What is Shyness (and Why NOT Knowing Keeps You Shy)


What is shyness

What shyness feels like sometimes

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

–G. K. Chesterton

Which one are you?

Tongue-tied…quiet…shy…socially anxious…broken…

However you label yourself, if you have trouble talking to people at times you likely suffer from shyness symptoms. And while you probably just want a solution, in reality understanding the problem is the first step to learning how to overcome shyness.

See, often people who experience symptoms of shyness over extended periods (like, say most of your life), just tend to think something is wrong with them.

This is especially true in American culture. Here in the land of the free and the brave, being outgoing, competitive and bigger than life is praised and held as the ideal. If you’re not like that, you can feel “broken.”

Well of course that’s not true, but knowing this intellectually often doesn’t help. You still FEEL you don’t measure up. The problem is, just feeling you’re “broken” keeps you stuck.

You can’t fight that. That’s not “fixable.”

Shyness IS fixable, and if you’re reading this, it’s likely some form of shyness is what’s keeping you quiet, awkward and separated from the life you want. That’s why it’s important to understand what you’re up against so you can begin to find a solution.

You’re Not Alone

Before we get into what shyness is, I want you to understand how widespread it is. Because one mindset that makes your social problems seem unsolvable is thinking you’re the only one feeling the way you do.

In 1975, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., did a famous study titled “The Social Disease Called Shyness.” His researched showed that of 800 American college students questioned, 40 percent considered themselves shy.

Since then, his continued research (as well as that of Bernardo Carducci) suggests up to 48 percent of the population in general currently suffers from shyness!

You are NOT alone. It’s just that, by its nature, shyness is an epidemic you don’t hear about.

What is Shyness, Really?

So what exactly are we talking about here when we say “shyness?” Well, as I’ll mention in a bit, understanding shyness isn’t an easy task. It’s a hazy concept, because people experience it in so many different ways.

But let’s start with some actual definitions.

The Oxford English Dictionary reports the worlds earliest recorded use of the term shyness was in an Anglo Saxon poem written around 1000 A.D. Then, it meant “easily frightened.” Webster’s currently defines shyness as “uncomfortable in the presence of others.”

But basically, shyness stems from a fear of people in one form or another. Now, fear is a strong word, and you may at first reject the idea you’re afraid of people. After all, you can likely talk with some (or even most) people perfectly fine.

But when you do things like:

  • Hesitate to talk to someone
  • Feel very self-conscious of your every gesture
  • Spend lots of time scrutinizing what you’ll say (or what you said) in a conversation

You’re doing those things because you are overly concerned with the reaction of others toward you. In other words, you’re afraid they’ll criticize you in some way; hence all the hesitation, avoidance and analyzing.

Now, everyone experiences shyness to some degree in the form of social barriers. In other words, there’s a reason it’s not common to strut around talking to everyone you see. If we all did that, just walking down the street would get pretty annoying.

It’s when shyness consistently keeps you from the life you want that it becomes a problem.

Common Symptoms of Shyness

People who are shy might experience physiological symptoms around others like:

  • Blushing
  • Butterflies in their stomach
  • Racing pulse
  • Sweaty palms
  • Shy bladder

They might also be highly averse to being embarrassed and avoid situations that could lead to embarrassment. After all, being embarrassed means you’ve been judged by others in some way, or at least you think you have been.

They also tend to be highly self-conscious, frequently wondering what others think of them (like here) and thinking negatively about themselves. For example, typical thoughts of the shy person are:

  • “I wonder what they think of me?”
  • “Is she looking at me that way because she disapproves of something I did?”
  • “What can I do to make these people like me more?”
  • “I’m a loser”
  • “I just can’t do this”
  • “I’m such an idiot”

And of course, all these symptoms play out in ways that wreck your life, often without you realizing it’s happening. For example:

  • Fearing you don’t have anything to say, you hardly ever go to social events and/or don’t speak to new people. Because of this you don’t meet new friends.
  • You are so self-critical, thinking others are better than you, that you don’t really try to excel at work thinking “What’s the point? I’ll never really get ahead.”
  • Your palms start sweating while talking so you begin worrying they’ll notice and what they’ll think. You’re so distracted you botch the conversation then take this as “proof” you’re just no good socially.

Why Shyness is So Hard to Pin Down

As I mentioned before, shyness can be a hazy concept. That’s partly because, if you think about it, you might feel some of the above symptoms in some situations but not others.

For example, you can relax and talk fairly comfortably with friends, but can’t think of what to say around your boss or an attractive member of the opposite sex. This inconsistent nature of shyness is what can make it difficult to understand and hard to overcome.

Research into shyness is relatively new, only starting in earnest in the past 20 years or so. And so far what’s been discovered is there are many different degrees and varieties of shyness.

There is a “shyness continuum” ranging from people who feel awkward from time to time in certain situations to others who have full blown panic attacks that completely disrupt their lives.

On the extreme end of shyness is what many people refer to as social anxiety and social phobia. Zimbardo refers to this as chronic shyness. Some characteristics of this level of shyness are:

  • Intense levels of fear around other people
  • Extreme social avoidance, sometimes as severe as fearing to leave your home
  • Worrying about future social interactions (like a speech) weeks beforehand
  • Intense physical anxiety such as: racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating or shaking

Because of the severe physical symptoms and highly-disruptive social patterns, social anxiety and social phobia are diagnosable conditions. People sometimes seek therapy and medication to treat them.

But by far, the middle range of shyness is where most people find themselves.

This usually plays out as you feeling intimidated or self-conscious around certain people in certain types of situations. This in turn leads to you having a lower sense of self-esteem and just thinking something is wrong with you.

The problem of course is this still disrupts your life and keeps you from living how you want.

Why Do We Have Shyness?

So, why do you have these feelings in the first place?

Well, as Zimbardo puts it:

“People in the middle range of the shyness continuum generally are shy because they lack social skills and/or they lack confidence in themselves.”

Now I won’t say much about this here; we’ll consider more possible causes of shyness and lacking confidence in another article; but I’m sure you’ll agree this makes sense.

No matter what the task at hand is, you feel less confident when you feel you don’t know what you’re doing. One issue of the shy is, for whatever reason, they don’t feel they have an adequate understanding of social etiquette. This is part of what causes their anxiety.

So improving your conversation skills is certainly one part of overcoming shyness. But as I mentioned, understanding comes first. So that’s why it’s important to understand what kind of shyness you experience on a normal basis.

What Kind of Shy Are You?

Zimbardo distinguishes between two different types of shy person: The publicly shy person and the privately shy person.

Read the descriptions below and see if you notice some of these characteristics from your own behavior.

Publicly Shy

The publicly shy person is the more “obvious” shy person. You might be considered publicly shy if you just aren’t noticed much at all. The way you feel about yourself affects how you act around others to the degree they notice your nervousness, quietness, awkwardness, etc.

And the fact they notice has a further negative effect on how you feel about yourself. So you either consciously or subconsciously avoid similar situations in the future.

Even worse, you might have trouble talking about your fears, desires, strengths and more to others. So you’re effectively suffering AND cut off from getting help at the same time.

Privately Shy

The privately shy person can often do very well socially. If this is you, you may have a good amount of friends, seem confident and capable, and even excel at speeches and in the public eye. Yet no one realizes how much you are suffering inside.

Privately shy people spend a great deal of energy and time preparing for social situations and strive for perfection. In part, this is because they feel they can’t make any mistakes. Again, making a mistake or being wrong often leads to embarrassment, which is the ultimate failure in their eyes.

While the privately shy may have learned impressive social skills, they might still lose control in unstructured situations. They often believe others couldn’t love the real them, hence the need for exceptional people skills and perfection.

Many well-known actors and actresses are privately shy people, notably Barbara Walters and Carol Burnett.

In my experience, people can certainly have aspects of both types.

First Steps to Overcoming Shyness

Understanding shyness is the first step to overcoming it. By realizing you’re not alone in your feelings of isolation and awkwardness, you begin to see you’re not “broken.” You likely just fall somewhere along the spectrum of shyness.

It’s also important to realize some of the characteristics of shyness in yourself. By being aware of them and understanding what kind of shyness you suffer from, you can begin to confront your fears and negative beliefs head on.

And if you’d like to get a head start on overcoming your shyness, you might want to watch my free social success video series. In it, I teach ways to be more interesting in conversation and show what it takes to build social confidence. Check it out here.

(photo by DonkeyHotey via flickr)

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