I spent a good amount of my life believing that my crippling social anxiety was a quirk of my personality. I was offended when people said I was “too quiet” and told me to “get out of my shell.” I was angry at these people, because I saw my quietness as a fundamental character trait — something I could not change. It felt like they were rubbing it in, taunting me by making it sound like a choice I was making, and one I could easily reverse. My internal response was, How dare they try to change me? If you’ve wondered whether what you’re going through is introversion or social anxiety, you may become similarly defensive.
I was resigned to going through my entire life like this. I knew it would be a disadvantage, but I tried to make my peace with it. This included picking my college major according to what I thought would be possible (re:comfortable) for me. Staying within the confines of my “personality,” I limited my hopes and goals for my future. If something didn’t work out, I chided myself for overestimating my abilities.
I knew the term “social anxiety.” I went to therapy when it started presenting as physical symptoms. Learning coping skills meant I could usually get through the day without a panic attack. I started to step outside of my shell a bit, although still with a lot of discomfort. I still didn’t see my anxiety as something I had any real control over.
It wasn’t until I tried medication that I really, truly learned how pervasively anxiety had impacted my life and my self-image. It flipped a switch in my brain, and the rest of my life I’ll sing the praises of antidepressants and their ability to correct brain chemistry. I’ll never forget my first class presentation post-citalopram. I was in total shock and wonder at my ability to just… speak, rather than breathlessly choke words out.
My life instantly got so much better, in part because I was finally able to separate my anxiety from my personality. I learned that I could be a social person, and that much of my unhappiness had actually been loneliness. When my anxiety was minor enough that I could finally socialize, I became a lot happier. I realized I wasn’t limited to career fields that didn’t require… speaking of any kind, and I switched my major to social work and here I am now.
Fast forward ten years, and I’ve got a pretty healthy and realistic sense of self. I’m social. I love being a therapist. And while I still call myself an introvert, I know I had some extroverted traits, too.
I don’t ascribe to the black-and-white concepts of introversion and extroversion. I do think people tend to fall in one category or the other, but I think it’s a spectrum, and very few fall on opposing ends. Social anxiety? That’s not on the spectrum. It isn’t exclusive to either side, and research shows that social anxiety occurs only somewhat more often in introverts than extroverts.
Introversion is a personality trait; social anxiety is a mental health condition. It obstructs personality, because like so many other mental health conditions, it’s inhibitive and destructive. It’s something that takes work to confront and control. But, at least in my case, it’s something we have to try to beat. It would have kept me locked in a cage my whole life.
Telling the difference
It’s hard to overcome social anxiety. The first step, though, is knowing the extent to which it affects you. Maybe you don’t know if you have social anxiety at all, and you think your discomfort around people is more to do with genuine introversion. Or maybe, like I did, you’ve got the two completely enmeshed and rolled into one confusing, overwhelming concept. You need to be able to tell the difference. Try asking yourself the questions below to gain some insight.
- Are you more uncomfortable in some situations than others?
Social anxiety boils down to fear, and its severity depends on how much value we place on our performance and others’ opinions. If you’re socially anxious, you’re going to be more uncomfortable in situations where you care more about how you’re perceived. There’s probably always going to be a baseline amount, but you’ll have more anxiety giving a presentation to your co-workers than going out to dinner with friends.
On the other hand, introversion can be imagined like an hourglass: you have a certain amount of energy to devote to social activities, and when it runs out, you’re spent. There’s no fear, or doubt, or anxiety; you’re just done and ready to be alone again.
- What are your thoughts like?
With symptoms like fear of embarrassment and overanalyzing your words and actions, the trademark of social anxiety is self-consciousness. Your discomfort comes from insecurity. Your thoughts are going to be along the lines of, Was that the right thing to say? Am I dressed the right way? Do they like me? How you answer those questions internally causes your anxiety to increase or decrease.
Introversion only reflects a preference. Outside of your preferred environment, you might be uncomfortable, but you can still maintain a healthy sense of self and confidence level. Your thoughts might sound more like, When will this end? This is boring. I can’t wait until I can go home and do ____.
- Do you enjoy alone time?
If you’re more relaxed while you’re alone, but not necessarily happier, you might not be as introverted as you think. You can be anxious and enjoy yourself at the same time. It depends, to an extent, on your tolerance for and ability to cope with anxiety.
Think about how much time you spend texting or messaging others. When you’re alone, do you spend a lot of time still socializing, or thinking about the next time you’ll be around people? Or are you enjoying your alone time by engaging in solo hobbies (reading, gardening, etc.)? Introverts are more likely to make the most of and actually enjoy alone time, while extroverts (even those with social anxiety) may be looking forward to it ending.
- When you’re relaxed around others, are you enjoying yourself?
Say you’re feeling relaxed for whatever reason — you had yoga that morning, went easy on caffeine, or had a self-confidence boost — is it making a noticeable difference on how much you enjoy being around people? Think about situations you don’t seek out, like grocery shopping. (Maybe you don’t think of that as enjoyable, but if you’re a mom like me, a solo shopping trip can be a vacation).
Is that trip easier or more pleasant because you’re in a positive state of mind? If so, it could be social anxiety. If your enjoyment of an activity stays the same regardless of how relaxed you are overall, it’s more likely to be a matter of introversion.
Is it something you can change? Do you want to?
Now that you have a better idea of whether introversion or social anxiety is responsible for how you feel around people, you can decide how to respond. Introversion, because it’s a matter of personality and preference, isn’t something you can easily change. You might not want to change it, or you might be facing external pressure to change. Know that there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert. Introversion comes with a lot of amazing strengths, like creativity, listening well, and being empathetic.
If it’s social anxiety, know that you don’t have to suffer. Get a therapist, try medication, or take up meditation or yoga or any other coping skill that works for you. Try a bunch of things and find what works through the process of elimination. Don’t mistake social anxiety for introversion like I did and beat yourself up and normalize to yourself what you’re going through. You deserve so much better.