Shyness and Social Anxiety: What’s the Difference?

Shyness and Social Anxiety

Photo Credit: alexanderdrachmann, CC BY-SA, via Flickr

Many people are confused by and misguided on the difference between shyness and social anxiety.  They are related, but they definitely aren’t the same thing. Here are some of the essential features that distinguish between the two conditions:

Trait vs. Illness

One of the main differences between shyness and social anxiety is the degree to which it affects a person’s life. Someone can naturally be shy as a trait or feature of his or her personality. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the shyness is crippling. For one person, it may simply mean that he has only a small, limited number of people he feels comfortable being around, or for another, that she isn’t the type to start conversations with strangers unless she’s used to the setting. Shy people might simply not like talking to new people at social gatherings, or might have a lingering discomfort around strangers, but might be able to push past shyness. A sizable amount of the population has trait shyness and can still live normal, satisfying lives.

However, social anxiety disorder (often referred to as social phobia) is different. It consists of persistent, marked discomfort around people and in normal social situations. It goes beyond a simple preference to be in the company of a few close friends, and extends to the inability to form new relationships. Many people can tolerate their own shyness, but most people with social anxiety will agree that it’s constantly troubling them, and can even be disabling. When the anxiety begins to severely affect mood and everyday routines, it may be diagnosed as a full-fledged illness.


Shyness and social anxiety also differ in terms of the way they should be attacked. A person can treat a mild case of shyness simply by pushing himself to talk to more people at a party, or making herself speak up in class. A lot of shy people can find the internal motivation to be more outgoing when the situation calls for it. They can often “fake” confidence and put on an extraverted front. Some shy people can’t quite push themselves this far, but their shyness generally doesn’t warrant serious treatment or self-help measures.

On the other hand, social anxiety demands action. If it is left alone, it can literally imprison the sufferer and grow worse until he or she takes active steps to defeat it permanently. Whether the action is seeking help from therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy, taking prescribed medication, or following a self-help program, it’s absolutely necessary that initiative is taken to stop the progress of the condition and regain a sense that a fulfilling social life is possible.

On a final note, it should be noted that shyness can be a precursor of social anxiety. Trait shyness can cause a person to lack social experience and withdraw from opportunities to make friends, which can reinforce some of the negative beliefs and painful self-sabotaging behaviors that are at the core of social anxiety. Some people are comfortable with their shyness and have a fairly decent social life despite it. However, if your shyness is starting to bother you–or has been bothering you for a long time–it’s time to actively take steps to overcome it.

The most important thing to know is that you can start taking steps immediately to overcome social anxiety. Start addressing your shyness or social anxiety today and start reaping the benefits immediately!

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One Response to Shyness and Social Anxiety: What’s the Difference?

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