Shyness, Introversion, Sensitivity – What’s the Difference?

shyness in hiroshima by guendalShyness, introversion and high sensitivity may share some qualities, and they can overlap and interact, but they are not the same.

Many people may think of themselves as shy or at least call themselves shy as a convenient label – or they may be characterized that way by other people – when actually they are highly sensitive or introverted and therefore feel more emotionally safe and comfortable in less social situations.

Being shy is a fear, a form of anxiety, and can be more intense if we also have the personality trait of high sensitivity, or introversion – or both traits together.

High sensitivity can include being unusually aware of other people’s moods and judgments, and our own inner feelings in response to other people – all of which may encourage retreating from events or gatherings that many people who are not as introverted or highly sensitive enjoy more.

Shyness vs social anxiety

The Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia site lists some brief definitions that help distinguish the terms :

“Shyness is a feeling of timidity, apprehension, or discomfort in at least some social situations. This term is often used to describe a personality disposition or temporary event, and less frequently in reference to a mental health concern.

“Social anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness, dread, or apprehension about social interaction and presentation. Frequently, the primary concern fueling social anxiety is a concern that one will be (or is being) judged negatively by other people, regardless of whether this is actually the case.

“The experience of occasional, mild social anxiety is quite common, as is the experience of anxiety in general. Social anxiety can range from a relatively benign, infrequent level of severity to being a major hindrance in everyday life.

“Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia are mental health diagnoses used to describe a level of social anxiety that is so distressing, excessive, and/or pervasive that it is significantly interfering with an individual’s quality of life.”

The site authors are Andrew M. Jacobs, Psy.D. (Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre, St. Joseph’s Healthcare, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) and Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., ABPP (Department of Psychology, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), co-author of The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook.

“I am really shy… I don’t like walking into a crowded restaurant by myself; I don’t like going to a party by myself.” Nicole Kidman

The Psychology Today site on Shyness and Social Anxiety explains “Shyness is the awkwardness or apprehension some people feel when approaching or getting approached by other people. Unlike introverts, who feel energized by time alone, shy people often desperately want to connect with others, but don’t know how or can’t tolerate the anxiety that comes with human interaction.”

Shy vs Highly Sensitive People / HSP

Psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD says “Because HSPs (highly sensitive persons) prefer to look before entering new situations, they are often called ‘shy.’ But shyness is learned, not innate. In fact, 30% of HSPs are extraverts, although the trait is often mislabeled as introversion.”

In her newsletter post “For Highly Sensitive Teenagers, Part II: Dealing with the Rest of Your Family ” she makes points that can still apply to us as adults:

“Your parents may have terms for you that you will need to challenge. They may say you have always been shy. But no one is born shy. Shyness is the fear of social judgment, which is learned. (And being told you are shy does not help.) They may have said you are fearful, timid, fussy, stubborn, or insisting on having things your way. Yet all of these seeming flaws are just words for things that also have good sides to them–it’s how they are framed.”

In her Psychology Today blog post Time to Find Out: Are You Highly Sensitive?, Elaine Aron writes: “It’s not new, of course, but has been misnamed as shyness, inhibitedness, neuroticism, or introversion  (but 30% of us are extraverts). You can be a high sensation seeker and still be highly sensitive—you may work in media, for example. But you are not impulsive  and still need extra down time.”

Also see her post Understanding the Highly Sensitivity Person: Sensitive, Introverted, or Both?

Elaine Aron comments that Susan Cain’s very popular book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking “is actually more about HSPs (highly sensitive people) than social introverts” and “Her discussion of ‘introversion’ throughout is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity.”

– From my article Creative Thinking and Being Introverted or Highly Sensitive, which includes a video of Cain.

[See more Books, Products and Programs for Highly Sensitive People.]

Post: Marti Olsen Laney on Introversion Advantages – includes list of “Top 10 Advantages Introverts Possess” and clip of audio interview for the Mensa Foundation.

Gifts and challenges

In Therese Borchard‘s interview with me on Beliefnet and on HuffingtonPost, and published on my Highly Sensitive site: Gifts and challenges of being highly sensitive, I note some of the values of being highly sensitive. We tend to be more aware of our inner emotional states, which can make for richer and more profound creative work.

But being shy or introverted as well as sensitive is likely to impact how we promote ourselves or make social connections that will help enhance creative work.

“Oh please be careful with me, I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.”

Jewel – in her song I’m Sensitive

Used in several articles, including Eckhart Tolle On Sensitivity

In her post Introversion vs. Shyness: The Discussion Continues (on her Psychology Today blog The Introvert’s Corner), Sophia Dembling says “The two get confused because they both are related to socializing – but lack of interest in socializing  is very clearly not the same as fearing it. Schmidt and Arnold H. Buss of the University of Texas wrote a chapter titled “Understanding Shyness” for the book The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal.”

She adds, “Someone who is introverted and shy will behave differently from someone who is introverted and not shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and not shy.”

Different kinds of introversion

According to the article Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted, by Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig, introverts belong to two distinct groups:

“Group A: Self-sufficient, confident, hardworking, with firm goals, self-actualizing, reserved, preferring activities that involve inner experience and introspection; and

“Group B: Shy, timid, withdrawn with low self-concept, lacking in communication skills, demonstrating fear of people, dread of doing things in front of others, who prefer being left alone.

Introversion vs extroversion

Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., a researcher, educator, author, psychotherapist and authority on introversion, provides a summary on her site

Enjoy time alone
Consider only deep relationships as friends
Feel drained after outside activities, even if they were fun
Good listener
Appear calm and self-contained
Think then speak or act

Like to be in the thick of things
Relish variety
Know lots of people, considers lots of people friends
Enjoy chit-chatting, even to strangers
Feel stoked after activity
Speak or act then think OR think while speaking

Shy monkeys

The article Once a shy monkey, always a shy monkey? on reports “New research by the HealthEmotions Research Institute and Department of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) and published in PLoS ONE [Public Library of Science] indicates that the brains of those suffering from anxiety and severe shyness in social situations consistently respond more strongly to stress, and show signs of being anxious even in situations that others find safe.”

But if shyness is so intense or emotionally disturbing to be considered social anxiety, then it is a mood disorder, which can be improved with medication or therapy.

If it is “just” shyness, maybe self-help anxiety relief programs will help – or taking more risks in social situations.

Many actors report they have found relief in acting – along with a higher level of confidence and esteem. And we can gain those even without performing as actors, such as joining social service groups, taking classes, or doing anything that is more social.

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Introverted, Shy or Highly Sensitive in the Arts


Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman notes the common misconception that introversion and the personality trait of high sensitivity are the same thing.

But, he explains, “Actually, sensory processing sensitivity is not the same thing as introversion. There are plenty of socially introverted folks who can deal with loud sounds and bright lights, even though they may get emotionally drained from too many superficial social interactions.

“Vice versa, there are plenty of socially extraverted individuals who get overstimulated by sensory input. A number of studies support that idea that sensory processing sensitivity is much more strongly linked to anxiety (neuroticism) and openness to experience than introversion.”

In a brief excerpt from his much longer interview for The Truth About Creativity online conference, Dr. Kaufman comments on identity and creativity:

“Creative expression equals self-expression… So anything we can do to firm up our identity, figure out who we are separate from others, and what it is we really want to express – that influences your information processing of everything in the world.”

See more in my article Introverted, Shy or Highly Sensitive in the Arts – quotes by and about Alanis Morissette, Kate Mara, Chris Cooper, J.K. Rowling, Tom Ford, Tory Burch and many other well-known creative people.

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Which Of The Two Different Types of Social Phobia Do You Have? – By Bertil Hjert

Is it a disorder, or just shyness?

Learning to live with social anxiety

Introversion and Shyness page

The Highly Sensitive site



  1. […] Many people mistakenly equate introversion with shyness, so I was happy when a friend alerted me to an article on Douglas Eby’s Talent Development website: Shyness, Introversion, Sensitivity – What’s the Difference? […]

  2. I really like this post. I feel at times this is me but then I hold my head up and go in with a smile and start talking to people. The ice has broken and now everything is better.

  3. I have come across so many clients who have been told that they are ‘too sensitive’ – as if they were flawed. What exactly does being ‘too sensitive’ mean? I wonder how often people are labelled as ‘too sensitive’ because they dislike the remarks made those lacking in any sensitivity. Give me a sensitive soul to spend time with any day. It’s only a problem if you think it is.

    • Thanks for your comments. As you mention on your blog, social withdrawal may indicate low self esteem: Another aspect of the complex behavior that gets labeled ‘shyness.’

What do you think about these topics?