We have all been there. We are heading into a situation in which we will be meeting new people. What is your reaction? For some, it is hesitancy and discomfort. For others, it is downright fear. If you have ever experienced these feelings, you are not alone. Research shows that approximately 50 percent of all people will experience some amount of shyness in new situations. A smaller percentage will have a much stronger fear reaction called social anxiety.
All respond differently when it comes to new or unfamiliar situations. Often, it is because you will have to interact with people who are unfamiliar. The underlying question is: “What will they think of me?” You might feel out of control and exposed. Of course, you might also assume that others will think the worst about you. This in a nutshell is shyness.
This experience of shyness is common, yet it is often not talked about. It is embarrassing to admit. Hiding your shyness leads to further embarrassment and fear of what others would think if they really knew that you were shy. In reality, the fact that shyness is so common can bring some relief in knowing that you are not alone. Further, knowing what causes shyness and what you can do about it can help. You really can overcome shyness and develop greater confidence. But first it is necessary to better understand what shyness is.
Shyness is best defined as the experience of feeling awkward, apprehensive, and self-conscious during social encounters, especially with new or unfamiliar people. It is accompanied by a feeling of dread or even downright fear. In your body, you will experience some of the typical anxiety symptoms. These include a pounding heart, sweaty skin, shortness of breath, stomach discomfort, and tingling in the arms or legs. The experience of shyness can be so uncomfortable that you may even avoid the social situations that trigger it. When avoidance occurs and the shyness response begins to interfere with your daily life, you may have something called Social Anxiety Disorder.
So where does this shyness come from? About 15 percent of children are born with an “inhibited” temperament, while about the same percentage is born with a “bold” temperament. These babies tend to be much more sensitive to changes in the environment around them. As these children grow, they become more cautious and reticent in interactions with people, especially new ones. This genetic component is thought to account for about 30 percent of the contribution to shyness as a trait. The remainder is accounted for by one’s environment.
Shy children benefit from a more gentle and supportive parenting approach. Parents who are authoritarian, controlling, and overly protective can unknowingly further a child’s shyness. When a child is “slow to warm up” in new situations, parents help best by being encouraging and supportive and allowing time to engage in new situations and activities. It is crucial that the parent not criticize or shame the child for their shyness. The balance for parents is not to allow the child to isolate or avoid because of their shyness while at the same time making it acceptable for the child to feel uneasy and take time to engage the new situation.
It is particularly important not to allow the shyness in a child to become a negatively reinforcing situation. When children isolate because of their shyness, they can become even more self-conscious, feeling different and inadequate. Additionally, when family members, peers, or others in society respond with frustration, criticism, or shame, it furthers a child’s feelings of inadequacy and apprehension of new situations.
Another way that parents of shy children can help is to foster competency and success in their child. When a child finds something they are good at or successful in, this results in greater self-confidence in social interactions. Parents should help their child find that thing they like and are good at it. It may be athletics, academics, music, art, cooking, outdoor recreation activities, or activities involving technology. A sense of competency helps balance an inherent shyness.
An important distinction is the difference between being shy and being an introvert. Everyone falls somewhere on a continuum between introversion and extroversion. An extrovert is someone who gets energy and finds fulfillment in social interaction. It seems the more the better. They are drawn to engage with other people. Introverts, on the other hand, prefer time alone, solitary activities, and time to think and reflect. They prefer one-on-one relating. This is energizing to the introvert. Both extroverts and introverts can experience shyness.
Shyness is about feeling awkward, apprehensive, and self-conscious in social interactions. Shy extroverts have these feelings, while at the same time feeling driven to connect socially. Once past the apprehension, they feel energized and alive. A greater percentage of shy people are introverts. They can engage socially when needed, but it takes a greater effort and is more often endured rather than enjoyed.
For a small percentage of the population, shyness becomes debilitating. Close to 7 percent of the population experiences Social Anxiety Disorder. The defining feature of Social Anxiety Disorder is an intense fear of being negatively evaluated, judged, or rejected by others. This usually occurs in social or performance situations. The fear is so intense that it leads to significant avoidance of these situations, resulting in serious relational, employment, or financial consequences. This disorder is highly treatable by a counselor with expertise in this area.
However it happened and regardless of childhood experiences, many individuals, approximately 50 percent, enter adulthood with some amount of shyness. In other words, shyness is fairly normal. The good news is that some fairly effective strategies are available for overcoming shyness and gaining social confidence, including:
• Remember that shyness does not define you. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It is something that you and many others experience, but it is not who you are. Focus on who you really are, your strengths, qualities, and accomplishments.
• Remember that others are also shy. Many people fear being judged, embarrassed, or not accepted. Most people are focused on themselves and are not judging you nearly to the extent that you imagine they are. Most people really will be more accepting of you than you expect.
• Act confidently and try new things, even if they make you anxious. Confidence comes through action, practice, learning, and mastery. This is a form of the old adage “fake it ’til you make it.” So much of life is like learning to ride a bike. You are awkward, afraid, and maybe a little self-conscious, but with practice you get it. You can learn a skill, take a class, join a team or a group, or take on a project. All of these will result in greater confidence in yourself, which will lead to greater confidence socially. Even actions as simple as making eye contact and holding your head high can improve your own sense of confidence.
• Talk to others. Try talking to someone in line at the grocery store. It is difficult to fail at this one. If you say hello, you are successful. If a conversation develops, a win. If it goes nowhere, then you at least overcame shyness in the moment. This can become quite fun. Remember, most people feel as awkward as you and yet would enjoy being noticed and acknowledged. The odds are high that the other person will appreciate this rather than think negatively about you.
• Be willing to be vulnerable. This is a risk because shy people fear being judged. As you risk being vulnerable with safe people, you will have experiences of others accepting the real you. This too will increase your confidence.
• Be present with you. This is an aspect of mindfulness. At the end of the day, all you can really control in life is yourself. When your focus is on being the best person you can be, the focus will be less on what others think of you. If you do encounter someone’s displeasure of you when you are being the best you can be, it will be easier to accept.
An important beginning point is accepting that you are shy, not hating it. It is a part of you, and good things can come from being shy. When you can consider some of the benefits of being shy, it will be easier to accept it in yourself. Here are some of those benefits:
• Modesty can be attractive. As a shy person, you will be less likely to be boastful or focused on yourself in conversation. This will have the added benefit of making you more approachable. People will experience you as genuine. There is a balance, however. Too much modesty can be self-deprecating and can contribute to lower self-esteem.
• You are more likely to think before acting. Since shy people tend to be more cautious, they have a tendency to think things through before taking action. The result is better decision making and actually less mistakes to bring on the judgment that you fear. You will tend to plan for the unexpected and will likely set long-term goals.
• Shy people tend to do well in close relationships and can exude a calming effect. You may feel anxiety inside, but on the outside you appear to be steady. Since you typically are not promoting yourself, you convey trustworthiness to others.
• You will be a good friend. Many of these characteristics contribute to the development of deeper and long-lasting friendships. Shy people are not looking for multiple relationships. Often they desire to invest deeply in those relationships they do have.
• Being shy can be an asset when doing solitary work. In fact, you may actually enjoy it. Not needing much social interaction can help you to be more productive at your work.
• Lastly, shy people often more fully enjoy rewards. Remember that inherited “inhibited temperament” that contributes to shyness. This means that you have a greater sensitivity to your environment. When things are going well and you are having success, you will be more likely to be connected to the experience on a deeper level.
If there is a theme regarding shyness, it is acceptance. If shyness is a part of you, it will be much better to accept it than to live in judgment of it. Shyness is a part of one’s temperament. It is not a good or bad thing, it just is. Accepting it, understanding it, balancing it, and making it work for you is key to overcoming shyness.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.