Although most people use the terms interchangeably, psychologists say that they are not one and the same.

By Yolanda Wikiel
Conny Marshaus/Getty Images

You may think you’re shy because you’ve been told that your whole life.

Since extroversion has long been considered the measure of normalcy in our culture, there’s an assumption that if you’re not outgoing and chatty, then you are shy, says Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia and the author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. In fact, introverts aren’t shy at all–they simply prefer to spend a lot of their time alone. If you do consider yourself shy, though, you’re not alone. Approximately 40 percent of the population identifies as such.

Shy people may have more in common with extroverts than they do with introverts.

“Many people who are shy want to be social, but anxiety and self-consciousness can keep them from doing so—that is the pain of shyness,” explains Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., a psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. In other words, shy people want to be around others, but are uncomfortable during social interactions because they don’t always possess the proper social tools. Once they warm up, though, they can feel energized by connection with others, just like extroverts do. In fact, there are many shy extroverts, some of whom make a living as actors, singers, comedians, or journalists, such as Barbra Streisand, Johnny Depp, and Kristen Stewart. “Having a script allows shy entertainers to control the situation, but if they have to interact with others spontaneously, they clam up,” says Carducci. Some people only experience shyness in certain circumstances—say, around an authority figure or a crush. (On the other end of the spectrum are excessively shy people who may completely avoid occasions that make them anxious, and those with a social phobia who may not leave the house at all.) Wondering how shy you are? Take this shyness quiz.

Shy people and introverts think differently.

At a party, an introvert and a shy person look like they share the same M.O.: to stand far away from the crowd. But it’s what is going on inside their heads that makes these two types of personalities startlingly different. A shy person is likely frustrated to be sitting on the sidelines, yet is fearful of joining the group. “How am I going to talk to these people?” or “Am I going to look stupid if I approach them?” Meanwhile, an introvert thinks, “I wish I was curled up on my couch right now,” and is quite relieved to be a wallflower. Often, the first reaction you get when you receive an invitation to a big event can be revealing, says Helgoe. If you are interested but intimidated (“Sounds like fun, but how am I going to pull this off?”), then you’re likely shy. But if what you’re feeling is more along the lines of “Ugh, how do I get out of this?,” then you’re probably introverted and enjoy low-key activities over the hubbub of a party.

Shy people and introverts are both quiet, but not for the same reason.

Small talk is not a strength for either personality type. What’s interesting is that introverts can be sociable, they often just choose not to be, preferring time alone or deeper conversations with a select few. Introverts also process information internally—and an over-stimulating environment can get in the way of their thinking. Extroverts, on the other hand, tend to think things through as they speak. “As an introvert, I’ll usually think of a good comeback once I’m at home hours later,” says Helgoe. “Whereas in the middle of the meeting, I had nothing to say.”

On the other hand, what shy people experience is more akin to a domino-effect freak-out. If a shy person does not know how to react in a social situation, she’ll panic, her heart will start racing, her palms will sweat and her muscles may tense up, explains Carducci. Those physical reactions make her more painfully aware of her anxiety, which only exaggerates the symptoms.

Introversion is ingrained; shyness can be unlearned.

People are biologically hard-wired to be introverted or extroverted (and can lie anywhere on the continuum). An introvert, of course, can play the part of an extrovert, becoming adept at dazzling a crowd. “But an introvert cannot avoid the fact that afterwards she would still need time alone to recharge from that social connection,” says Helgoe.

However, those who are shy can actually train themselves to be less so and their social discomfort can lessen with practice. The trick, says Carducci, is to understand and work with your shyness. For example, shy people often show up to parties late, but that only ends up raising their anxiety. “By then, guests are already broken off into cliques,” notes Carducci. “It’s wiser to arrive on time when you can warm up and talk to someone one on one.” This allows you to focus on the other person instead yourself and your nerves. Realizing that there is a basic structure to small talk can also take the pressure off of social interactions.