What It Really Means to Be Shy

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Although shyness has long been seen as a fairly stable and personality enduring trait, it can also be overcome with proper intervention. The secret to overcoming shyness is twofold.

Shyness is often misunderstood. Being shy is not the same as being introverted. Shyness is also not the same as being socially disinterested, aloof, or “asocial.” It’s a unique personality trait and has generally been considered one of the more stable and enduring ones at that. But ours being the increasingly social world that it is, life can get pretty painful at times for the shy among us. Fortunately, in recent years we’ve come to understand the trait in ways that can offer real hope to those who struggle with being shy.

It’s important to recognize the difference between introversion and shyness. Introversion is that dimension of personality that has to do with where we derive our mental and emotional satisfaction. Introverts are both drawn to and revel in the world of ideas. That’s why they’re so they’re often “in their heads,” so to speak. That can make them seem socially aloof. But introverts are not asocial. I’ve written on some of the various introverted personality types before (see “A Dreamer’s Life: The INFP Personality Type” and “Seeing a World of Possibilities: The INTP Personality Type”). Inroverts actually do like to engage, but they prefer doing so on an intimate, meaningful level. The can get uncomfortable in crowds or when having to make “small talk” at casual social gatherings, but they can really shine in small groups discussing things of genuine importance to them. And while just being with people doesn’t necessarily energize them, these value-driven, idea-oriented folks who have such genuine regard for others can form very deep, enduring, emotional bonds. Those struggling with shyness are not at all the same as introverts, although it’s entirely possible to be an introvert and a shy person, too.

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People are often both surprised and a little incredulous when a larger-than-life and clearly extroverted celebrity reveals that he or she struggles with shyness. But it’s perfectly possible to be an extrovert and to be shy. And, as you might imagine, this can be a pretty painful predicament for a public figure. Extroverts derive great satisfaction from their interpersonal involvements. Just being with people inevitably energizes them, and generally speaking, the more the merrier. So to crave the opportunity to perform in front of a massive crowd while also fretting over the possibility you won’t be liked can be a really painful experience. That’s the unfortunate plight of the shy extrovert.

Some people have a sort of innate lack of desire for social involvement, and these days we use the term “asocial” to describe such personalities. But shy folks actually have strong desires for social affiliation. They just struggle with anxiety and apprehension about it. Mainly, that apprehension stems from a fear of negative judgment. Shy folks simply get too anxious about the possibility of rejection, and as a result, they frequently avoid situations in which they have to face that possibility. The research on shyness suggests that for the shy person, it’s not so much about avoiding people as it is about avoiding the anxiety that comes along with potentially being negatively judged by people. Shyness is not, therefore, asociality. It’s a certain kind of social phobia.

Although shyness has long been seen as a fairly stable, enduring trait, most now also see it as something that can be overcome with proper intervention. The secret to overcoming shyness is twofold: learning how to manage the anxiety that can accompany the possibility of being negatively appraised or socially rejected, and breaking the vicious cycle of social avoidance that keeps a person shy. Learning to effectively manage and even overcome anxiety is one of psychology’s genuine success stories. We know just how to help someone do it: change the thoughts running through your head that tend to evoke and sustain your anxiety in the first place; and in successively increasing small doses, expose yourself to the very situations that make you anxious and from which you typically try to escape. Breaking the vicious cycle of avoidance is straightforward, too: don’t let yourself take those usual escape routes. And don’t allow yourself to experience the “reward” that comes with the relief you feel when you remove yourself from uncomfortable social situations. Rather, allow yourself to endure the discomfort for a time (which is much easier to do once you’ve learned to better manage your anxiety), then affirm yourself for doing so. Over time, you will develop a greater sense of confidence and personal efficacy. Most importantly, don’t be too selective about the situations you choose to endure. It’s always easier to tolerate a social situation where you don’t sense much risk of negative judgment. But it’s much more empowering to face that risk head-on, overcome the anxiety associated with it, and experience both the realization that you’ve had a “conquering moment” and the satisfaction and sense of personal efficacy that comes with that. Performers who’ve struggled with stage fright know the value of this well. And while some will tell you that they still experience the jitters from time to time before they have to face a crowd, they no longer fear they might simply run away to avoid the pain of potential embarrassment.

We know there are some biologically-based predispositions toward shyness, which is why it shows up early in childhood. And while some shy children are fortunate enough to experience just the right environmental factors to help them overcome it — such as a strong social support system and trusted siblings and friends to be encouraged by and model after — others require professional intervention. Getting help early can make all the difference, too. A child who learns early on how to manage anxiety and acquires the strength to remain in situations that make them socially uncomfortable and from which they’d like to run has a much better chance of entering adulthood without that dread of negative appraisal we call shyness.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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