You have a small social circle and fiercely protect your alone time. It takes a while before you feel comfortable opening up in the company of new people. At work or school, you hang back and avoid speaking up until you absolutely have to.
Parties and crowds of people tend to make you nervous, if not outright overwhelmed. You’ve elevated the act of canceling plans to an art form. Others call you reserved, quiet, or shy.
Do the above characteristics describe you to a T? If so, you quite possibly describe yourself as an introvert.
Yet maybe you’ve also spent some time considering whether something else drives your lack of interest in social situations. Does your personality simply fall toward the introverted end of the spectrum, you might wonder, or could you actually have social anxiety?
The answer depends on two things:
- the reasons why these behaviors feel most natural to you
- your feelings about spending time alone
On the surface, social anxiety and introversion can seem pretty similar. After all, they involve many of the same signs.
These two experiences aren’t one and the same, though, and they have less in common than you might think.
There’s one key difference between introversion and social anxiety: Introversion is a personality trait, not a mental health condition.
Introverted people draw energy from within. As an introvert, you probably dedicate plenty of time to solitary pursuits. Relaxing and unwinding alone appeal to you, so you might prefer, more often than not, to make plans with yourself over anyone else.
If you’re an introvert, you might:
- have strong listening skills
- carefully consider options before making a decision
- dislike confrontation
- prefer to share feelings and thoughts through writing or art
Since introversion is a personality trait, it’s part of who you are — not necessarily something you can work to change. Learning and developing certain skills can help you feel more relaxed in groups of people, but new skills can’t really change how you get your energy.
Living with social anxiety, or social phobia, typically means you experience significant nervousness and fear in social situations or when simply thinking about social situations. This fear generally stems from the idea that others will reject you or judge you negatively.
If you’re introverted, you might keep to yourself because you enjoy solitude. With social anxiety, on the other hand, you may actually want to join the crowd but feel nervous of your reception — and potential rejection.
When you do go to parties or hang out with friends, you might spend a lot of time thinking about what you’ve said or done and worrying what people think of you.
With social anxiety, you might:
- often feel anxious about doing something embarrassing in public
- avoid interacting with people you don’t know well
- fixate on the possibility of social slip-ups, like forgetting someone’s name or sneezing during a lecture
- feel frustrated or lonely because you struggle to connect with others in the way you’d like
Social anxiety is a mental health condition, so the worry and fear you experience may not improve without support from a mental health professional.
Introversion, in basic terms, means that you tend to feel drained by too much social interaction and need to take time for yourself to restore your energy.
Feeling drained by social interaction isn’t the same as feeling anxious about it, and introversion doesn’t automatically translate to social anxiety.
As an introvert, you might feel just fine about spending time with others — as long as you have enough energy, you can leave whenever you need to, and the setting isn’t too crowded or overwhelming.
But what if you don’t just need time alone to recharge? What if you also favor your own company because you frequently worry about how others perceive you? Perhaps one of these scenarios sounds familiar:
- When you don’t hear back from a friend right away, you start to worry that you’ve done something to annoy them and begin reviewing your last few interactions.
- During meetings at work, you sit quietly in the back corner, hoping to escape notice. Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and you’re sure everyone can see how flushed your face is.
Keep in mind that introversion and its counterpart, extroversion, exist on a spectrum. As an introvert, you fall closer to one end, but that doesn’t mean you avoid people entirely. Most introverts enjoy spending time with friends, particularly those friends who understand their boundaries in social interactions and need for alone time.
When avoidance and fear factor into the time you spend alone, it’s worth considering whether social anxiety could play a part.
If you’re more conscientious, you might feel anxious about missing important details or giving an impression of unreliability.
If you have higher levels of neuroticism, you might be more prone to general insecurity and stress and worry about all new situations.
Incidentally, you can also have social anxiety if you lie more toward the extroverted end of the spectrum. In other words: Yes, you can be an “anxious extrovert.”
Shyness is another trait that often gets mixed up with social anxiety and introversion. It’s even been suggested that social anxiety simply represents an extreme form of shyness.
Like people with social anxiety, shy people usually feel uncomfortable around strangers and hesitant to open up in social situations.
If you’re shy, you might:
- prefer to communicate through text or email
- stick close to good friends in social settings
- worry about meeting new people and wonder whether they’ll like you
- blush, get sweaty, or feel sick to your stomach before speaking in a group
Yet shyness often eases as you begin to feel comfortable. For example, you might have zero reservations about speaking your mind among close friends. Or at a party, your nervousness might begin to wear off once you feel welcomed and accepted.
Social anxiety, introversion, and shyness can occur together, making it tough to tell where one ends and the other begins. That said, many people tend toward shyness or introversion without also having social anxiety.
If you’re shy, introverted, and also have social anxiety, the three can potentially play off each other, making social situations even more overwhelming to contemplate.
Here’s an example:
Your best friend’s birthday party is coming up. They’ve planned a smaller, quiet night of boardgames and food, and you know that they really want you to attend.
But you also know that they’ve invited a few newer friends, mostly people you don’t know well. You feel a little anxious about playing your favorite games in a new setting.
Introversion might lead you to prepare by planning a night for yourself before and after the party.
If you’re also shy, you might have some worries about meeting new people, but you remind yourself that your friend will be there to support you.
Adding in social anxiety can complicate things quite a bit.
What if, you might wonder, you don’t understand how to play the game, or you forget a rule? What if you end up spilling your drink all over the table and ruining the night for everyone? What if you make a joke and no one laughs, not even your best friend?
These worries occupy your thoughts in the days leading up to the party until you feel sick, nervous, and ready to cancel and spend the evening safely alone.
Social anxiety can make it difficult to pursue friendships and relationships.
While you want to participate more fully in social settings, fears of criticism and rejection get in the way, preventing you from building the connections you desire.
- feel worse, not better, after spending time alone
- long to make friends and feel more comfortable in the company of others
- spend a lot of time worrying about negative feedback or judgment
- have trouble participating in daily interactions at school or work
- use alcohol to help manage your fears
A therapist can:
- offer support with working through fears of judgment and rejection
- teach skills to better navigate social situations
- offer guidance with managing worry in productive ways
- help you practice challenging and reframing anxious thoughts
People thrive with varying levels of social interaction. When solitude helps you recharge, and spending time alone doesn’t cause any frustration or distress, you most likely have nothing to worry about.
If you consistently find it challenging to connect with others, even when you want to open your social circle, professional support can help.
Keeping the spotlight effect in mind can also help ease some feelings of social self-consciousness. It’s very normal to worry about saying the wrong thing or doing something embarrassing.
But even if you do, chances are good it’ll go unnoticed — most people pay far less attention to what happens around them than you might imagine.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.