Over time I’ve noticed that many people will interchangeably use the terms "shyness" and "introversion," as though they are one and the same. In this post I’ll explain why I don't believe they are.
A good place to start is by examining why the two get confused in the first place. Shy people and introverts tend to steer clear of socializing, but often for very different reasons. Shy people are typically anxious about creating a bad impression, or of exposing themselves to unwanted scrutiny. They probably want to make more friends and to be at ease in social situations, but they don’t know how or they are preoccupied about things going wrong.
I’m an introvert, but I’ll qualify that by saying I’m not an extreme introvert. It’s more accurate to take account of the situation and the context I'm in. In my time I’ve been a health professional and an academic. I’ve regularly given talks to packed lecture theatres. I don't find particular difficulty in social situations, although my tolerance threshold can be low. Given the choice, I’ll opt for my own company, or that of a close friend or relatives, over a party or social gathering.
Like so many introverts I’m not shy about meeting people, but I draw my energy from time alone. This is a key difference between people who are introverts and those who aren’t. The psychologists Louis A. Schmidt and Arnold H. Buss describe introverts as "low on social approach and low on social avoidance." In other words, social interactions aren’t exactly on our priority list, but neither are we afraid of them.
When introversion and shyness works against us
Introverts, on the whole, are a fairly self-contained bunch. Up to a point this is fine, but there are circumstances where it can work against us. In his blog post People Who Interview Well, Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., makes the point that serious-minded introverts can portray themselves as lacking in confidence, or being socially unskilled. These people really only blossom in one-on-one situations where they are given time. Otherwise, as Dr. Furnham writes, they can be disadvantaged and seriously misjudged.
A shy or introverted classification doesn’t matter a great deal to the outside world. The fact that there may be some overlap between shyness and introversion is another fact that is easily brushed aside. But shy people and introverts need to be aware of the bias against them. People who are more outgoing tend to be regarded as more competent, likable, and intelligent than the quieter types. As an introvert or shy person you may disagree with this — but does your opinion even count?
Be aware that whether you’re a calm introvert, anxiously shy, or indeed a shy introvert, you may be mistaken for being overly submissive. In competitive environments it’s important to adapt. This might take more effort and may feel uncomfortable, but it’s a price many of us consider worth paying. For example, I think it is. So, my main bit of advice is this:
Behave with confidence. Often just behaving confidently will make you feel more confident. Practice your body language by not slouching, keeping your head up, and maintaining eye contact when speaking to people. And when you do have something to say — don’t mumble.
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(1) Rubin, K.H & Coplan, R. J. (eds) (2010) The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal. Guilford Press.