Social Anxiety is a term that I hear get thrown around more and more lately.
Sometimes people will come to therapy convinced that they have this disorder, claiming “I just can’t be bothered with people” or “I just don’t have much to say sometimes!”.However, neither of these things on their own really qualify anyone for a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. It’s true that a lot of people confuse social anxiety with being an introvert, and shyness.So I’m here to set the record straight about what each category means.
Introversion is aligned with individual personality. When people are introverted, they re-energise by spending time alone, with a focus on internal states. Whilst introverts may enjoy spending time with others, they can find the experience draining after a time, and are happy to return to their own company. Introverts don’t necessarily experience discomfort or anxiety around others, and they don’t necessarily present as shy. Introverts may come across as “quiet”, or as preferring to spend time watching the action rather than being the centre of attention, however this is not necessarily because they are anxious. More so, introverts have a social battery that is drained by spending time with others and recharged by spending time alone.
Shyness is a feeling of discomfort caused by other people, particularly in new situations. It is often used synonymously with ‘self-consciousness’, and is largely characterised by inhibition in social settings. Shyness is often linked to temperament; that is; that children who have a shy temperament often become adults who are naturally shy. Although shyness can cause feelings of discomfort, these can often be overcome with adaptive coping mechanisms. However, if adequate coping mechanisms are not developed, those with shy temperaments may be at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, such as Social Anxiety Disorder.
Social Anxiety Disorder on the other hand, is far more debilitating than shyness or introversion. Social Anxiety is a fear of negative evaluation by others, in situations where the person is open to scrutiny (such as performing; public speaking; or making a phone call). The person fears they will act in a way that shows anxiety symptoms that would be humiliating or embarrassing. It requires that the fear is disproportionate to the actual threat; and that the person either avoids the situations, or endures them with extreme discomfort. Finally, the anxiety provoked in these situations must cause clinically significant impairment in social, emotional or occupational functioning.
Let’s look at some examples. Tony is 40, with children in primary school. Taking his kids to birthday parties isn’t his favourite thing because he doesn’t like making small-talk with parents he isn’t familiar with. Even though he doesn’t enjoy it, he can manage the situation without too much hassle, but is always glad when it’s over. Tony is considered shy.
Amelia is 25, and an early-career lawyer. She enjoys her job and gets on well with her colleagues. Most Friday nights they will go out for drinks after work, and she has a good time. However, Amelia doesn’t enjoy being the centre of attention, and after catching up with her friends she looks forward to spending the weekend alone doing her own thing. This makes her feel good, and is how she unwinds after the week. Amelia is an introvert.
Stuart is 30, and works from home. Stuart has a crippling fear of how others’ perceive him, particularly in relation to how he looks and talks. He avoids leaving his home because his fear of judgement is so intense that he is unable to think clearly. Because of this, he has no meaningful friendships. If Stuart has to leave his home, it causes him significant anxiety which often manifests in physical ailments, such as nausea, headaches, sweating, and light-headedness. His brain tells him things like “you look revolting, and everyone is secretly laughing at how you talk”. Stuart has Social Anxiety Disorder.
A common misconception is that we need to have actual disorders to warrant getting support, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. So if your social anxiety, shyness or introversion is getting in the way of living how you want to live, you should think about coming in for a chat to learn how to be more than who you are.
If you are interested in discussing any of the points further, we would be more than happy to hear from you. Feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will answer any questions you may have.