There’s a difference between shyness and social anxiety

Quiet people rest assured, brilliant conversationalists are a pain in the neck

Shy people would like to be with others but find it brings up anxiety. Photograph: iStock

Shy people would like to be with others but find it brings up anxiety. Photograph: iStock

 
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I’ve been hearing a lot about social anxiety. Nobody knows if being shut away in lockdown brought out an anxiety that was lurking inside people.

I wonder, though, if some of us are mixing up shyness, introversion and social anxiety which are different from each other even though they overlap from time to time. Let’s take a look at the three types, for want of a better word.

Shy people, of whom I am one, would like to be with others but find it brings up anxiety. They may back away or self-medicate with alcohol. What can they do?

If you were at a party with Oscar Wilde you would get tired of it soon enough

They can help themselves a lot by realising that they may be putting demands on themselves that are not being imposed by others.

Maybe you will never be the life and soul of the party no matter what. That’s okay. Nobody else is looking for you to be the life and soul of the party. Having got used to you as a quiet person they would probably be startled if you emerged as a party animal.

Other people are not usually judging you for being a quiet person. And those extraverts who are happily loud will be glad to have the floor to themselves.

But you’re not a brilliant conversationalist? Here’s a secret: brilliant conversationalists are a pain in the neck. They hog the floor and all must pay homage to to their wit. If you were at a party with Oscar Wilde you would get tired of it soon enough.

Listen to other people’s conversation. They repeat banal statements to each other over and over and they’re as happy as anything. Or listen to discussion programmes on the radio or television. Have you ever heard anything original being uttered by anybody on these shows?

Go, and do thou likewise: repeat commonplace remarks with – if you can manage it – enthusiasm and people will love you for it.

Also, look in the mirror and note that you cannot see through yourself. Other people can’t either. They can’t see the emotions and nervousness swirling around in there.

Introverts form the second group. They need less stimulation than other people according to one theory I like. A certain amount of stimulation (chatting in the restaurant, say) will give them “too much” buzz and they will withdraw into their phones or to the loo. But extraverts need more stimulation – what’s too much for the introvert is too little for them – hence all the shouting and arm waving.

They don’t mind that the introvert doesn’t say much because they need the stimulation for themselves.

Extraverts often say of introverts that “still waters run deep” which might not be true – but it’s a plus for the introvert’s social image.

For people with social anxiety, though, it’s different. They can find social life painful and frightening with sweating, hearts thumping, maybe not able to speak because of physical stress.

What might help? For people with the extreme forms of social anxiety, behavioural therapy might help. This involves going into situations that scare you and spending increasingly long periods there. We are not really talking about extreme situations. For some people saying hello to the receptionist at work or walking though an open plan office to get to their desk would be a huge source of fear.

This could be planned out with a counsellor who knows about exposure therapy as it’s called.

If this feels like too much of a challenge your doctor might be willing to prescribe beta blockers to get you through these situations.

If the thought of going to see a GP scares you, remind yourself that your GP could be the gateway to a better life. In the era of consultations on the phone and on Zoom it may be easier to face up to talking to a GP. You could even send a note to the GP to explain what is troubling you.

So, as social animals we come in all shapes and sizes. Recognising this can help reduce the suffering that many endure.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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