What's the difference between being an introvert and being shy? Experts explain

·6-min read
A woman seated at a restaurant table holds a glass of wine as others around her talk amongst themselves.
Being an introvert is different from being shy. Here’s why people confuse the two. (Getty Images)

Being an introvert and being shy often get lumped together — and in truth, they do share some similarities — but experts explain they are more different than most people realize. Here’s how to tell introversion and shyness apart, what people get wrong about both, and whether introversion or shyness is something you can actually overcome, according to experts.

What are the telltale signs that you’re an introvert?

Introversion is a personality type in which people focus more on their internal feelings, compared to extroverts, who focus more on the external world, Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

This means that “introverts process information internally, in contrast to extroverts, who are more externally oriented,” Laurie Helgoe, a clinical psychologist, educator and author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, tells Yahoo Life.

When you ask an introvert a question, they’re more likely to be silent while they think it over, explains Helgoe. “An extrovert is more likely to work out the answer through talking,” she says. For an introvert, “quiet on the surface means active on the inside,” she adds — “poker face” included.

Helgoe explains that “the introvert will be the one at a meeting who stays quiet much of the time and then when she speaks, she really has something to say. This is because introverts like to work a thought or problem through to completion before sharing a response.”

They’re also not fans of making small talk, notes Shah. “They talk of substance,” he says. “They will have more meaningful conversations, [whereas] extroverts will engage in small talk just to make conversation.”

Introverts are also more likely to prefer expressing themselves through writing and may “seem closed off” when you ask how they’re doing. “Writing is often a preferred mode of expression because it allows more room for the reflective process introverts enjoy,” Helgoe explains.

Another sign: Introverts are often happy when plans get canceled. “If you see a suppressed smile from someone telling you, ‘I think I’ll stay in tonight,’ that’s probably an introvert trying to withhold their delight over the prospect of an evening alone,” says Helgoe. “Yes, introverts savor solitude.”

That’s mainly because introverts can become “overstimulated,” explains Shah, such as when they’re around a lot of people or just people in general for long periods of time. Social interactions deplete their battery, while for extroverts it’s the opposite. Introverts “like to be alone to gain energy,” Shah says.

How is shyness different from introversion?

“An introvert can be described as someone who requires alone time to recharge, whereas a shy individual is someone who is often excessively preoccupied by other people’s perceptions and evaluations of them,” Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, chief of the anxiety disorders section and director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Clinic and the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, tells Yahoo Life.

Or as Shah puts it: “Shyness is a form of anxiety. Introversion is not a form of anxiety.”

It’s also easier to spot a shy person at a social event than an introverted one. “Shy individuals tend to linger at the fringes, feeling awkward and uncomfortable as they approach social situations,” explains Helgoe. “You may see a bit lip, posture folded inward or other signs of anxiety and self-protectiveness. Maintaining eye contact can be difficult for a shy person.”

Helgoe says that shy people often “long to be a part of things but feel uncomfortable being the focus of attention and worry about embarrassing themselves,” noting that “shyness will be most pronounced in new and unfamiliar situations.”

Why do people often confuse the two?

People who are shy and those who are introverted do have some things in common, which may cause some confusion. Helgoe explains that introverts and shy people can both appear to be more private. “Introverts enjoy holding thoughts and reflecting on them, whereas shy people may refrain out of fear of embarrassment,” she says.

Introversion and shyness can also trigger “a withdrawal from social interaction,” says Helgoe. As Aboujaoude explains it: “Both may feel a gravitational pull toward being alone.”

However, the reasons they may seek out some solitude are different. For the introvert, “the withdrawal is more of a ‘moving toward’ solitude and space for thought,” Helgoe explains. “For the shy person, the withdrawal is more of a ‘moving away’ from anxiety-provoking situations.”

Unlike with shyness, though, it’s not always obvious that a person is introverted. In fact, Helgoe says there are certain introverts she calls “accessible introverts,” who are highly social and have “a social presence that helps people feel comfortable and open up.”

While these types of introverts do enjoy connecting with different people, they have “a harder time” communicating when their batteries start to deplete and then they need to pull back, she says.

What do people get wrong about introverts and those who are shy?

As Helgoe puts it: “People get a lot wrong about introverts. They think introverts are scarce, when they, in fact, comprise at least half of the population. People can mistake the introvert ‘poker face’ for snobbishness, disinterest or even lack of personality, when, in fact, the quiet introvert is engaged and really considering what you have to say.”

She adds: “Introverts don’t dislike people; they dislike overstimulation. So they’ll take their people in smaller, and often more intimate, doses with breaks in between.”

People who are shy are sometimes mislabeled as “rude or arrogant” or that they don’t want to talk to people, which Shah says is not the case. “They may want to talk but they may not have that comfort level of mixing or mingling,” he says.

Can you overcome introversion or shyness?

When it comes to shyness, yes, according to experts. “Shyness is much more easily treated because it’s a fear of negative evaluation by somebody else,” Shah says. He points out that for people who feel like their social anxiety is negatively impacting their lives, cognitive behavioral therapy — which involves using strategies to change unhelpful thinking patterns — can help.

Aboujaoude agrees, saying that “anxiety is often conquerable, including through tools learned in therapy or through medications.”

However, while shyness is something people can work on and overcome (if they want), introversion is another story. That’s because introversion is “more of a personality trait, and personality tends to set early and to be less malleable and more resistant to change and to attempts to force it into something it is not,” explains Aboujaoude.

Helgoe points out that introverts are “usually very good at acting extroverted, but they still recharge through solitude and reflection,” while shyness, “especially when it interferes with one’s own desires for connection, can be reduced through exposure to feared situations.”

Although we live in a society that “often rewards extroversion and ‘social animals,’” notes Aboujaoude, Helgoe thinks it’s getting easier for people who are shy or introverted. As awareness increases, “introverts and shy people feel less alone these days.”

Helgoe adds: “We are learning the benefits of quieter orientations. But yes, we still get asked, ‘Are you OK?’ while someone who talks nonstop and cannot tolerate being alone avoids such scrutiny. Even shyness, which may reflect some healthy cautiousness and modesty, is probably not as big of a problem as we make it. Yes, we are OK. Now give us some space.”

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