Are You Shy or an Introvert: Personality disorder or preference

woman appears shyBy Riki Markowitz

Carlos Gieseken is a 36-year-old government employee who recalls being a terribly shy child. “I remember when it came time for baseball tryouts. I was enthusiastic about the idea of playing but terrified to go. I didn’t want all those people watching and judging me.” Carlos wiggled his way out of doing almost anything that required being around strangers, including going bowling with his dad. Instead, he opted to stay home and read a book.

Tannia Benefield is a 38 year old who works in social services. She is a college grad with an advanced degree and was in the air force. Despite a lifetime of working with others in very collaborative environments and studying human nature, Benefield prefers interacting with only one or two people at a time, she’s not very interested in going to parties and desperately needs a good amount of alone time just to recharge her batteries.

The difference between Gieseken and Benefield is that one is shy and the other is introverted – two very different characteristics that look nearly identical.

Defining Shy and Introvert

Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a Pasadena, CA-based psychotherapist with a popular blog on, In Therapy, explains, “shyness is a fear of socializing, introversion is a lack of interest in socializing. People who are introverted can very much hold their own around other people — many just don’t have that much interest.”

In January 2012, Time magazine did a feature story on the benefits of being an introvert, reporting that an estimated 30% of us fall into this category. Shyness, however, may be a more popular party to attend. In a 1975 study, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, founder of Stanford University’s Shyness Clinic, surveyed 800 individuals and found that 40% admitted to being shy.

Characteristics of shyness, according to Howes, include anxiety, increased heart rate, racing and negative thoughts. “Shyness is a description of behaviors and feelings. It’s a fear of socializing,” says Howes. Being an introvert has to do with personal preference. For introverts, socializing is not a safety issue. For a shy person, it is very much about safety.

Shy and Introvert – the Overlap

So why the overlap? Many shy people claim that fear of socializing makes them introverted and people assume that introverted people are just shy. If you were to see Gieseken and Benefield at a party, both may be standing on the periphery of the action, seemingly looking in.

Shy people are sometimes extraordinarily distressed by debilitating anxiety. It can cause loneliness, depression and can even lead to abuse of a social lubricant like alcohol or drugs. The dilemma for the introvert is that he or she often thinks that a disinterest in socializing is problematic. Outgoing  people are the first ones awarded with jobs, promotions and, from the outside, look like they’re having more fun.

The Pain and the Agony of being Shy or an Introvert

Benefield explains that she has always been introverted but she hasn’t always been comfortable in her own skin. As a child and in college she questioned why she was different. “It was a struggle for me. It was excruciating when I was growing up. People thought I was secretive or stuck up.” And that’s the primary dilemma for the introvert. For the most part, introverts are very happy with their disinterest in socializing with large groups. But it took some maturing before Benefield realized that being an introvert is not a disorder like shyness can be. And unlike shy people, introverts can easily turn on the charm and force themselves to be extroverted when the need arises, says Howes. Shy people can’t turn it off – not without practice, at least.

Thomas, a 27 year old who works in tech support, is your typical shy guy. (Like other shy people interviewed for this article, he did not want his last named used.) “Being shy was a huge part of my identity growing up. I would avoid doing anything that made me stand out, and I especially avoided women like the plague.” Thomas also shunned parties and convinced himself that the problem was that the crowded gatherings were stupid rather than the fact that socializing with strangers caused him debilitating discomfort. For Thomas, it’s possible to trace his social anxiety to childhood. “My family moved around a good bit. The longest I ever lived someplace before college was 3 years.” Those are years when kids learn how to bond and develop intense relationships with peers.

Many of the shy people I spoke with didn’t necessarily overcome their shyness completely, but did experience a reduction in shyness later in life. Gieseken says that he found himself much more outgoing when he was working as a journalist and it was his job to talk to strangers. But also, as he aged, he just didn’t feel as frightened around younger people. Thomas started to conquer his shyness in early adulthood when he realized he was one of the few guys he knew who never had a girlfriend, much less a first kiss.

Whereas shy people spend years practicing calming techniques and maybe even utilizing therapy to cope with their social anxiety, introverts like Benefield experience the opposite phenomena. Starting in her college years Benefield realized that she treasured smaller crowds and alone time. Instead of fighting it and learning how to be more comfortable in groups, she embraced the introversion. “If I were to go out two nights in a row and not have any alone time I would be absolutely exhausted,” says Benefield.

What it really comes down to, explains experts like Howes and those at the Shyness Clinic, is happiness. If your shyness causes you to feel isolated and lonely, your lifestyle isn’t working for you. At the same time, if you’re struggling to keep up with your peers by accepting every party invite and not getting the alone time you desperately crave, it can cause fatigue and even depression. If you’re shy, introverted or a combination of both, you can find any number of quizzes online to see which you really are and to what extent it affects your life. But really, the only question you should be asking yourself is this: “Am I happy?”




Posted by at March 27, 2012
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