The shy extrovert.
The confident introvert.
They sound like oxymorons, right?
In reality, both combinations are fairly common, despite many people equating introversion with shyness. True, shyness seems to rest more comfortably on the introvert, and that’s why it’s easy to confuse the two. But some introverts are not all that shy, while some extroverts are quite shy.
Shyness is a reticence to engage in particular kinds of social situations or relate with particular people. The reluctance may be driven by embarrassment, fear of misunderstanding or rejection, or feelings of inferiority. Both introverts and extroverts can be shy at various times.
Shyness is often situational—a result of feeling uncomfortable in a given circumstance. An extrovert who is completely comfortable in one type of situation (such as mingling in a large group of new acquaintances) might find herself incredibly shy in a different social situation (such as speaking publicly to a group of peers). For an introvert, the reverse may (or may not) be true.
Shyness is not a personality trait so much as a behavior—a way people respond to a particular social situation. This behavior may be learned because of an uncomfortable experience in a similar situation in the past.
Since shyness seems to be a learned behavior—distinct from the personality traits of introvert and extrovert—it may also be unlearned as a person gains confidence. And gaining confidence in one kind of situation often quickly spills over into other kinds of situation. Thus the phenomenon of a seemingly introverted person “coming out of their shell.”
Perhaps you’ve been told such stories of “introverts” who suddenly became extroverts, as supposed inspiration for you to do the same. My guess is that the great majority of those “converted introverts” were never introverts to begin with, but shy extroverts who unlearned their shyness. Or in other words, they learned to get past their discomfort with particular settings and situations.
Introverts may be able to unlearn their shyness too. I’m not suggesting that shy introverts should necessarily remain shy introverts. There is room for growth at whatever pace you feel you can go. But gaining confidence and becoming more comfortable in a variety of social settings will still not turn an introvert into an extrovert. Nor should we wish that it would.
Rather than seeking to convert introverts into extroverts, we would do better to help introverts understand, embrace, and enhance their introverted personality. That’s one of the goals of this blog series—to help you or someone you love do just that.
And it begins with understanding.
The essence of introvert is that the person tends to receive energy by being alone and expend energy when with others. It’s not that introverts don’t enjoy or benefit from social interaction; they do. But they tend not to need as much of it as extroverts do, and when they get more than what they need, they begin to feel overstimulated or drained.
Here’s one way to think of the differences between shyness, introvertism, and extrovertism:
A shy introvert (or extrovert) may be terrified at the thought of speaking up in a meeting but be willing to do so at the urging and reassurance of others.
An introvert who is not shy is not necessarily afraid to speak up, but he or she may internally process what’s going on around them and then carefully choose key moments to contribute to the conversation. By doing this, introverts conserve their limited relational energy for when it really matters.
An extrovert who is not shy will have no such concerns about conserving relational energy, since interacting with others actually energizes them.
The same extrovert might find himself bursting with energy and eager to “get out” when forced to work independently or be alone for too long a stretch. But introverts crave that time alone and appreciate the opportunity to immerse themselves in their books, music, art, handiwork, or whatever else brings them calmness, peace, and deep productivity.
Once we begin to understand what it means to be an introvert and what growth for an introvert looks like (and what it doesn’t look like), then we can learn to embrace the introvert’s unique strength and potential for contribution.
For more reading on what it means to be an introvert, I recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.