This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald. Click here for the original article…
“Shyness seems to be confused with introversion and social anxiety. I consider myself introverted and anxious, but not shy. Does it matter, or is it just different words for the same thing?” Via Twitter
Being called shy is rarely a compliment, and increasingly these days the same applies to being an “introvert”. But is it actually a problem, and what does it mean?
Introversion and extroversion are two terms from psychology whose meanings have been lost as they’ve entered everyday language. People might be surprised to hear that the terms were invented by Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud’s, and one of the famous names in the history of psychology.
Jung initially used them to describe an aspect of personality. But rather than referring to loud social people, or quiet bookish types, they describes whether people tend to be externally focussed, on other people and social interaction; or more internally focussed on their own mental world.
Extroverts need interaction to relax, and introverts prefer to unwind with their own company. It doesn’t really say anything about people’s abilities to be social, nor does it describe problems, just natural human differences.
If you’ve ever taken a Myers-Briggs personality test, it’s based on Jung’s ideas about personality.
Shyness on the other hand is generally seen as existing on a continuum with social anxiety. What many people self diagnose as social anxiety might be better described as shyness.
As I said last week all psychiatric diagnoses exist on a continuum, and so it depends how much your shyness interferes with your life, as to whether we would define it as social anxiety. Technically social anxiety requires an intense fear of embarrassment, and avoidance of social situations that cause significant problems.
Just finding parties hard (especially if you still go) isn’t social anxiety.
So introverts choose to be on their own because they genuinely prefer it. Shy and socially anxious people find social situations difficult and may avoid them because they fear the negative reactions of others.
This helps us make sense of people who might be shy and quiet, but performers, like the stereotypical neurotic stand up comic or rock star. But it also highlights that in a social, extroverted, image occupied world introversion can often be judged lacking, or worse seen as a deficiency.
What is true is that introverted and shy people are more emotionally sensitive on average, which makes them more empathic and generally more self aware.
But having said all of that, there is a big problem with personality theory (and with every Myers-Briggs personality test you’ve ever taken on a team building workshop).
The fact is we now know that not only is your personality not “fixed”; it’s not even the same in different relationships and situations, let alone from year to year.
So extroverted, introverted, shy or not: it’s only a problem if it causes problems. And the good news is even if it is a problem, change is always possible.
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