Social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder share some common features, but they are separate mental health conditions. Because the two conditions appear similar in many ways, it’s not uncommon for people to mistake one for the other.
Sometimes simply getting help is more important than having a specific diagnosis. But some people also find it beneficial to know what’s affecting them. In some cases, the best approach to treatment differs for separate mental health issues, so misdiagnosis can affect treatment and make it harder for a person to improve.
Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a specific type of anxiety characterized by a fear of social situations. People with social anxiety worry about embarrassing themselves in public or doing something that will cause others to judge them negatively. It’s fairly common for people to feel nervous about doing something embarrassing in public, but the feelings of fear and anxiety that occur with social phobia can become so distressing they cause difficulty at work, school, or other parts of daily life. About 75% of people with social anxiety are between the ages of 8 and 15 when diagnosed.
Avoidant personality disorder is a cluster C personality disorder. Personality disorders are a specific kind of mental health issue where patterns of thought and behavior affect daily life, and those with personality disorders often experience difficulty in professional and personal life because they have a hard time understanding other people and common situations.
Levana Slabodnick, LISW-S, a therapist in Columbus, Ohio, notices one difference between social anxiety and avoidant personality may lie in how a person views their own experience. She explains, “A fundamental difference between social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder relates to how the sufferer perceives their own pain. Those with anxiety understand on a basic level that their anxiety is irrational and that the world doesn’t judge them as harshly as they judge themselves. Those with APD, on the other hand, lack this insight. They hold deep rooted feelings of insecurity and worthlessness that they believe to be factual.”
People with avoidant personality often feel socially awkward and inferior to others. They tend to be very sensitive to criticism and rejection and often avoid making friends or participating in social events unless they are sure of their welcome. Feelings of shame or self-loathing are more strongly associated with avoidant personality than social anxiety. This condition is not often diagnosed in children, though it often develops in childhood.
Avoidant Personality Disorder Vs. Social Anxiety
Social anxiety and avoidant personality share an intense fear of being embarrassed or judged in social situations. People might describe a person with either condition as shy, timid, awkward, or fearful.
Fear associated with these conditions can present in many ways, such as:
- Avoiding social situations
- Avoiding interactions with strangers
- Low self-esteem
- Shyness or timidity around other people
- Isolation from others or complete social withdrawal
Debate over whether avoidant personality is a more severe type of social anxiety exists among mental health experts. According to the fifth edition of the DSM, these issues are often diagnosed together and can overlap to the point where they might seem like different presentations of the same concern. But while avoidant personality typically involves patterns of avoidance in most or all areas of life, social anxiety may only involve avoidance in a few specific situations. The DSM continues to categorize them separately.