Shyness vs Social Anxiety
Updated: Jan 28
What the difference is and why it's important to distinguish between the two
The terms Shyness and Social Anxiety are often used interchangeably, however, the two are very different. Shyness is a character trait, while social anxiety is a mental illness that should be treated with therapy.
When shy children are given a safe and healthy space to grow and express themselves, they will slowly gain confidence in their abilities and who they are.
In my first blog post, I explained what social anxiety is and how it can manifest itself. Now, we are going to talk about shyness and how it relates (and doesn't) to social anxiety.
What is shyness?
According to the apa.org shyness is a "tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people." As a kid, I was called shy all the time, to the point where it felt less like a personality trait and more like my identity. Labeling someone as shy is not inherently bad. However, in our extrovert rewarding culture, being shy is usually seen as a negative trait.
Being shy or timid itself just means you are uncomfortable or tense in encounters with unfamiliar people. However, people often associate shyness with other negative character traits. For instance, I often felt like I was automatically perceived to be weaker or less competent because I was shy.
I never understood why these traits were ascribed to me simply because I was uncomfortable talking to new people. As a result, I often found myself feeling less than and inadequate. I then developed low self-esteem and self-worth, which only made me want to interact with people less. Then, I began to avoid people and outings, and secondarily developed social anxiety.
Shyness vs Social Anxiety
According to The SocialAnxietyInstitute.org "Shyness and social anxiety disorder are two different things. Shyness is a personality trait...Many people who are shy do not have the negative emotions and feelings that accompany social anxiety disorder. They live a normal life, and do not view shyness as a negative trait. While many people with social anxiety disorder are shy, shyness is not a pre-requisite for social anxiety disorder."
Long story short, you can be shy without having social anxiety, and have social anxiety without being shy. However, it is common for those who have social anxiety to also be shy. As I mentioned in the previous section, it's like a sort of domino effect:
You are shy
People respond to you in a negative way or tell you that you need to open up
You feel bad about being shy
You start to think negatively about yourself and about being in social situations
You slowly retreat from being social at all
The cycle continues
Again this is not the case for everyone, but it is the case for a lot of us. It begs the question, is there something wrong with us, or something wrong with the way people respond to us? I don't think there is a definite answer. However, I do think it's worth exploring.
Why it's important to distinguish between the two
You may be asking, okay so they are different, why does it matter? It matters because shyness is a perfectly normal character trait, that is often times not treated as such. This is especially important for those who are parenting shy children to understand. Childhood is a very vulnerable time and those experiences can shape the way we interact with the world for the rest of our lives. Kids who are shy, tend to be more sensitive and as a result are more affected by the words and actions of those around them.
As a kid, due to my shyness, I was often a target for bullies and the object of ridicule from other kids. I recently realized that this has fostered a deep distrust of people and their true intentions.
It is important that if you have a shy child, you are patient with them. You should encourage, but never push them to do things outside of their comfort zone. When they are not interacting at a party, don't berate them or embarrass them for not doing so. Instead, find ways to praise them. Tell them you are proud of them for showing up. Find another shy kid at the party and have them play together. Ask them to play for five minutes, and if they don't like it, let them know you will be there waiting for them.
When shy children are given a safe and healthy space to grow and express themselves, they will slowly gain confidence in their abilities and who they are. Instead of viewing their shyness as a burden they will see it as a unique quality.
Accept yourself and let the haters hate...
Whether you grow out of your shyness or not, you will be okay. You were put on this earth the way you were for a reason, and your purpose is to explore that, shyness and all.
Others may not understand you, but that's not your problem. Be kind, be understanding and be gentle with yourself. You deserve to be exactly who you are.
IndiBrains Academy. Shyness vs Social Anxiety. Facebook, 3rd April 2020, https://www.facebook.com/IndibrainsSpokenEnglish/posts/shyness-vs-social-anxiety-______________shyness-social-anxiety-are-two-terms-whi/2342278416072718/. 18 January 2021.
“Shyness.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/shyness.
“Shyness... or Social Anxiety Disorder?” Shyness... Or Social Anxiety Disorder? | Social Anxiety Institute, https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/shyness-or-social-anxiety-disorder.