The Difference Between Social Anxiety & Introversion Isn't Always Clear, So Here's The Deal
You know how every thumb is a finger, but not every finger is a thumb? That’s a good way to think about introverts and people who suffer from social anxiety. Take it from someone who identifies as such: Not every introvert wants to run and hide at the thought of social interaction. On the flip side, not every person who’s socially anxious is going fall under the linear definition of an introvert. Just as allergies and colds aren’t one and the same, there are differences between social anxiety and introversion, they just aren’t always super obvious.
Before I jump into why social anxiety and introversion aren’t necessarily synonymous, you should know, first and foremost, what it really means to be either one. In an exclusive interview with Elite Daily, Michael Alcee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Tarrytown, New York, explains that introverts are people who “derive their energy and fuel by steeping themselves in the inner world of ideas and imagination.” Someone who suffers from social anxiety, on the other hand, is less focused on their energy, and more concerned with social situations, Alcee says. They have an excessive fear of potentially being “negatively evaluated” in these atmospheres, to the point where they become “disproportionately sensitive,” and paranoid over the “possibility of rejection," according to the clinical psychologist.
I think it’s safe to say that, whether you identify more as an introvert or as someone who has social anxiety, both parties are dealing with some pretty heavy stuff. And while you can absolutely struggle with both introversion and social anxiety, the two aren't always a package deal. Here’s how to spot the key differences.
Social Anxiety Comes From Being Afraid Of People's Opinions
Introversion and social anxiety are both internal struggles, but the root causes of these issues are completely different. For introverts, it's an energy thing. Too much social interaction, by their standards, can cause introverts to burn out quickly, to the point where they feel mentally drained and need to be alone for an extended period of time to recuperate.
Someone who is socially anxious, however, typically isn't concerned about keeping up with a crowd of friends; their mind is hyper-focused on social acceptance.
"Introverts are more concerned about being too depleted by social interactions," Alcee tells Elite Daily, while socially anxious people are "fearful of negative evaluation by others."
Introversion Is A Personality Trait, And Social Anxiety Is Something You Develop
According to Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, you are who you are from the get-go, so if you typically lean toward introversion or extroversion, it's likely you were destined to be an introverted person coming out of the womb. Social anxiety, however, isn't a character trait; it's a development. In an article for Scientific American, Hendriksen wrote,
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.
Luckily, Hendriksen said, social anxiety can be worked through and reversed. Not every person is going to be judgmental, or so clique-y they'll ice you out of social situations.
People With Social Anxiety Are Generally Very Self-Critical
It is a universal truth that you are your own worst critic. There have been plenty of days when I've looked in the mirror and felt like crap, or said something in conversation and beat myself up over it later, and that's all totally normal — it's human. But people who struggle with social anxiety take self-criticism to the next level, especially in a public setting.
For example, Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the suicide prevention organization Jed Foundation, explains that, when introverts are required to give a presentation or speak to a group, they're generally fine giving a speech, but ultimately loathe the inevitable small talk that follows. Someone who is socially anxious, however, will likely dread the entire event from start to finish, worrying about how they'll come off to their peers. Schwartz told Huffington Post,
There are often thoughts about people disapproving or likely making fun of the person with anxiety. People often expect they will be embarrassed or ashamed by something they will say or do — "My voice sounds funny" or "I feel inarticulate" or something like that.
Keep In Mind, There Are Socially Anxious Extroverts
It sounds like a major contradiction, I know, but, as previously mentioned, social anxiety is something you develop; it has nothing to do with whether or not you are introverted or extroverted by nature.
So, how does it all work? Well, "introversion and extroversion," Alcee explains, "are really about how you recharge and drain and separate from concerns about how you are evaluated by others." In other words, you might very well be someone who enjoys going out with friends on a Friday night, but there's still a pressing fear they might not want you there. If that sounds stressful to you, that's because it is.
Someone who is introverted might very well be struggling from social anxiety, and vice versa. If social anxiety is weighing you down, take comfort in the fact that this is something you can work through and move on from. As for being introverted or extroverted, you are who you are, friend, so own it.