Friday, January 30, 2009


Have you ever felt shy? What was happening to make that happen? Can you notice when other people are shy? How can you tell they are shy? Shyness isn’t often talked about and maybe that is because almost everyone is shy to some degree and has experienced it some time in their life.

Psychologists tend to define shyness as an awkwardness we feel when in the presence of other people. The mental health profession now refers to shyness as social anxiety which is fairly accurate. Unfortunately, some segments of the mental health community want to make it a mental illness. It has been shown that some of the motivation for doing so is the enormous amount of money that can be made from identifying shyness as a mental illness (see the book by Christopher Lane, Shyness: How normal behavior became a sickness. Psychology professor Bernardo Carducci reflects the attitude of many psychologists by defining shyness as a "personality trait" rather than as an emotional disorder or mental illness.

Shyness is common in new and unfamiliar situations and when interacting with authority figures and members of the opposite sex. A seemingly puzzling aspect of shyness is that it can be situation specific. It is well known that many performers who are confident performing in front of large crowds of strangers can worry and feel apprehensive and a lack of confidence in more natural settings.

When asked, people give three basic reasons why they are shy. The most common is connected to the role of the person’s family. Shy people will often say they had overprotective parents that prevented them from exploration and risk taking. Others think the family lifestyle (quiet, self-contained, few friends) encouraged shyness. Still others look back on growing up and realizing their parents were lacking in social skills, hence the shy person lacked adequate modeling in learning how to interact with people.

Another group of shy people mention personal habits such as being a negative person. They are described by friends as having a dour outlook on life or lacking basic social skills. When this is the reason given for being shy, the implication is that these problems are unchangeable. They have accepted the "fact" they always be shy for the rest of their life.

A final group of shy people blame some sort of "victimization" as the basis for being shy. They see genetics as the source of their shyness as in, "I was just born this way." Other people fault some type of personal disability whether real or imagined. Maybe they think they are not smart, or graceful, or articulate, or competent. Unfortunately, prior abuse can also account for why people feel shy. Abuse can have many sources such as family, teachers, coaches, bosses, or bullies.

What is it like to experience shyness? The experience can exist in one or more personal areas: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, behavior (see The Domino Effect). Commonly, a shy person’s mental life is filled with negative self-talk such as personal devaluation, comparisons with others, and continually monitoring bodily sensations. Perceptions are also distorted. One study showed that shy men perceive an attractive woman as less attractive that non-shy men or even women do. This same study also found out that information learned while a person was feeling shy is likely to be likely remembered than when something is learned when the person is not feeling shy.

Emotions, the first half of the third domino, always includes anxiety and often embarrassment. For some people with severe shyness problems, more severe emotions can be present like depression and guilt. Shy people don’t know that shyness is a normal reaction and that people merely differ in terms of frequency and intensity.

Physical sensations, the second half of the third domino, almost universally includes butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, racing mind, increase pulsed and pounding heart. Some people perspire excessively or find themselves blushing. More severe physical sensations may include dizziness or lightheadedness, blurred vision, the sense that the ground is moving beneath them, or other unusual experiences. These are merely due to the stress caused by improper breathing, muscle tension and a racing mind. By learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, these symptoms will go away.

Certain behaviors are common among shy people such verbal silence around other people, poor eye contact, and social isolation. These behaviors are self perpetuating. Since we all monitor and evaluate our actions, these behaviors only "prove" a person is shy. Therefore, in similar situations, these behaviors are expected. The expectation increases the likelihood of shy behaviors and the shy behaviors increase the expectation they will occur again.

Much of the anguish a shy person feels occurs because of the continual self judgement of shyness as bad or unacceptable or even worse, a sign of being crazy. It is true that genetics and experiences in childhood can contribute to the flowering of shyness. This makes it appear that shyness cannot be overcome. We now know that our genes are interactive with the environment and changeable.

People cope with their shyness in many ways. Some become loud and boisterous in an attempt to hide the shyness. Unfortunately, they may go to the other extreme and turn people off. In the last few decades, a new coping was appeared and it is called "electronic extroversion." By joining chat rooms on the Internet, shy people can reinvent themselves. Because the Internet can make people anonymous it has been possible for shy people to be less inhibited. This allows them hide who they really are and connect with people from their new self. Although this may mirror actual intimacy, it can also become a barrier by making it more difficult to establish a face-to-face relationship.

It is not surprising shyness may result in electronic relationships. Surveys have discovered that a third of shy people use the Internet to establish social relationships. This can be a time consuming endeavor. More than forty percent of shy people use the Internet six to eleven hours a week.

So what can you do if you think you are shy? You may want to check yourself to see if you are and how seriously it affects your life. To do this you have to ask yourself the right questions. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, you can complete the Stanford Shyness Survey which was developed in the 1970s. It is a survey that is used for research but is available to the public. Because it is a research tool, you can’t score the survey so that it can tell you whether or not you are shy you are. Nevertheless, you can get a better sense of the extent, if any, of your shyness by clicking on the link and completing The Henderson/Zimbardo Shyness Questionnaire.

If you want to continue to search for tools to help you overcome shyness, you can look for books that show you what to do. The classic book by Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University Psychology Professor, is excellent (even with the somewhat outdated examples) because the first part gives a thorough description of what shyness is and how it affects so many people, both famous and non-famous. The second half of the book offers many suggestions for things you can do to begin your journey to minimize your shyness. The book is called Shyness: What It Is, What To Do About It.

Others books you may want to check into include:

If you have a shy child you might look at Shyness Isn’t a Minus: How to Turn Bashfulness Into a Plus, by J.S. Jackson & R.W. Alley. The reading level of this book is for kids between the ages of 4 and 8 even though the skills may be used for older children.

The Internet also offers great suggestions for combating shyness. Here are a few to get you started:

If you still need to get further help, you may want to try a psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Be aware that some therapists say they do this kind of therapy but have not been fully trained and are not really experts in this field. If you are uncertain, there are two tipoffs: if the psychologist does not give specific, written homework and/or wants to spend talking about your past, go somewhere else.

A CBT psychologist will use a technique called cognitive restructuring. There are many varieties, but they all come from the same roots. The Worry Free Life (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Amazon) adds a variation to CBT by externalizing negative thinking and calling it the "Voice." Some of the features of CBT will help you deal with worry, emotional regulation, behavioral skill training, and stress management.

At the very minimum, you can begin a "Shyness Journal." Use a two-column format and record the situations you feel shy in on the left hand side. On the right, record how you can begin to research and learn ways of overcoming shyness.

I hope this has been helpful to you or someone you know who is shy. Feel free to contact me at if you have any questions.

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