychological disorder and anything else is that it has to meet two categories 1) is it abnormal (as in, outside the majority)? 2) is it dysfunctional (as in, does it inhibit function?So in many situations, like being a mental health counselor and parent, it wouldn't qualify as a social anxiety disorder because it doesn't pose any problems. I do great one on one and love being with my family and my small groups of friends. As a pastor's wife, the fact that I did anything to avoid potlucks and confirmations probably could've pushed me over into dysfunctional. I still don't like the hanging about the narthex after, but I can find a few people who don't mind me standing looking awkward.

  2. Katrina says:

    Thanks for the clear distinction between a disorder and anything else. I'm not so sure that my feelings are completely abnormal (perhaps a little more extreme than others?) but I certainly hit the dysfunctional level this past fall when my discomfort led me to stop going to church. And I'm still avoiding the all-church potlucks for the time being. 🙂

  3. […] mentioned before that it takes a long time for me to consider a person a friend and that shyness and introversion make socializing difficult.  Between these two factors, I feel that I come off a bit. . . prickly, like a cactus (you know, […]

  4. […] and accepting of the introverts around them, shyness is still viewed as an undesirable trait.  But I’m a shy introvert who wonders why my shyness is such a big bother to other […]


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