How do you tell if someone is shy or introverted? Because they’re not the same thing. It’s true that the two categories sometimes overlap, and they’re certainly presented as basically identical in popular media. It’s also true that introverts tend to be reflexively quieter than others and more reserved. However, there are shy introverts and shy extroverts, as well as introverts who are not shy at all.
My son is showing signs of classic introversion.
He’s only in first grade, but when he comes home, he’s exhausted and depleted from a full day of being with other classmates and teachers. Although he likes talking with people, even strangers, he’s not a fan of chatting about things that he considers boring that adults generally ask him about (topics such as whether he likes his teachers, how his school year is going, what his plans for the summer are). He likes to talk about the subjects that interest him (anything from space travel, Star Wars, or geography to Harry Potter, the presidents, and the water cycle). He enjoys playing with one or two friends at a time, not with a whole pack of acquaintances. And sometimes during recess he even just reads, draws, or does puzzles by himself.
The other day he got off the bus and made his way down the driveway to the front door, where I stood waiting.
I began peppering him with questions: “How was your day? What was your favorite part? Do you have homework?”
He didn’t talk for a second, came inside, and took off his coat and boots. Then he looked at me and said, “Can I just play by myself for a while?” (I know I should not do this form of badgering. Yet I feel like there’s this cultural script in my head about what I’m supposed to do as a mom when my kid gets home from school, mostly involving a ton of questions.)
“Sure, ” I said. And he went to the playroom in the basement to play with Legos and his Star Wars action figures. An hour later he came back upstairs and asked if we could play a game together.
He’d had a long day and needed to be alone for a while to recharge and replenish his energy. Just as introverts do.
I would not consider my son to be shy. Or myself, for that matter. Here’s why:
Shy or Introverted?
What are the signs that you’re not really shy but you’re actually just an introvert?
Introversion is an inborn personality trait.
Shyness is not. You were either born an introvert — or an extrovert, or an ambivert, a combination of both temperaments. You can’t “grow out” of that personality type. It’s a built-in part of who you are.
Shyness, however, is something that can be overcome. It’s not innate. Shyness — or, in its more extreme, social anxiety — is typically learned through experiences with other people and with your environment. You can gain confidence and become less shy (or socially anxious) over time. In contrast, you can’t transform yourself into an extrovert, no matter how much you may want to or people tell you that you should, if you were born as an introvert. Therapy won’t do it. Pretending to be an extrovert won’t do it, although introverts can learn coping strategies for living and thriving in an extroverted world.
Introverts’ energy source is solitude.
Introverts go through a cycle of recharging their batteries with solitude and reflection, followed by connection with others, and then back to recuperation again. In general, they just need less stimulation. Shy people may be introverts, but they may also be extroverts, who are rejuvenated by being around people. The problem for extroverts is that they may actually fear socializing and be anxious about it. In other words, they may not want to be alone so much — unlike introverts, who crave it — but they’re terrified by the idea of interacting with others and the possibility of making fools of themselves.
Being social is a choice for introverts.
Introverts choose when they feel like socializing with others. They know that when they go to that party or that day-long work conference that their energy source will be drained. Yet they still enjoy being out and about in the world — just in small, selective doses.
For shy people, social interaction is different and is more of an actual struggle. They are afraid of humiliation and go out of their way to avoid occasions where social disapproval is even a possibility. (While everyone experiences mild discomfort and social anxiety in some circumstances, when that fear becomes much more severe, distressing, and even debilitating, social anxiety disorder may be the cause.)
Introverts don’t fear social interaction; they often just not that interested. They’re sociable selectively, after their energy has been recharged through being quiet and alone. Two researchers who studied shyness and sociability among college students found that introverts tended to score “low on social approach and low on social avoidance.” In other words, they’re not going out of their way to find chances to be social all of the time, but they’re not actively avoiding it altogether all the time.
Introverts can have great social skills.
Introverts might actually appear to the outside world a lot of the time to be just like everyone else. They may be charming in groups, or skilled at public speaking, or outgoing among friends. They may — as introverts do — think carefully before they speak, but they may still love attention in small doses. A lot of introverts may socialize differently — preferring small groups over large crowds, deep discussion over small talk, and less frequent get-togethers — but they aren’t necessarily socially awkward. They may feel at ease around lots of different kinds of people, and they can be effective leaders in any field.
Shy or introverted? You can’t always tell.
The idea that introverts are always shy is a myth. They like to have fun and connect with others just as much as others do. You might not even be able to tell, even after knowing a person for a while, whether she’s an introvert or an extrovert. And if a person is shy, that similarly doesn’t mean that he’s automatically an introvert.
Introversion is not something that needs to be “fixed” — for either you or your child. And it is usually something entirely different than shyness.
An introverted kid might be getting messages that his temperament is something to be ashamed of or is inferior to the louder and outgoing extroverted personalities around him. The strengths of introverts (as listeners, as deep thinkers, as observant and reflective students and parents) are important to recognize.
Introverts Are Not The Same
No two introverts are exactly alike. If you ask a bunch of people for their own definition of introversion, you could get a bunch of different answers based on people’s own experiences. Some people might say that introverts hate parties and crowds. Others might say that they’re more thoughtful and introspective than others. Still others might describe introverts as socially awkward and even shy. Even among introverts, we don’t all conceptualize introversion in the exact same way.
According to psychologist Jonathan Cheek and his graduate students Courtney Brown and Jennifer Brown, all of these definitions are partially right. While introverts share the common characteristic of looking inward more than extroverts for stimulation, their introversion can be expressed in other ways as well.
In their research, they asked 500 adults about how they like to spend their time (alone, in groups) and other aspects of their personality. They concluded that there is not one but instead four types of introverts (social, thinking, anxious, and restrained) and came up with an assessment called the STAR test, an acronym based on those four types.
You could score high on just one shade of introversion and find that you’re mostly just one type of introvert, or you could find that you’re a blend of all four types. Cheek and his colleagues argue that we — the general public as well as academics — should avoid using the term “introvert” by itself; instead, we should use a descriptor in front of it, such as by saying, “I’m a social introvert.”
As for me, after taking the quiz, I scored “high” on social, thinking, and restrained introversion, but “low” on anxious introversion.
Here’s a basic description of each of the types of introverts:
Although they like being around people in small doses, they don’t enjoy large crowds. However, just as they are not shy, neither are they extroverts. They still need to recharge and recuperate after socializing with a stretch of solitude. They’re just not anxious or afraid of socializing. They might have a fantastic time at a party, but then need spend a while recharging after so much socializing.
Thinking introverts are thoughtful and self-reflective and often seem to live in their own heads, sometimes even zoning out. Imaginative and prone to daydreaming, this type of introvert also doesn’t seem to mind socializing. Professor Cheek describes, “You’re capable of getting lost in an internal fantasy world. But it’s not in a neurotic way, it’s in an imaginative and creative way.”
So when you and your closest friends are talking about a new movie, you may not have much to contribute. However, your quietness isn’t because you’re afraid of speaking up or because you’re not having a good time; it’s because you’re in your own head, thinking about other movies and other characters and wondering if there will be a sequel and maybe writing it yourself in your mind.
Anxious introverts lack confidence in their own social abilities. They may be socially awkward and feel anxious all the time, even if they’re not around others. Because they’re self-conscious and anxious in social situations, they become socially withdrawn. These are the introverts who might be classified as “shy.”
If you’re an anxious introvert, you might have a running dialogue in your head before a birthday dinner at a friend’s house. You might obsess about whether your clothes will be appropriate, whether you’ll be seated next to someone you are intimidated by, whether the dinner party will run too late and you won’t have anything left to contribute to the conversation.
This type of introvert is reserved, careful, inhibited, and deliberate. Far from being risk-takers, they don’t jump into action and think deeply before they speak or do something. Not exactly morning people, they’re slow-moving but aren’t necessarily anxious about being social. They like to relax a lot. If you call a restrained introvert with a last-minute invitation to an outing, chances are they will decline. They’re never going to be the sort of person whose typical response to being asked to try something new is, “Sure! Why not?”
Which type of introvert are you? Do you have a child who’s introverted or shy?