Too Shy Shy

turtle_in_shell_1600_wht_5833In these days of texting, sexting and Facebook, and endless reality shows, it’s hard to believe anyone could still be shy.

But 60% of Brits say they have suffered from shyness to some degree at some point in their lives according to the London Shyness Centre.

Even 40-50% of Americans say they’re shy, which might come as a surprise as we tend to think of Americans as outgoing. People in Taiwan and Japan score far higher on shyness whereas Israeli children are considered the most confident in the world with only 37% reported as shy.

Shyness, timidity, bashfulness; being called a shrinking violet or wallflower. The Encyclopaedia of Mental Health defines shyness as “discomfort and/or inhibition in interpersonal situations  … a form of excessive self-focus”. Dr Lynne Henderson at California’s Shyness Clinic adds that chronic shyness is also “a pre-occupation with your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions”.

If you are shy you are less sure of yourself, more reserved and cautious, and worry about how other people see you and as a result may be more likely to want to fit in rather than be rejected. At the extremes of shyness are people with social phobia who suffer a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness and these make up 2-5% of the UK population.

Psychotherapist Linda Crawford, director of The London Shyness Centre, says; “Shyness is the hidden emotion of our times”.

So is shyness something you are born with or do you learn to be shy?

A Harvard University report in 2003 said shyness had its physical roots in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions including fear and the fight or flight reaction. That theory is now disputed and the consensus is that’s it’s a combination of genes, development and the environment.

Even if children aren’t born with a disposition to shyness parents can make them feel shy if they don’t create a secure attachment with the child ie make the child feel safe. So poor parenting can influence a child’s disposition as can bullying, frequent criticism, a dominant sibling, family conflict, sexual abuse, stress at school, and bereavement or other traumatic events.

Children look to their parents as role models and if parents are socially at ease with strangers, friendly and outgoing, then their children can follow their example. If your parents are shy then you may also grow up as a shy person. Coaching a child out of shyness requires empathy and tact – not just throwing your children in at the deep end, which can be quite traumatic.

Research by  the Child Development Laboratory  at the University of Maryland showed that confident parenting could overcome a child’s predisposition to shyness. They also found that children who are consistently shy when growing up are more likely to possess a gene associated with stress sensitivity and have stressed out parents.

Other scientists don’t accept that children are born shy. For example Dr Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University says shyness has three components: excessive self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation, and excessive negative self-preoccupation, all of which involve a sense of self. As babies aren’t born with a sense of self , and it doesn’t develop until around 18 months of age, it follows that children can’t be born shy.

Carducci does concede however that about 1 in 5 children are born with an oversensitivity to sensory stimuli such as loud noises and probably have close relatives who were shy as children. These children have been later observed  to be fearful of strangers and are happier playing on their own.

He says there are three types of shyness: Publicly shy people who are distressed in social situations; Privately shy people who may not appear shy but who have internal and muscle tension and increased heart rate; and Socially anxious shy people who turn social fears inward and obsess about things such as what they are wearing.

Other categories of shyness include: the love shy – usually men, who find it difficult to relate to the opposite sex; and shy extraverts, people who are can behave in an outgoing way in familiar situations but are shy otherwise;

Experts Lynne Henderson and Philip Zimbardo, at California’s  Shyness Institute, think that shyness has reached  epidemic proportions due to a fragmented society. The internet and social media may be exacerbating the situation as people don’t need to talk face-to-face anymore.

Not all psychologists agree that shyness is an illness, but just an outcome of being sensitive to people and situations and which has certain benefits. For example shy people are often  empathic, attentive and patient. Research at the University of Sussex suggests that we have gone too far making shyness into a disorder. Society now seems to expect that everyone should be gregarious.

Dr Susan Scott, a sociologist and the lead researcher, says; “shyness has become an unhealthy state of mind for individuals living in contemporary Western societies. The increasing medicalisation of shyness suggests that bashful modesty and reserve are no longer so acceptable and that to succeed we  must be vocal, assertive, and capable of gregariously participating in social life. As shyness becomes less socially acceptable, the shyest people are finding that their identities are being recast in biomedical terms and subject to psychiatric treatment”.

She also says that shy people are increasingly being directed towards talking therapies where they are taught that quietness, passivity, and withdrawal from social situations will not do and these behaviours must be unlearnt.

So by defining what is acceptable behaviour in our society, for example gregariousness, we label people who don’t fit those norms as different or worse rather than accepting that there is a wide spectrum of behaviour, all of which is normal. And that’s when we begin to sow the seeds of bullying and scapegoating.

And once we start labelling shyness as an illness pharmaceutical companies rub their hands. A drug called Cipralex was licensed in 2001 as a miracle cure for social phobia. It is prescribed to teenagers even though it is unlicensed for use with children. Side effects include blurred vision, diarrhoea, headache, nausea and indigestion among other things. In 2004 the UK regulatory agency for drugs stated that the risks outweighed the benefits but doctors can still prescribe it if cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has failed.

However last year the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approved computer-aided cognitive behaviour therapy (CCBT), a technology-based counselling programme  designed by a cognitive behaviour therapist, Professor Isaac Marks, and Stuart Toole, an IT specialist. It’s an 8-week programme called “FearFighter” comprising a series of graded exercises delivered over the internet and available via GPs..

One of the designers Toole says “It won’t change an introvert into an extravert but will make a shy person feel happier with himself and able to carry out everyday tasks in life without great concern”.

Unfortunately Toole is not a psychologist and has made the mistake of confusing shyness with introversion.

200px-QuietBookCover-1Of course some introverts are shy but not necessarily.  Susan Cain, best-selling author of “Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” (2012),  says “shyness is a fear of social disapproval or humiliation while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating”. She says shyness is inherently painful, introversion isn’t.

booksMarti Olsen Laney said something similar in her book a decade earlier “The Introvert Advantage: How to thrive in an extrovert world”.

She said shyness is “social anxiety, an extreme self-consciousness when one is around people.” “It is a fear of what others think about you”.

So shyness is not who you are, a personality trait like introversion, but what you think other people think you are.

Introverts are nor scared of social situations, they just prefer being on their own.

If you are socially shy, for example at parties, try these tips

If you want to learn more about social anxiety go to this web-site:

If you want to hear Susan Cain talk about her childhood experiences as an introvert go to:


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