Personality is a complicated slumgullion of traits, developmental doodads (to use the technical term) and learned behaviors. We're a dash of this, a pinch of that, a cup or two of the other thing. Plus introversion. Whatever that is, exactly.

Scientists don’t have a definitive definition of introversion yet. When we speak of it, we often talk about the way introverts are drained while extroverts gain energy from social interactions. Sure, we “know” what that means, but how do we measure this empirically? What is this “energy” of which we speak? That we don’t know. It’s anecdotal, not scientific. And so we stand on shifting sands when we talk about introversion; often it is whatever the person speaking wants it to be.

I can’t define introversion any more definitively than the next person, but I have noticed that certain combinations of introversion-plus seem to come up often in our discussions. These extra ingredients add different flavors to introversion, and some are not so pleasant. None of these is exclusive to introversion, nor the synonmous with it. But in emails and comments, I see them crop up often and get confused with introversion when they're actually extra personality ingredients. 

Shyness. Shyness is not terrible but it's an introversion add-on, not introversion. Of course, introversion is often confused with shyness. But they’re not the same thing. Shyness is fearfulness. If you crave social interaction but it makes you anxious, you are probably shy. (I discuss this further here and here.) Introversion, on the other hand, is about how much you want, need, and pursue interaction. Which is to say, not much. Some people consider shyness simply another way of relating to the world, and that’s fine. However, if you’re shy and would rather not be, it can be overcome.

Social anxiety disorder. This is shyness on steroids. What might make a shy person nervous or anxious could send a person with social anxiety disorder into a full-on sweaty-palm, gut-clenching panic. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication can help.

Agoraphobia. Introverts really like hanging out at home because they really like hanging out at home. Agoraphobics hang out at home because the world outside their door is terrifying to them. The operative part of this word is “phobia,” and there are clinicians and treatments centers specializing in phobias.

Misanthropy. Misanthropes don’t just have low motivation to hang out with people, they consider people a waste of time—tedious, demanding, annoying, and most of them none too bright. I won’t suggest misanthropes change because they probably already think I’m an idiot.

Dysthymia. I hope that if you have full-blown depression you recognize and are seeking treatment for it. (Are you depressed? Here’s a self assessment.) But dysthmia is the scientific term for a low-level depression, also called persistent depressive disorder. You’re not wearing black and sleeping all day, but you’re not having a whole lot of fun, either. “Glum” is a good way to describe it. Not a great way to live and professionals can help you banish the gray cloud.


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