Many people confuse shyness with introversion. Introversion is a personality type. Our personalities are partly genetically transmitted, developed by our environment, and refined by our free will and choices. Our personalities are the summation of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, points of view, perceptions, preferences, and habits. They are with us for life, though they may be expressed differently at various points of the lifespan. Our personalities do not change except in the case of the most severe mental illnesses- schizophrenia is characterized by a disintegration of the personality, rather than a split personality, which is a completely different disorder called DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Personality Type vs. Personality Trait:

Our personalities care composed of character, or personality traits. Traits can include shyness, which is often present since childhood. Temperament is what we are born with, and is considered the template for personality. Some babies have an avoidant /withdrawing type of temperament, meaning they will avoid or back away from new experiences, such as meeting a dog for the first time. With experience that the dog is friendly, and the presence and reassurance of a trusted adult, they will gradually enjoy the dog’s company. But it will take the avoidant/withdrawing tempered baby a while to get there. In this manner, the environment shapes their temperament into personality traits over time.

There is nothing wrong with being shy. Many people will find shyness an attractive quality. People that are soft spoken, timid, and quiet, a little lacking in social confidence, are often pleasant to be around. They don’t shout, or force their opinions on you, or otherwise intrude and violate your rights. They tend to be more gentle and considerate.

Shyness vs. Social Phobia:

It is not pathological to be shy; in other words, shyness is not a mental illness. When the trait of shyness is expressed in an extreme manner, it can become a psychological disorder. Social phobia, aka Social Anxiety Disorder, is unpleasant to live with.

Social anxiety disorder can result in staying home alone, experiencing the yearning and longing of loneliness, rather the chosen peace of solitude. People who are socially phobic are often frustrated, and can grow depressed. Many will use alcohol or drugs to numb their anxiety to a manageable level (Porter, 2014). Let me very clear about this: Alcohol should never be used as a tranquilizer. This can lead to serious problems in every areas of your life. Your physical and psychological health will suffer, your finances can be ruined, and ironically, your relationships will suffer. It is debatable if using drugs will result in faster or more severe ruination, but it is not debatable if it will happen. Social anxiety is readily treatable with psychotherapy, and if necessary, medication (Porter, 2014). There is a huge difference between taking a prescribed, non-addictive medication for anxiety, vs. trying to self-prescribe alcohol or illicit drugs.

Shyness is:

  • A personality trait. Shyness is a part of one’s personality, not their entire personality. It is one facet of who a person is. Shyness is a behavior. When someone approaches you, you avert your eyes, smile and blush. And by the way, this will typically be seen as very charming, and it will make it easier for you to approach.

Introversion is:

  • A personality type. Introversion and other personality types are much broader than personality traits. Personality type is more multi-faceted and complex, and includes a collection of traits.

Two is plenty of company for an introvert

  • Shyness is a behavior, and it is questionable to what degree it is a choice, or if it is a welcome choice.
  • Introversion is a preference.

Those who are shy may desire a vibrant social life, but lack the tools to have it. People that are shy may feel inadequate compared to those who are more extraverted, or socially confident. Introverts choose solitude in preference to company. Introverts choose a small number of very close friends, who are more like brothers and sisters, in preference to a large number of acquaintances.

It is OK to be an introvert. I was told for many years that there was something wrong with me because I like to sit and read, or people watch, or go places alone. I didn’t and still don’t follow trends mindlessly, and don’t like to go out and party at dance clubs, or make small talk with strangers. That type of thing is acutely painful for me. I can speak in front of a crowd of people, work the room as they say at a job interview or presentation, and am not shy. But it is also OK to be shy. Extraversion is OK too. All of these are normal variations in human behavior and personality traits and types, not pathology.   Not everything needs fixing, despite what my profession would like to tell you.

 

Written by David A. Porter, MA, LADC
Private Practice, Otter Creek Associates
Adjunct Faculty in Psychology and Criminology, Community College of Vermont & Burlington College
Freelance Behavioral Science writer