Two introverts walk into a bar.
Liam and Alex are at the local wood-paneled pub having lunch—an incongruous combination of veggie burgers with bacon. “They cancel each other out,” says Liam. They are both handsome, soft-spoken 22-year-old college seniors, graduating this spring with honors. They are housemates who have been known to finish each other’s sentences. Most importantly, they are self-proclaimed introverts.
Ask Liam about this coming Saturday night, and he says, “Well, I’ll probably chill with my roommates. We jam—I’m on the keyboards. I’ll probably have dinner with some friends. We’ll end up eating out though we’re trying to cook more. I’m still lousy, but I’m learning—I make a mean pad thai. I’ve never been a raging party guy—it’s not my scene.”
Ask Alex the same question, and you’ll get pretty much the same answer, except for “guitar” and “pulled pork sliders” replacing their counterparts. But there’s one other tweak: “I’ve never been a raging party guy—I always think I’m going to say something stupid.”
It’s subtle, but it’s there: social anxiety, defined as the fear of being judged. It’s self-consciousness on steroids.
Now, you may be a non-anxious introvert like Liam. You may love solitude and intimate gatherings but remain comfortable being seen by others. Not loving huge parties or group work is preference, not fear.
But you can also be a socially anxious introvert, like Alex. Lately, as introversion is validated and empowered, I hear folks like Liam and Alex proudly describing themselves as introverts, which is liberating and game-changing. But those similar to Alex still feel that something’s off.
To be sure, with Alex’s social anxiety comes other, valuable, stuff. The socially anxious among us often have deep emotional empathy. We are finely attuned to the feelings of others. We are the diplomats, the ambassadors. We navigate a multicultural, twenty-first century world with sensitivity and care.
But sometimes our social antennae are too sensitive—the social smoke alarm goes off too readily. Social anxiety is the third most common psychological disorder, right after the big boys of depression and alcoholism. Up to 13% of American adults will have social anxiety that reaches clinical proportions in their lifetime. A whopping 90% of people will describe themselves as “shy” at some point during their lives. And, of course, who doesn’t have socially awkward moments? (Answer: no one. Well, okay, maybe psychopaths, but who wants to be one of them?)
Although introversion and social anxiety may look like a psychological potato-potahto, they’re really more like apples and oranges. How can you tell the difference between social anxiety and introversion? What’s the bright line between an introverted temperament to be honored and social fear to be challenged? Let’s check out four of the biggest differences:
Introversion is a part of your inherent personality—a from-the-womb, dyed-in-the-wool trait. And while those who are socially anxious also carry a genetic predisposition toward it, there’s more than just temperament at play. In an indelicate analogy, genetics loads the gun, but experience pulls the trigger.
Two things happen to make us socially anxious: the first is learning. One way or another, we learn—mistakenly!—that we don’t measure up to scrutiny. We might absorb the worries of a parent who frets about what the neighbors think, internalize the social pressure to be “outgoing” when we’re anything but, or be seared by a social trauma like bullying. However social anxiety works its way into our brain, we somehow grow to believe at a young age that people will judge us and find us lacking.
The second ingredient for social anxiety is avoidance. We bolt at the end of the meeting so we miss the ensuing small talk, feign illness so we don’t have to go to the holiday party, or stare at our phones whenever we feel nervous, all of which keeps us mired. And, of course, we hide in the bathroom. We don’t get the chance to discover this social stuff isn’t as bad as we think and maybe, just maybe, we got this.
In social anxiety, we think there’s something wrong with us. (Imagine “think” with a big asterisk because even though we don’t believe it, our perceived flaws are either not true or only true to a degree no one cares about.)
That perceived flaw could be physical: maybe you think you turn lobster-red when you talk or that your hands shake like James Bond’s martini. Or it could be a character flaw: you think if you speak up in class, everyone will decide you’re stupid or a loser. You might fear a poor social performance: you picture yourself frozen and silent, blinking in mute horror or babbling like a pageant contestant failing the on-stage question. No matter the perceived flaw, you fear the reveal.
By contrast, the non-socially anxious introvert thinks what you see is what you get. There’s nothing to be revealed because there’s nothing to hide.
Far from fifty shades of grey, in social anxiety, your social acumen is black or white. You think you’ll either achieve a flawless social performance or are destined to end up on a YouTube reel entitled “Epic Social Fails.” This all-or-nothing approach (no pressure or anything!) makes us think that the only way to stave off inevitable harsh criticism is to be effortlessly witty and charming. And that, in turn, makes us feel paralyzed. There’s an old quote from French writer Francois de la Rouchfoucauld:
“Nothing so much prevents our being natural as the desire to seem so.”
For non-anxious introverts, by contrast, being seen by others isn’t a performance. There’s no anticipated judgment. You can pepper your presentation with “ums” and have awkward silence in conversation, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad about you, nor is there anything at stake. In other words, some conversations are absorbing and flow easily. Others may be graceless or banal, but you know that doesn’t mean you are too.
Social anxiety is driven by fear. It makes you slip out of the birthday party early because you’re convinced you’re boring or don’t fit in or that you’re breaking out in hives and everyone will see. But then you miss the cake and the singing, and despite what you think, you will be missed by others. Social anxiety gets in the way of living life. You miss out on what people have to offer because you’re either physically absent or stuck in self-monitoring mode—worrying, like Alex, that you’ll say something stupid—when you are with them.
Now, Liam may leave the party early too, but there’s none of the self-criticism and self-consciousness involved. Many of us, like Liam, would really, honestly, like to go home, eat a bowl of cereal, and watch the game with our housemates. No judgment, no self-flagellation, no convincing ourselves we don’t care. We choose to walk out the door; fear doesn’t choose for us.
So, while at first blush, social anxiety may seem like a souped-up version of introversion, they’re as different as pad thai and pulled pork sliders. The good news? For Alex, practice, perspective, and facing his fears can make all the difference. Social anxiety is solvable. And working on it won’t change his introverted personality; indeed, it doesn’t need to. But it can dial down the fear and recalibrate that social smoke detector.
And that’s never stupid, no matter how you say it.