If you're an introvert, you may feel insecure or even wonder if there's something "wrong" with you because you don't enjoy making small talk or meeting new people as much as everyone else. It can become especially tricky when you begin college and find yourself starting over, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. You may even become concerned that you have social anxiety disorder, and that's the real reason you sometimes choose not to socialize. But experts say there's a major difference between being shy and having social anxiety disorder. Here's how to know where you stand.
What It Means to Be Shy or Introverted
Carla Marie Manly, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author, told POPSUGAR that although someone who's shy may be reticent in nature, they don't feel the intense fear that's common for people with social anxiety. "A shy person often will be happy and at peace during social gatherings, but will tend to prefer being in the background rather than being center stage," Dr. Manly explained.
Emin Gharibian, PsyD, founder and director of Verdugo Psychological Associates, agreed, noting that social anxiety stems from a fear of being rejected or humiliated. "[An introvert] might feel a little shy or uneasy, but they'll be able to endure the situation and warm up to it," Dr. Gharibian told POPSUGAR. "The key difference is that they don't have that intense fear or anxiety of being negatively evaluated." He explained that shyness is a dispositional trait, rather than a diagnosable mental health condition.
How to Tell If You Have Social Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder is a different story, and it's diagnosed using very specific criteria. Dr. Manly explained that, according to the DSM-5 — the manual used by healthcare providers to assess and diagnose mental health disorders — "social anxiety is a disorder in which an individual experiences marked anxiety in social situations that involve possible scrutiny or evaluation by others." A person with social anxiety disorder fears rejection as a result of behaving in ways that they believe will be perceived negatively by others. "The fear and anxiety experienced must be out of proportion to any actual level of threat that may be present in the situation," Dr. Manly said. In fact, people with social anxiety are often so afraid of being judged that they avoid social situations as much as possible.
In order for a formal diagnosis to be made, the anxiety and avoidance must cause significant distress and impairment and affect an individual's ability to function in social, occupational, and other important areas of life. "Imagine someone that's so anxious about public speaking that they avoid it at all costs because they are afraid of being humiliated, and that causes them to do poorly in their job or at school," Dr. Gharibian said. According to the DSM-5, these symptoms must be persistent and last for at least six months before a diagnosis can be made.
"For those with social anxiety, life can feel like a minefield when they're not at home or in situations that are perceived as safe," Dr. Manly said. The patient often feels extremely ashamed or "defective," and it's common for these feelings to worsen over time. "Social anxiety can be extremely debilitating for the anxious individual," she explained, interfering with everyday interactions and activities that others take for granted.
If this sounds like a painfully accurate description of your life, schedule an appointment with a therapist to be evaluated for social anxiety disorder. Like many mental illnesses, the condition is treatable — typically through a combination of therapy and medication. You won't magically transform into a social butterfly, but with the right treatment, you have a good chance of reaching a point where social anxiety no longer controls your life.