Shyness vs Social Anxiety Disorder

People who are naturally shy may come to eventually question whether their social anxiety is a problem. At what point does normal shyness become social anxiety disorder?

Shyness can manifest itself in many ways. For some, it may be striking conversation with peers. For others, it may be getting up in front of the class and doing a presentation. A proportion of us might even feel self-conscious for simply existing.

As a therapist (and a person), I believe that shyness is simply a trait. And just like most other traits, there are both pros and cons of being shy. As a shy person myself, I can personally attest to the fact that shyness has been a curse and a blessing.

In regards to whether we are simply being shy or may be experiencing social anxiety disorder, there are a few factors to consider. Today, I’ll discuss a few factors to help you determine whether your social anxiety is a problem or not.

Honoring potential benefits of your social anxiety

Dr. David Burns once quoted an important saying based on the Kindness theory of anxiety in his book, When Panic Attacks. He said something to the effect of “go into a room of 100 anxious people, and I can guarantee that those are 100 of the nicest people you’ve ever met”.

I have often found myself that some of most compassionate and caring people I’ve ever met are those who were a little bit on the more socially anxious side. Why? Because people who have social anxiety are often constantly worrying about how other people feel, what they think, and if there is anything they need.

Although there are certain things that social anxiety has made things harder for me, especially during my younger years, I believe my natural inclination towards shyness has personally had numerous benefits. For example, my inclination towards other people and ability to consider others’ needs are probably makes me a caring therapist. Ironically, it’s also the reason why I am generally able to navigate social situations reasonably well and become on good terms with most anyone.

Take a moment to consider whether your social anxiety has any benefits in your life. Often, the trait is only a problem when it significantly detriments your everyday life.

Two people holding hands in support
For some, social anxiety may help us take others’ perspective better

Determining problems of social anxiety

Unlike these days, my social anxiety was a large source of concern in the past. There were times that my social anxiety significantly impacted my ability to perform in high school and undergraduate studies. For example, my fear of negative evaluation was so strong that I skipped a French presentation despite it being worth a fair portion of my grade. I’ve also loss more than my fair share of participation mark as a result of my shyness.

When considering whether your social anxiety is a problem, consider whether this trait is significantly impacting different areas of your life. For example, it is affecting your schoolwork or job? Does it impact your ability to form friendships or pursue romantic relationships? Does it make you avoid cool opportunities that you wanted to try out? If so, then your shyness may be working against you.

The amount of experienced distress

Another factor to consider is how much distress your social anxiety causes you in your life. For instance, some people may go through their day feeling incredibly self-conscious, also known as the ‘spotlight effect’.

They may wonder: “are people looking at me”, “they probably think I look really weird”, “I shouldn’t say anything. I’ll say something stupid”.

This can often paralyze someone from saying anything or participating in conversations or class discussion. Unfortunately, this avoidance only creates a vicious cycle that leads to even more distress.

Girl doing homework
Over-preparation can be a form of safety behaviour for anxiety

Looking out for safety or avoidance behaviours

Some people may not necessarily explicitly avoid socially anxious situations. However, they may engage in subtle safety behaviours to reduce their social anxiety and feel more at home in different situations.

For example, some people might have a couple drinks before heading out to a gathering to take the edge off their nerves. Others might bring a friend and stick with them the whole time. For those who are scared of presentations, they may spend many cumbersome hours to memorize the whole thing, word for word, to ensure that they don’t mess up.

Safety behaviours can therefore be tricky because they allow us to get through life okay but insidiously maintains our anxiety about a situation because we never know whether we can cope even without that behaviour.

Overall thoughts as a therapist

Although it’s easy to curse the fact that other people seem so normal (which is debatable) while we are wracked with social anxiety, I find relief in acceptance that this trait is part of who I am and can be a blessing in many ways.

That being said, I have made a lot of progress with my own social anxiety to mitigate its negative effects and emphasize its positives. For many, social anxiety can be a problem when it limits their lives and opportunities, leads to significant distress, or forces them to engage in safety behaviours.

As a therapist, when any of these problems significant disrupt a person’s life, and they have lasted for a substantial period of time (e.g., over 6 months), then social anxiety may be something to tackle in therapy.

For those who are interested in learning a few strategies that have worked well for me, check out this post on evidence-based strategies for social anxiety!

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Best wishes,