Shyness is a behavioral difficulty. Introversion is a normal set of preferences. You can work on your shyness, but there’s no need to work on your introversion.
If you were to conduct a simple nationwide poll asking people to describe introverts in just one word, one little word in particular would likely come up most often.
To the average person on the street, introversion and shyness are one and the same.
That’s a problem—a potentially damaging one.
“In reality, there’s a huge difference between shyness and introversion.”
It’s critical for you to understand that difference, whether you yourself are more of an introvert or more of an extrovert.
Behavioral Difficulty vs. Preference
Shyness is a behavioral difficulty, one that holds you back, against your wishes, via fear—your fear of looking stupid or feeling embarrassed or being rejected by others, for example.
Thus, if you’re shy, you can (and likely want to) do something about it; you can work to improve it or even eliminate it from your life, as many of us have over the years.
Introversion, on the other hand, isn’t a difficulty at all. There’s no fear involved in introversion, either. Introversion is just a set of preferences for how you tend to live your life.
Don’t fall into the trap of equating these two concepts, as Joe and Jane Sixpack are prone to do.
As Cooper stresses:
“Introversion is all about you. … Shyness is not about you and your preferences, but about other people. Worrying about how other people perceive you and whether they will disapprove of you.”
When Fear Gets in the Way
Every year during Labor Day weekend, my family and I go to my wife Adrianne’s hometown of Tracy, Minnesota, for a carnival/fair event called Boxcar Days.
Every year, Adrianne wants me to accompany her downtown on Saturday night to what’s known as the Beer Tent so she can catch up with some of her high school friends in the din of bright lights and shouting voices and blaring music.
Every year, I don’t really want to go but go anyway—because I love Adrianne and want her to be able to see her friends. (Invariably, by the way, I have a decent time too.)
How come I never want to go to the Beer Tent at Boxcar Days?
It has nothing to do with fear, and therefore shyness; I’m not afraid of going, thinking I’ll look like an idiot or somehow be humiliated.
I’d just rather stay home and read a book, or maybe go for a quiet walk under the stars with my bride.
Contrast that scenario with my first day of seventh grade, when I instantaneously fell in love from afar with a beautiful girl—a girl I would see virtually every school day from then until graduation.
For the next six years, I longed to have an actual conversation with this girl, and to ultimately ask her out.
But I couldn’t.
Because I was terrified of how stupid I’d look in her eyes as I babbled and stammered, and of how crushing it would be when my crush would inevitably send me packing in utter embarrassment and defeat.
As my date-seeking fantasy played out all those years—if only in my mind—I wasn’t matter-of-factly thinking: “I just don’t want to invest my energy in this task.”
What I was really thinking amounted to a snowball becoming a destructive boulder as it barreled down a steep mountainside:
“If I try to ask this girl out, I’m going to go up to her and freeze and not know what to say and then I’ll start talking and sound like a fool and then what a dumb ass I’ll be and then she’ll see what a dumb ass I am and then she’ll reject me and then I’ll just keel over and die right there in front of her and then everyone watching will laugh until they burst into flames because I died right in front of everyone trying to ask a girl out.”
Extroverts Can Be Shy Too
You might be an introvert and be shy. That’s quite common, and it may help explain the frequent misperception that introversion and shyness are the same thing.
But extroverts, it turns out, can be shy too. (Shyness really is a behavioral difficulty, after all, which means anyone can experience it.)
I used to believe that the phrase shy extrovert was an oxymoron.
Until I met a shy extrovert.
A few years ago, at a professional career counselors conference, I attended a session on personality differences.
At one point in the workshop, the introversion vs. shyness topic came up, and the presenter noted that extroverts can be shy, just as some introverts are.
As I sat there wrestling with instant cognitive dissonance—and I could tell by other people’s reactions that I wasn’t alone—a guy across the aisle from me raised his hand so he could speak.
He then stood up and said: “I’m a shy extrovert.”
And as he talked about what it was like—to constantly want to socialize and participate in things but constantly be afraid of doing so—he literally started turning red.
His face and his ears became crimson testimonies to how petrified he was feeling in that very moment, and the beads of sweat that formed on his forehead told us how determined he was to not only enlighten the rest of us, but also fight off the inclination to stay seated and say nothing.
This man hadn’t decided to battle his extroversion; he’d decided to battle his shyness. And for a few moments, he’d won.
If you’re a shy introvert, you can do the same.
Just remember, though: Your opponent will be your shyness, not your introversion.
Is Shyness Bad?
One of the things that has always bothered me about the introversion vs. shyness discussion is the implication that shyness is bad, or that something is wrong with you if you’re shy.
I think this phenomenon gets to me because introversion is so often viewed as bad, and we introverts often end up feeling like something is wrong with us—both of which get on my nerves.
Is shyness bad?
Cooper offers some wise counsel on this one, in another post on his blog:
“As someone who was extremely shy for most of my life, I think it comes down to this: Shyness is not bad, but it’s not helpful either. … Some people have a mild shyness that doesn’t really change their life. My shyness was not like that. My shyness was painful. My shyness stopped me from having the life I wanted.”
Work on Shyness, Embrace Introversion
If your shyness is stopping you from having the life you want, work on it.
Small steps—taken with the help of a coach or therapist, perhaps—will help you slowly overcome it.
But you don’t have to, nor should you, “face” your introversion the way you’d “face” shyness and work to get past it.
Instead, you should simply embrace your introversion as the healthy, natural part of your existence that it really is.