Quiet people are having their moment.
The world is embracing introverts in a big way, spurred by movements like Susan Cain’s “Quiet Revolution.” It’s happening because the research validates so many of us, said Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders who writes the Savvy Psychologist columns.
“Our Western culture generally values and celebrates extroverts,” Hendriksen told TODAY.
“So to finally have a message sent that introverts are valuable and necessary, and most of all that nothing is wrong with being quiet, is really empowering to people who thought something was wrong with them.”
But are you actually an introvert, socially anxious or shy? Being introverted and socially anxious are two different things, but shyness is usually a short-hand way of saying social anxiety, Hendriksen said.
Here are more clues:
1. Introversion is born; social anxiety is made
Introversion is a personality trait — a temperament you are born with, Hendriksen noted. Introverts are energized and refueled by being by themselves, or a small group of confidantes.
Social anxiety, on the other hand, is often learned. Life experiences convince you that people are judgmental, and you begin to believe that if you risk doing something, it’ll become obvious that you are incompetent or inadequate, she added.
2. Social anxiety is fueled by avoidance
People with social anxiety won’t show up to the Christmas party. They’ll let their calls go to voice mail or leave a gathering early.
They may also avoid the situation covertly: They’ll show up to the party, but might avoid eye contact, spend most of their time scrolling through their phone or find other ways to not be present.
3. Socially-anxious people can be extroverts
You might get your energy from people, but be afraid of them at the same time. So you really want to go to lunch with your coworkers, but worry they don’t want you there. Or you’d like to host a dinner party, but be afraid you’ll be judged as being inadequate.
“That’s actually quite torturous because then you’re uncomfortable when you’re alone and you’re uncomfortable when you’re with people. It’s a no-win situation,” Hendriksen said.
4. Introverts enjoy solitude; people with social anxiety not so much
For the introvert, being alone is necessary and refreshing. It feels good to read a book in a quiet room without any people around.
But if you’re socially anxious and you’re alone in order to avoid a social situation, you may end up feeling regret or disappointment, Hendriksen noted.
“Avoidance might make someone feel like, ‘Phew, I don’t have to talk to people,’” she said. “By not going, it makes you feel less anxious, but it doesn’t make you feel good.”
5. Socially-anxious people are supremely worried about what others think of them
Introverts aren’t concerned about how they present. They can be themselves and not worry they’ll be “revealed” as deficient or inadequate. There’s no performance or perfectionism involved, Hendriksen noted.
For people with social anxiety, on the other hand, social situations turn into a performance with very high standards. They tell themselves “I must never let a gap occur in a conversation,” “I must always have something interesting to say” or “I am responsible for entertaining this person.”
“You’re spending so much time and energy on impression-management and anxiety-management, there’s not much energy and attention left over to pay attention outwardly, focus on that conversation and what somebody is saying,” Hendriksen said.
6. Socially-anxious people employ ‘safety behaviors’
It’s very common for people with social anxiety to think they have no social skills. They may tell themselves: “I’m always awkward” or “I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal conversation.”
In fact, they’re actually quite good at navigating social situations, Hendriksen noted. They’ll steer the conversation to things they are comfortable talking about or pepper the person they’re talking to with questions to take the attention off themselves.
But they also resort to “safety behaviors” — avoiding eye contact, speaking softly, smiling all the time, being very ingratiating — as a way to artificially lower their anxiety.
“All that’s doing is taking up your bandwidth so that there’s not very much left over to actually pay attention to the conversation that you’re having,” Hendriksen said.
How to deal:
If you’re an introvert, you should simply embrace your quiet self. You don’t treat a trait, so there’s no need to change your personality, Hendriksen advised.
However, if social anxiety is standing in the way of living the life you want, then it becomes a problem.
Here are three steps to take:
Slowly put yourself into situations you’re afraid of: Talk to the coworker you always avoid or attend a gathering you’d normally skip. “You don’t have to do a cannon ball into the pool, you can inch in a little bit at a time,” Hendriksen said.
Drop the safety behaviors: Stop avoiding eye contact or speaking very softly. “Trying to suppress anxiety is like trying to keep a beach ball under water. It’s just going to pop up again eventually,” she noted.
Turn your attention outward: “Rather than self-monitoring and focusing inward… listen to the conversation,” Hendriksen advised. Whatever you fear is probably not going to come true. And even if it does, you can handle it.
This story was originally published in October 2016