Psychologists estimate that roughly 50-75% of the world identifies as an introvert. Is this number correct, or are people simply confused about what it really means to be introverted? What is the difference between introversion and social anxiety?
What does “Introversion” really mean?
In the past few years I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of introvert-related blog posts, cartoons, and info-graphics floating around the internet. This sudden rush to categorize people, combined with humorous posts describing introverts as being shut-ins who only read Harry Potter, binge Netflix, and actively screen their phone calls, has actually led to some misrepresentation of introverts!
If you went up to a random person on the street and asked them to describe an introvert, they might say something like “someone who’s shy,” “someone who hate parties, and can’t stand talking on the phone,” or “a person who get nervous in crowds.” Did this person just describe an introvert?
NOPE! They just described how a person living with social anxiety might behave.
Introversion is not based in fear! Simply put, introversion is a preference to spend time communicating one-on-one with people rather than in a large group, and introverts need time alone to “recharge their batteries.” In contrast, an extreme extrovert may need lots of social stimulation to “recharge” and they are happiest in a more stimulating environment such as a large social gathering or even just chatting with a friend in a busy cafe. The cartoon below shows how an extrovert gains energy from a social event while an introvert loses energy after being at the same party.
Introversion is not a problem that needs to be fixed, but social anxiety is an issue that can go unnoticed because anxiety and shyness are so often mislabeled as “introversion.”
Can you be an introvert and have social anxiety as well? Absolutely, but you can also be an extrovert and experience the same kind of anxiety in public! And while there probably is a greater percentage of introverts who suffer from it, they don’t have a monopoly on social anxiety.
For example, I am a socially-anxious extrovert, and the struggle is real. This is a catch-22, because while it is incredibly stressful for me to socialize in any capacity, it is the very act of catching up with friends or going to an event that makes me the happiest! It’s good to know your own tendencies and to find out if you have any social anxiety, so you can deal with that stress in a healthy way.
How Do I Know if it’s Social Anxiety?
Now I am not a psychiatrist, but I did earn a minor in psychology during college and I have this lovely thing called internet-access, so I took to the Google-machine and I have distilled the criteria from the DSM-5 (a book of diagnostic criteria used in psychology) and scoured information from all corners of the internet to come up with a simplified criteria.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I often feel stressed out or nervous during normal social situations? (Example: sitting in a busy coffee shop or ordering food at a restaurant; do not include times when you are on stage–most people experience some level of stage fright.)
- When I’m in a crowded place, do I get physical symptoms such as flushing skin, sweaty palms, or a racing heart?
- Do I avoid social events and parties because I know it will cause me too much distress?
- If I have a social event coming up, do I worry about “what I will say and how I will act” hours or even days in advance?
- When I am by myself, does my anxiety seem to go away?
If you answered “yes” to most of or all of these questions, it’s very likely that you are experiencing some level of social anxiety, and there are definitely ways you can get help.
Realizing that you are anxious is the first step in finding ways to manage your anxiety. Personally, I didn’t realize I had social anxiety until a decade after I started showing symptoms; I simply thought that I was just “introverted” and that introverts were always uncomfortable around people. If you’re living with chronic illness and you suffer from constant exhaustion, then you already know how social situations suck all the energy out of you, but this is different from being an introvert and even different from having true social anxiety. Long story short, it’s good to know yourself inside and out! So figure out your situation and act on your findings.
My recommendation: if you found yourself nodding “yes” to those five questions, then I would seek out a therapist who is skilled in dealing with anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is documented to be the most effective treatment for anxiety, and it doesn’t come with any prescriptions or side effects!
And if you didn’t relate to any of the social anxiety criteria, then thank you lucky stars that you can go out in the world without feeling any worse for wear! You can even go the extra mile and be conscious of anyone in your life who’s experiencing social anxiety and be there to support them 🙂
Until next time,
Em the Silver Spoonie