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Introversion or Social Anxiety?

Introversion or Social Anxiety?

Wallflower, loner, aloof, unfriendly, socially awkward. These are words that have all been used to describe people who are introverted. Most likely, if you are introverted, you have been described in these terms (or other similar words) at some point. Often, these words are considered to be stereotypical ways of describing individuals who lean more towards the introverted side of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. They may even be used interchangeably with the word introvert.

What is exactly is introversion? Introversion is an aspect of temperament, which is something that you are born with, not something you chose. Introverts tend be deep thinkers who engage in reflection before speaking. Introverts often work at a slower pace and with great intention. They are sometimes more comfortable with writing than with speaking, although they are typically good listeners. Introverts tend to be astute observers and have great attention to detail. They both value and require time alone to recharge. Some of their favorite activities or hobbies may be solitary. Introverts tend to have a smaller social circle and value quality over quantity.

Introverts and extroverts are observably different in the ways that they socialize. Research has found that some of these differences are neurochemically based. According to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage (2002), the introverted brain “has a higher level of internal activity and thinking than does the extroverted brain” and is “dominated” by the acetylcholine pathway. When you think of acetylcholine, think “rest and digest.” Acetylcholine helps us to power down and relaxes our system (p. 84). Extroverts, on the other hand, have less internal activity than introverts and compensate by “scanning the external world to gather stimulation to fuel the  . . . dopamine pathway” (p. 85).  When you think of dopamine, think “get up and go.” In other words, extroverts actively seek out experiences and other rewards from their external environment in order to increase their level of stimulation and thereby experience the rewarding effects of dopamine. Introverts are more sensitive to the effects of dopamine and can feel overstimulated by it. These differences play a large part in explaining why an introvert might prefer a quiet night curled up with a good book, while an extrovert would jump at the chance to be amongst the cheering crowd at a hockey game.

Where an individual falls on the introvert-extrovert spectrum is also influenced by outside factors, such as one’s culture. The United States seems to advocate for, what author Susan Cain (2013) labels the Extrovert Ideal. She defines the Extrovert Ideal as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt.” Cain goes on to assert that “introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal . . . are discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” She goes on to further state that “we like to think we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there’” (p. 4). Whether or not you agree with these assertions and regardless of where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, if you were asked what the “average” person, or what most people consider fun, you would likely identify activities that are more appealing to extroverts. Why? Because these activities are more overt, more obvious. Activities that are preferred by introverts are usually quieter and more low-key. They typically fly under the social radar, but they are not less fun. Both types of activities are fun in their own right. It’s just a matter of preference.

So, getting back to social anxiety… Social anxiety disorder is characterized by fear or anxiety about social or performance situations in which the individual may be judged, embarrassed, and/or rejected. Individuals with social anxiety disorder may also be fearful about others noticing their anxiety and evaluating them negatively as a result. Settings or experiences that increase the perceived odds of incurring one of these negative consequences are generally avoided or met with high levels of distress. Thus, in the case of social anxiety, such situations are avoided out of fear/anxiety, which represents functional impairment caused by clinical anxiety.  It is worth considering how introverted tendencies and preferences may become misinterpreted for social ineptitude and inappropriately pathologized. For example, if an introvert declines an invitation to a party, others may label that person as “weird” or as someone who behaves in an “antisocial” manner. Introverts may at times feel a social pressure to participate in activities that are not only outside the scope of their comfort zone but may also be unappealing to them. While expanding one’s comfort zone can be a good thing, so can honoring one’s wants, needs, and preferences. The need for more solitary time is an important need, and it should be recognized as being equally valid to the need for socialization. Before we jump to any conclusions, it is entirely possible that an individual can be introverted and suffer from social anxiety. However, it is also just as possible that withdrawing from crowded environments is a sign of desiring quiet and the space to move around freely as opposed to an attempt to escape social judgment. One key factor that will help make this determination is whether the avoided event is appealing to the individual, and he or she truly wishes to participate, but does not feel comfortable doing so.  In that case, social anxiety may be accounting for this discomfort. On the other hand, if the idea of going to a concert is undesirable due to the overstimulating volume and crowds, then opting out may be due to preference. It is important that we refrain from relying on stereotypes and incorrectly pathologizing this aspect of personality.  It is also important that we expand our definitions of what is considered enjoyable and activities that are socially acceptable to define as “fun.” What is most important is that we view both ends of the introvert-extrovert spectrum as equally valuable, equally complete, and equally ideal in their own right.

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