At long last, introverts are having their day. Over the last few years, being quiet and inner-directed has become not only acceptable, but downright trendy. But introversion often gets mistaken for its more restrictive, self-conscious, but treatable cousin, social anxiety.
For the quiet types among us, “introversion” and “social anxiety” frequently get used interchangeably. Or, just as often, social anxiety is mistakenly thought of as an extreme form of introversion. But while you can definitely be a socially anxious introvert, you can also be socially anxious extrovert—for example, you may really want to go to the bar with your co-workers but worry they actually don’t want you there. Or you may crave company but obsess about the possibility you’ll say something stupid.
But the two terms are actually quite different. Far from being a psychological tomato-tomahto, the two are more like apple and orange—here are five big differences.
Difference #1: You were born an introvert; you were made socially anxious. Introversion is a trait, meaning it’s part of your inborn personality. But with social anxiety, while you may carry a predisposition toward it, you didn’t come out of the womb with it. Likely, a lot of learning went into its development. For example, maybe some early social rejection taught you that peers are mean and critical. Maybe your parents taught you never to ask for help because people will judge you. Maybe being the center of attention as a kid made you so uncomfortable you’ve avoided it ever since, and never had the opportunity to learn you could handle it just fine. The good news is that you can unlearn, or re-learn, those early lessons about people being judgy, disapproving, or critical.
Difference #2: With introversion, solitude makes you feel good. With social anxiety, it just makes you less anxious. It’s a fine distinction, so let’s look a little closer. Introverts gain energy by being alone, one-to-one, or in a small group of trusted confidantes. If you’re an introvert, being in solitude is refreshing and recharges your batteries.
By contrast, social anxiety is driven by fear. Being alone makes you less anxious, which might feel good, but it’s more a sense of relief than happiness. You may tell yourself, “I don’t care,” about going to that party or turning down that invitation, but deep down, avoiding people leaves you lonely or insecure. But the drive to make anxiety go away is strong. So you may avoid events you actually would like to go to for fear of making a fool of yourself, getting rejected, or feeling awkward.
Difference #3: With social anxiety, you feel incapable. You think you don’t have anything to say, won’t know what to say, and assume that people will overlook or misunderstand you anyway.
By contrast, with introversion, you feel pretty confident about your social skills and can turn them “on” if you need to. And even though it might take some effort to be “on,” you can recharge by reading a book on the couch the next day or going out to brunch with your best friend.
Difference #4: Introverts and socially anxious individuals both care what other people think, but on differing levels. Let’s be honest. No matter your personality, you care what people think—at least the people you love and respect. I know, I know, every chart-topping megahit from Shake it Off to Let It Go to Roar tells you to be yourself and not let others’ opinions hold you back. But if you really didn’t care what anybody thought, you’d be a psychopath. We’re social animals, so of course we care what people who matter to us think—introverts and extroverts alike.
But social anxiety is caring what other people think, supersized. In social anxiety, you care what almost everybody thinks, assume most people are thinking negatively about you, and have the nagging sense you don’t measure up. A younger cousin to social anxiety is people pleasing.
Difference #5: Social anxiety thrives on perfectionism. Perfectionism is often a root of social anxiety—you may believe only a perfect social performance can stave off harsh criticism. You may think you’ll be judged unless you come off as the paragon of effortless social banter, which instead just makes you clam up. The socially anxious among us rehearse our fast food order while waiting in line or talk ourselves through that customer service call before we dial the number, which robs us of the chance to realize the fast food guy and the customer service person have probably heard it all, from drunken life stories to sketchy confessions, and don’t care if we stumble over our words. By contrast, with introversion, perfectionism isn’t an issue. Why? There’s no performance involved.