The reason why some of us are quieter than others in more complex than many understand.

Why are you so quiet? Are you okay? Can you speak up? Have you always been so shy?

If I had a dime — or even a penny — for every time someone asked me one of these questions, I’d have a solid fund going. My entire life, I’ve been asked confused and concerned questions by countless people (friends, teachers, coworkers, peers, and even some family members) about my quiet demeanor. Over time, I started to think that something must be wrong since so many people questioned it. It was something to be ashamed of and fixed.

I constantly beat up myself for it. Why couldn’t I change? Life would be so much easier if only I could only get over this. No matter what I wanted or tried, I couldn’t get over my fear of socializing. I froze when called on during class or in meetings, I dreaded parties — nervously anticipating them and crying when I came home from exhaustion, I replayed conversations in my head daily, wishing I could go back in time to redo them.

These situations continued to stir up insecurity and frustration. I chalked it up to being introverted and reserved, which in part was true. But I also knew I wasn’t actually shy, despite what most people assumed. I was not particularly nervous meeting new people — I actually really enjoyed it and had close friendships. It was anticipating the unknown of large and unfamiliar social settings that overwhelmed me.

For awhile, my most frequent coping mechanism was avoidance. Why bother putting myself through the torture? It wasn’t until the past few years that I even considered the way I handled socializing could be something more than my temperament. It was something I couldn’t get past on my own — it was social anxiety.

Encouraged by my family and friends, I got some professional help. I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone in these struggles and that there are tactics and treatments to help. I’m still a work in progress, but I’ve made big steps toward easing my social anxiety. It began with understanding the differences between shyness, introversion, and social anxiety — which are often mistaken as the same.

Shyness Is A Personality Trait

Shyness is part of a person’s personality. Defined by the Social Anxiety Institute, it is “anxiety, inhibition, reticence, or a combination of these in social and interpersonal situations, and nervousness or anxiety about evaluation by others.” Shy people can have social anxiety, not all people with social anxiety are shy or introverted. Research shows that less than 25 percent of people who are shy also have social anxiety disorder.

It’s easy to confuse shyness with social anxiety, as many of the symptoms are similar. While there’s a spectrum of shyness, it’s not as debilitating as social anxiety. Shyness tends to appear in specific situations, but the symptoms of social anxiety are persistent. The diagnosis criteria noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) designates it as lasting for six months or more. The symptoms usually show up daily.

Another important distinction is that shyness doesn’t always lead to self-criticism. People who are shy don’t necessarily view it as a negative thing — it’s just part of who they are. However, those with social anxiety regret the hold it has on them, blaming themselves for it. Shyness can definitely trigger anxious thoughts and behavior, but it is normal — not a disordered thought process and diagnosis that interferes with the quality of one’s life.

Introversion Is About Social Energy

Also a personality trait, introversion is separate from both shyness and social anxiety. Shyness affects how you interact socially, and introversion is about where and how a person gets her energy. Introverts are rejuvenated through time spent alone, while extroverts gain energy from interacting with other people. Introverts can be shy and have social anxiety, but introversion is not a prerequisite to or exchangeable with either.

Just as people who aren’t shy can experience social anxiety, so can extroverts and ambiverts. If you’re introverted, you need to remove social stimulants to stay energized and happy, and you often get exhausted from socializing. An introvert can be completely content refusing a party invite, but someone with social anxiety would feel disappointed in themselves, worrying about what people would think of their absence.

Psychologist Ellen Hendrikson explains, “Introversion is a trait, meaning it’s part of your inborn personality. But with social anxiety, while you may carry a predisposition toward it, you didn’t come out of the womb with it. Likely, a lot of learning went into its development.” This means it can be unlearned, too.

Social Anxiety Is a Mental Disorder

Symptoms of social anxiety are more severe than shy or introverted behaviors. Social anxiety brings about an excessive amount of fear, discomfort, self-criticism, and self-consciousness in social situations. Also known as social phobia, it is “a significant amount of fear, embarrassment or humiliation in social performance-based situations, to a point at which the affected person often avoids these situations entirely, or endures them with a high level of distress,” according to the Social Anxiety Institute.

Labeling social anxiety as a mental disorder can seem scary, but it is officially classified that way by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (the authoritative source for psychiatric diagnoses). And it’s more common than you might think, the second most diagnosed form of anxiety. How do you know if you have it? It’s important not to rely on self-diagnosis, but there are specific things to look for to know if you should pursue professional support. The primary symptoms, outlined in the DSM-5, are:

  • Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others lasting for 6 months or more
  • Fear of acting in a way that will reveal anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated by others. In children, the anxiety must occur when the child is among peers and not just adults
  • The social situations almost always cause fear and anxiety
  • The social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear
  • The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the situation

If you related to these symptoms, it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone, and things can get better. It takes work and focus, but it will pay off — trust me! If you’re questioning whether you might have social anxiety, look into it with the support of a professional. At the very least, you’ll learn more about yourself to move on to a less-anxious life.