Shyness and introversion have long been confused. Some people who are introverted resent being called shy, and vice versa. Others use the two terms interchangeably.

Yet many psychologists argue that there's a major and compelling difference between the two states. According to Louis A. Schmidt, director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at McMaster University, "Though in popular media they're often viewed as the same, we know in the scientific community that, conceptually or empirically, they're unrelated."

So what's the difference? It has to do with choice.

According to Dr. Jonathan Cheek, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, there are actually four different types of shyness. While a lot of people call themselves shy, that's only a problem if that person also has a strong need to socialize. According to Cheek's research, the four sub-categories of shyness are:

  1. Shy-Secure: They have a certain amount of social anxiety, but don't need a lot of social interaction. Cheek says: "When they were put in the psych lab and asked to converse with a new acquaintance, they were very low-key. It doesn't necessarily interest or excite them, but they were calm and they would talk."
  2. Shy-Withdrawn: These individuals are more anxious about social interaction. They worry intensely about rejection, judgment, or saying or doing the wrong thing. This type is prone to loneliness.
  3. Shy-Dependent: This group wants to be with others so much, they overcompensate. They're accommodating and unassuming, rarely putting their own needs forward. Says Cheek, "[T]hey go along to get along. They have a better short-term social adaptation profile but long term, how can you build a relationship based on mutuality if you are volunteering to be the junior partner?"
  4. Shy-Conflicted: These people have a strong need for social contact, but are also anxious about it; they do an approach-avoid thing. Says Cheek: "They have a conflict between withdrawing or seeking autonomy versus moving towards others." They also experience "anticipatory anxiety," or the fear/anxiety of going out knowing social contact will occur (i.e., anxiety before socializing even begins). Cheek adds that this type actually tends to have the most problems (of the shy types).

So what's the main difference between shyness and introversion? Basically, it's whether you can choose to be social (without anxiety).

Introverts can choose to be social and interact with others; they often just don't want to. Shy people--depending on the level of shyness--can't make that same choice without a high cost. For them, a party isn't just a drain (as it can be for an introvert); it's a struggle.

Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert's Way and Introverts in Love, puts it more succinctly: "[Introversion and shyness] get confused because they both are related to socializing--but lack of interest in socializing is very clearly not the same as fearing it."

In other words, an introvert may skip a party and read a book, but it's not because they're afraid of socializing; they just don't want to go deal with people. A shy person may actually want to deal with people but experience so much anxiety that they don't go to the party at all, or go but don't talk to anyone out of fear.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 15 million Americans are impacted by Social Anxiety Disorder (which many would argue is the extreme end of shyness). The good news is that overcoming social anxiety is doable. There are a lot of smart and creative ways to get there, and it's an intelligent goal if it impacts your life in a limiting way. After all, being able to be socialize freely serves you in more than just your personal life; networking depends on your ability to successfully interact with others on an ongoing basis.

Plus, the irony of social anxiety is that when you think you're the only one feeling nervous, you're usually wrong--and helping someone else who seems shy can actually pull you out of your own shell.

The fact is, connection, belonging, and bonding are human needs. Whether you're introverted or extroverted, shy or outgoing, you need--and deserve--attention, affection, and love.

It's part of what makes life worth living.


"We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep." --William James