It’s a feeling many of us have had before…
You are about to do a presentation, go into a job interview, or you are asked to go around the room and say a “fun fact” about yourself, and the panic sets in. As the moment to speak draws closer, your heart beats faster and harder, you sweat, your face and chest become red and hot, your hands may tremble so badly that you are afraid to hold a paper or pen from embarrassment.
What I am describing is social anxiety. It is a reality for 15 million Americans and is different than just being what many describe as being an introvert.
What is an introvert?
Often times, peers characterize introverts as shy, reserved, or not social, but this is not often the case! Introverts have a different way of interacting with the world. In fact, introversion and extroversion are not defined by if someone is outgoing or not, but rather by how they get their energy and the best way for them to recharge. Introverts recharge by having alone time and lose energy amongst many people, while extroverts are just the opposite.
If you are an introvert, you may have questioned your abilities in social situations, and may have even wondered if you have social anxiety. The good news is if you are simply an introvert, you can embrace your own personality qualities, and if you are in fact socially anxious, you can work to treat those behaviors through therapy.
Introverts often endorse the following statements:
- I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.”
- I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own.
- I prefer to know just a few people well.
Notice that, in these situations, the introvert discusses what makes them “comfortable” and what they “prefer.” Introverts are usually happier with a simpler social life.
What is social anxiety?
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people. People with social anxiety tend to experience distress in these situations:
- Giving a presentation or speaking to an audience
- Being introduced to others
- Being teased or criticized
- Having the focus of others’ attention centered on them
- Being observed while doing something, such as eating or drinking in public
- Meeting someone “important” such as authority figures
- Going around the room and talking, one by one
Most people have probably experienced some amount of discomfort in one or more of these situations, but people with social anxiety can feel crippling anxiety in these settings, paralyzed by fear.
What are the differences?
Now that you know some information about introverts and those struggling with social anxiety, let’s talk about some differences between them.
- Introversion is a born personality trait, while social anxiety is created
Introversion and extroversion are innate qualities that a person is born with. Introverts can learn extrovert traits through practice for situations such as job interviews or giving presentations, but regardless of that, introverts will typically feel content alone or with a smaller circle of friends. On the flip side, persons with social anxiety may have, at one time, had happy and comfortable social existences. But, due to genetic predisposition and their learning experiences, they may have learned that they don’t stack up to expectations from parents or teachers, or they could have experienced a trauma such as bullying that made them not want to put themselves or their ideas out into the world in fear of judgment; this is where social anxiety is born and bred.
- People with social anxiety fear being “revealed”
Socially anxious people have a fear of showing their “flaws” that interferes with social situations. You may believe that you are awkward if you have social anxiety, and you may try to put on a perfect performance when interacting with others to hide your perceived “flaw.” Introverts, on the other hand, don’t believe that they have something to hide, so they are less likely to feel anxiety in social situations.
- The socially anxious take an “all-or-nothing” approach to social interactions
Introverts may have some trouble interacting in a social setting, but the difference between being introverted and being socially anxious lies in the need for perfectionism. Social anxiety creates an all-or-nothing approach, meaning that those with social anxiety feel they either have to be effortlessly witty and charming in conversation, or it is bound to be a horrible failure which will define them to others. People with social anxiety may know that these thoughts are irrational, but thinking is different than feeling, so their symptoms persist. Introverts, on the other hand, know that some conversations will flow and some will not, but they also know that it doesn’t define their likeability or who they are.
- Social anxiety is driven by fear, while introversion is driven by energy
If an introvert and someone with social anxiety go to a party, they may both leave early, but it will be for completely different reasons. Introverts may excuse themselves from a social gathering because they have had their fill and want to recharge alone, not because they are looking to avoid an anxiety-provoking situation. On the other hand, someone with social anxiety may leave a party because they are afraid they may say something stupid, or think they are unwanted, or maybe that they even show physical symptoms of being uncomfortable (redness, breaking out in hives, signs of a panic attack, trembling hands, etc.) and leave for those reasons. The main difference here is that introverts don’t share the fixation on judgments; they’re just being true to who they are. People with social anxiety, on the other hand, are fear driven and allow that fear to make decisions for them.
Do you think you struggle with social anxiety?
If you feel that you fit into the category of someone with social anxiety after reading this article, you are not alone! Social anxiety is the third most common mental health issue that people face today. Social anxiety is widespread, but the good news is it is also highly treatable with the right type of evidence-based therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). With some persistence and the right therapy program, you can give that presentation, slay your job interview, and have fun sharing that fun fact about yourself in front of the class.