Hundreds of books are available dealing with the subject of introvert personalities. With titles such as “The Introvert Advantage,” “Introvert Power” and “The Upside of Being an Introvert,” the clear indication is that having an introvert personality is definitely something normal and positive.
But what if a person’s shyness, preference for solitude or tendency to be concerned about their own thoughts and feelings becomes debilitating? Some amount of shyness or avoidance is completely normal, for both introverts and extroverts. But when introversion and avoidance become a problem that interferes with your life, it could indicate a more serious condition known as avoidant personality disorder.
What Is an Introvert Personality?
If being in a crowded room makes you feel like you’re in a holding cell, chances are you’re an introvert. Introverts are personality types where people feel uncomfortable or drained by social gatherings and situations involving groups of people. Conversely, introverts are generally energized by being alone and often enjoy solitary creative pursuits.(1)
The disposition of an introvert is frequently misconstrued as shyness, social phobia or even avoidant personality disorder. However, many introverts are completely capable—and even skilled—at socializing; they just frequently prefer not to do so. Instead, they simply choose to be alone to enjoy their own thoughts and introspection.
The Huffington Post presented an article listing numerous indicators of a possible introverted personality and the Psychology and Mental Health Forum presented ten myths about introverts. The key here is to remember that assessment and classification of personality types are not intended to define or judge a person. Introversion is merely one of many possible healthy personality types and is not a disorder.
What Is Avoidant Personality Disorder?
Unlike someone with an introvert personality type who makes a conscious choice to be alone, those suffering from avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) feel trapped by their preference to avoid social situations.
Avoidant personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy and being overly sensitive to negative evaluation. Key symptoms include:
A detached personality pattern– Detached individuals are typically introverted, aloof and reclusive; tend to avoid social activities; and are usually quite uncomfortable when forced to participate in such activities.
Extreme sensitivity to rejection– This may lead to social isolation and a withdrawn life. Those with AvPD tend to be shy, apprehensive, awkward and uncomfortable with face-to-face contact.
Avoidance of social situations– This is related to feelings of ineptitude and inadequacy and anxious preoccupation with negative evaluation and rejection, along with fears of ridicule or embarrassment.
Inhibition in interpersonal relationships– Individuals with this disorder fear placing their welfare and feelings in the hands of others and hesitate to trust or confide in others. They tend to be extremely introspective and self-conscious.
Diminished self-esteem– AvPD often causes individuals to perceive themselves as different from others and to be unsure of their identity and self-worth, lacking overall self-esteem. They often devalue their own achievements, seeing themselves as isolated, discontented and empty.
Distinguishing Between Introversion and AvPD
Avoidant personality disorder does share some similarities to those who are shy or who have introverted personalities. Nevertheless, there are important differences:
Introverted personality– A shy or introverted person still tries to face situations that generate discomfort. The situation may be unpleasant, yet the person tries to convey the message that they are enjoying it. The desire to integrate socially is sufficient to overcome the preference to be alone. Key: The person with an introverted personality does not feel anxiety when it is necessary to maintain social contact.
Avoidant personality disorder– A person with AvPD has given up on facing situations that generate fear. As much as humanly possible, they avoid any anxiety-generating situation and do everything possible not to be noticed. Key: The person with AvPD feels overwhelming anxiety/fear that severely disrupts or prevents social contact.
Recommended Treatment for AvPD
See your health care provider or a mental health professional if shyness or fear of rejection overwhelms your ability to function in life and have relationships. Medications are sometimes used to deal with depression and anxiety symptoms, which are the most common features associated with avoidant personality disorder.
Talk therapy is considered to be the most effective treatment for avoidant personality disorder. Individual and group counseling, especially long-term cognitive behavioral therapy, helps people with the disorder to be less sensitive to rejection and focus on developing effective coping strategies and social skills.
A primary goal of any psychotherapy for this disorder is to encourage the individual to move out into the world and take what are perceived as great risks of humiliation and rejection. Caution is needed, however, when suggesting new social skills outside therapy, since failure could reinforce feelings of poor self-esteem. Group therapy may help the individual cope with the exaggerated threat of rejection.