Shyness is a personality trait that produces behaviors ranging from feeling uncomfortable at a party to an extreme fear of being watched by others while talking on the telephone.
Shyness affects people of all ages. A toddler might run from strangers and cling to her parents. While kindergarten is frightening for many children; some students are anxious about the first day of school until they graduate from college. Job interviews are stressful for people uncomfortable talking about themselves. For some people, feelings of self-worth are related to their careers. Retirement may bring feelings of lower self-esteem.
Shyness is linked to brain activity, how a person was raised and other experiences, and the person's reaction to those experiences.
Extreme shyness is sometimes referred to as a social phobia. Also known as social anxiety disorder, a social phobia is a psychiatric condition defined as a "marked and persistent fear" of some situations. The shy person continues to go on job interviews. Social phobia may cause a person to remain unemployed, according to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). True social phobia affects about 3% of people.
The introvert enjoy being alone and intentionally avoids situations like a party. The shy person wants to be around people. However, shyness is stronger than the desire to be sociable. The shy person is afraid to go to the party and stays home alone.
Causes and symptoms
Temperament is related to the amygdala, the part of the brain related to emotions and new situations. The amygdala evaluates new situations based on memories of past experiences. If the new situation appears threatening, the amygdala sends a warning signal. The amygdala in a shy person is extremely sensitive and much more active than that of an outgoing person. The increased activity causes the person to withdraw either physically or emotionally. This withdrawal is known as inhibition.
The baby runs from strangers; the job applicant laughs nervously when talking about his accomplishments. Brain activity is one component of shyness. Environment also plays a role. If the inhibited child has outgoing, nurturing parents, she will probably imitate their behavior. If parents and teachers are mocking and critical, a child may have a lifelong fear of the first day of school. A person with that background may compare himself with others and feel they are more capable than he is. The person embarrassed in a job interview could become anxious in future interviews.
At the root of shyness is a feeling of self-consciousness. This may cause the person to blush, tense up, or start sweating. Those are some reactions caused when the brain signals its warning. The person may avoid eye contact, look down, become very quiet, or fumble over words.
Symptoms vary because there are degrees of shyness. A person might be very quiet when meeting new people, but then become talkative when she feels comfortable with them. The jobseeker may not be afraid of social gatherings.
Social phobia causes an extreme fear of being humiliated or embarrassed in front of people, according to the according to the NMHA. It may be connected to low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority. The phobic is not fearful in all situations and may feel comfortable around people in most of the time.
However, social phobias have caused people to drop out of school, avoid making friends, and keep away from other fear-provoking situations. Phobic fears range from speaking in pubic and dating to using public restrooms or writing when other people are present.
According to the NMHA, phobic may feel that everyone is looking at them, A trivial mistake is regarded as much more serious, and blushing is painfully embarrassing. Social phobia is frequently accompanied by depression or substance abuse.
In many cases, adults realize they are shy. In a sense they have diagnosed themselves, and may take steps to overcome their shyness. Teen-agers may also try to remedy their situations.
Adults and youths may buy self-help books or take classes on subjects like overcoming shyness and assertiveness training. These classes may be taught by counselors, psychologists, or people with experience conquering shyness. Health-care providers often schedule these classes. They are also taught in settings ranging from adult schools to social service agencies. Costs will vary at these classes.
Children may not know there are treatment solutions for their shyness. Parents and educators should be alert for symptoms of shyness in younger children. Schools and family resource centers can provide referrals if it appears counseling want their child diagnosed.
Based on the child's circumstances, parents may take the child to their health care provider. Some insurance plans require an appointment with a doctor before a referral to a counselor or a psychologist. The health professional conducts an assessment and then recommends treatment.
Children and adults may need medical treatment for social phobia. The adult's diagnosis also starts with a medical exam to determine if there is a physical cause for symptoms. If that has been ruled out, the patient undergoes a psychiatric evaluation.
Diagnostic fees and the time allocated for evaluation vary for both shy and phobic people. Diagnosis could span several hour-long sessions that cover an initial evaluation, personality tests, and a meeting to set therapy goals. Each session could cost around $90. Insurance may cover part of the costs.
Shyness treatment concentrates on changing behavior so the person feels more at ease in shyness-provoking situations. The person may be guided by a self-help book or participate in individual or group therapy.
Books and therapy generally focus on behavioral therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. One method of behavioral therapy is to expose the person to the situation that triggers fear. This could start with rehearsing a job interview with a friend or making eye contact with a store clerk. Over time, the person goes on interviews to get experience rather than to be hired. Another person might move from eye contact to attending an enjoyable event like a concert to become more at ease around strangers.
Therapy also focuses on developing skills to cope in new situation. These include taking deep breaths to relax and practicing small talk. Cognitive-therapy helps the person learn how thinking patterns contribute to symptoms, according to NMHA. The person is taught techniques to change those thoughts or stop symptoms. This association maintains this therapy is very effective for people with social phobias.
Treatment costs very from the price of a self-help book to the fees for therapy. Therapy sessions may be led by a licensed marriage and family counselor, a psychologist or psychiatrist. The cost of group therapy is for is generally an hourly fee, with therapy planned for a set time. The therapist might charge $80 an hour for a social phobia group that meets three hours a week for 16 weeks.
Treatment may include medication. Prescription drugs like Paxil (paroxetine) are generally only prescribed to people with social anxiety disorders. Paxil is prescribed for depression and other mood disorders. The patient takes one tablet daily. Costs will vary, and a 30-day order could be priced at $74 to $84.
Insurance may cover part of the costs of therapy and medicine.
Alternative treatments for shyness focus on symptoms like tension and stress. Relaxation tapes and CDs guide the listener through a series of actions to relieve tension. The activity starts with deep breathing and then the person progressively focuses on the head and different parts of the body. The exercise may start with the head, neck, shoulders, moving down to the one foot and then the other. Some techniques involve tightly tensing and then releasing each part. Another method is to concentrate on relaxing each part or imagine that it becomes warm.
Another self-treatment is aromatherapy. Lavender is a relaxing scent and is available in liquid form as an essential oil. Stress can be relieved by adding oil to a bath. Some people carry the oil with them. If they become anxious, the people can dab the oil on a cotton pad. They breathe in the lavender and feel calmer.
Shyness may not be a permanent. Children often outgrow shyness. Behavioral changes and therapy can help people feel more at ease. Furthermore, some aspects of shyness are positive. Shy people are frequently good listeners and are empathetic, aware of others' feelings.
Shyness is a personality trait related to a person's biology and experiences. The part of shyness related to the brain cannot be changed. However, parents can provide a nurturing environment that helps prevent shyness. This will provide the child with a healthy mental attitude that helps prevent shyness. When faced with situations that could cause self-defeating shyness, children will have coping skills.
According to the National Mental Health Association, the basics of good mental health for children include:
- A family that provides unconditional love not related on accomplishments.
- Nurturing self-confidence and high self-esteem by praising children. Methods include encouraging a child to learn a new game. The parents should set realistic goals, assure children, and smile frequently. Parents should avoid sarcastic remarks, set realistic goals and let children know that all people make mistakes.
- Playing with other children helps the young learn how to develop friendships and problem-solving skills.
- Emphasizing that school is fun. Parents can play school with their child to demonstrate that learning is enjoyable. Enrolling children in preschool or children's programs allows them to learn, be creative, and develop social skills.
- When disciplining, parents should criticize the behavior, rather than berating the child.
Shyness prevention and adults
For adults prone to shyness, the issue is related more to treatment than prevention. Shyness for these people has probably been an issue, one that surfaces at various times in their lives. A move, a death in the family, job loss, and other unsettling changes could cause emotions that include the fear associated with shyness.
In some circumstances, the person must go through the grieving process. In other situations, the person needs to do things that build self-confidence. Like the child, the adult needs a support system. A network of friends helps with encouragement and listens to the person's concerns.
To combat the avoidance symptom caused by shyness, the person should look into enjoyable pursuits. Recreational activities like walking groups combine physical exercise with the opportunity to socialize. Enrolling in a class at an adult school or community college provides the opportunity to learn and make new friends. Class topics range from upholstery to mystery book discussions. Classes like these can boost confidence as a person learns a hands-on skill or discovers that other mystery readers value her or his opinion.
Carducci, Bernardo. "Shyness: the New Solution." Psychology Today January/February 2000 [cited April 5, 2005]. 〈http://cms.psychologytoday.com/articles/index.php?term=PTO-20000101-000032〉.
National Mental Health Association. 2001 N. Beauregard Street, 12th Floor, Alexandria, VA 22311. 703-684-7722. 〈http://www.nmha.org〉.
Shyness Research Institute. 4201 Grant Line Road, New Albany, IN 47150. 812-941-2295. 〈http://homepages.ius.edu/Special/Shyness〉.
Jaret, Peter. "Is Shyness a Mental Disorder?" WebMD Feature. April 10, 2000 [cited April 5, 2005]. 〈http://my.webmd.com/content/article/13/1674_50379.htm〉.
Shy Child, Shy Adult. WebMD: Science, June 20, 2003: News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science. [cited April 5, 2005]. 〈http://my.webmd.com/content/article/67/79975.htm〉.
Putting Shyness in the Spotlight. Teens Health. April 2004 [cited April 1, 2005]. 〈http://www.kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/emotions/shyness.html〉.
Shyness refers to passivity, emotional arousal, and excessive self-focus in the presence of other people ( Jones, Cheek, and Briggs 1986). It also frequently involves negative self-evaluations, social avoidance, and withdrawal. From a practical point of view, the importance of shyness derives from its consequences. Shy persons, for example, are often excessively uncomfortable and anxious in social situations. Moreover, because of such discomfort, chronic shyness often leads to failures to capitalize on the occupational and interpersonal opportunities available to the shy person. Scientifically, shyness affords the opportunity to observe the complex interplay of personal and situational context factors in the evolution of social interactions.
State versus Trait Shyness
Typically, a distinction between two characterizations of shyness is drawn. The immediate emotional/cognitive experience of shyness—arousal and heightened self-consciousness in response to social threat—defines what is known as state or situational shyness. This type of shyness may be experienced by virtually anyone from time to time, especially in certain social situations. For example, people are generally more shy in situations involving strangers than when interacting with friends or family members. By contrast, trait shyness refers to the chronic tendency to experience state shyness more frequently or at lower levels of social threat (Buss 1980). For some people state shyness dissipates when the circumstances giving rise to it change, whereas trait shyness is a personality dimension leading to frequent and intense experiential shyness over time and across situations (Russell, Cutrona, and Jones 1986). The specific level of state shyness experienced by persons high in trait shyness also varies from one situation to the next, but remains higher for them than for persons low in trait shyness.
The Experience of State Shyness
State shyness consists of converging processes in the cognitive (e.g., self-focus, thoughts of escape, dread, preoccupation with the self, concern with one's performance), affective (e.g., anxiety, shame, embarrassment), behavioral (e.g., nervous gestures, inhibited speech, dysfluency, nervous and excessive verbalization), and physiological (e.g., sweating, heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, dry mouth) domains of experience. These experiences are often sufficiently unpleasant to lead to withdrawal from or avoidance of many social situations, but they also compound the distress of shyness by distracting from skilled and self-confident social interactions.
The origins of state shyness are twofold. First, certain situations in which one's identity is at issue under conditions of uncertainty, and situations that elicit awareness of the self as the object of others' attention, give rise to the experience of shyness (Buss 1980). Relevant situations include those involving evaluations, public performances, novelty, high status/attractive people, formality (e.g., weddings, funerals), self-presentations, and being the center of attention. The necessity of meeting and interacting with strangers at social gatherings is a prototypical example of an experience involving several of these factors. The second contributing factor is trait shyness. Specifically, some people are predisposed to experience state shyness by virtue of their personality and characteristic ways of coping with social demands. Thus, state shyness is a joint function of the level of trait shyness and situational characteristics.
State shyness is related to other social emotions such as shame, audience anxiety, and embarrassment. All involve some degree of social withdrawal, but shyness also differs from these other emotions by virtue of its situational elicitors and the specific components of the experience. For example, shame arises from the public detection of an immoral or undesirable behavior whereas shyness involves vacillation between interest and fear in social situations (Izard 1972). One unpleasant consequence of shyness is that it often results in negative interpersonal and emotional judgments in which the shy person is perceived not only as reticent, but also as unfriendly, arrogant, or even hostile.
Origins of trait shyness. As a relatively stable personality characteristic, one important issue is how trait shyness develops. Research and theory suggests two major sources of trait shyness (Buss 1984). First, trait shyness often reflects a genetic predisposition toward inhibition and excessive anxiety. Several studies have found evidence of a high degree of inheritablity for shyness (e.g., Plomin and Rowe 1979). Alternatively, shyness may emerge because of disruptions or problems in development, most especially those involved in the establishment of a personal identity during adolescence (e.g., Asendorpf 1989; Buss 1984).
Social inhibition is a developmental precursor of shyness and is relatively stable over time (Kagan, Reznick, and Snidman 1988). Inhibition in an infant is often manifested as stranger anxiety, which is common at about nine months of age. Not all infants are excessively afraid of strangers, and even those who are often become much less so during the second year. For a minority, however, inhibition continues and resembles the avoidant and reticent behavior of shy adults. Children with a chronically inhibited social interaction style beyond age three are usually labeled as shy. Thus, the idea that some children are born with the biological foundation for shyness is further supported by research showing that inhibition is consistent across situations and is related to specific physiological responses: Shy-inhibited children tend to have higher and less variable heart rates and larger pupil dilation during cognitive tasks than uninhibited children (Garcia-Coll, Kagan, and Reznick 1984).
Alternatively, shy children may be conditioned for inhibition by parents or others (Asendorpf 1989). For example, being intimidated, harassed, or rejected may encourage a wariness of others as a means of avoiding being hurt. This is especially so if shy expressions are also modeled or reinforced by parents. More commonly, uncertainty and anxiety associated with establishing a personal identity in adolescence may initiate shyness (Buss 1984). The transition from elementary to secondary school, the relative increase in peer influence as compared to parental/family influences, and accommodation to social and role expectations are illustrative of the identity transformations that may be implicated in the initiation of acquired shyness. Consequently, although some children may be born with a readiness for inhibition and physiological arousal in social situations, this inclination may at least partially actualize through environmental/developmental factors involving both learning and stress.
On the other hand, in one study shyness at age two predicted parenting practices at age four such as a lack of encouragement of independence, but parenting practices at age two did not predict shyness at age four (Rubin et al. 1999). This suggests that the experiential contribution to the development of shyness may be a parental response to existing shyness rather than shyness resulting from differences in parenting behaviors.
Developmental manifestations of trait shyness. Another important issue regarding trait shyness is how it is expressed at various stages in the life cycle. Being shy during childhood does not automatically mean that an individual will remain shy throughout life. On the other hand, shyness appears to stabilize by approximately eighth or ninth grade, and adolescent shyness has been found to predict significantly adult shyness as much as twenty-five years later (Morris, Soroker, and Burruss 1954). During adolescence, shyness is likely to be intensified by the physical impact of puberty as well as changes in social context in the adolescent's life that may contribute to disturbances in self-image. In this regard, junior high school students more frequently describe themselves as shy than do elementary school students (Simmons and Rosenberg 1975).
Shyness among adults involves inhibited social behavior that impedes the development of friendships and romantic and work relationships ( Jones and Carpenter 1986). For example, shy adults tend to have selective memory for unpleasant social interactions, underestimate their own social skill, and assume responsibility for failure, but not for success (Halford and Foddy 1982; Jones and Briggs 1984; Jones and Carpenter 1986). Also, shy adults are less effective in asking for help, expressing opinions, and coping with stress, and more likely to engage in negative self-evaluations (DePaulo et al. 1989; Eisenberg, Fabes, and Murphy 1995; Jones, Briggs, and Smith 1986).
Longitudinal data indicates that individuals identified as shy and reserved in late childhood differed in marital and family experiences thirty years later (Caspi, Elder, and Bem 1988). For example, shy males were more likely than their male age cohorts to delay marriage and parenthood to a later point in life, whereas shy girls were more likely to pursue conventional marital, childbearing, and homemaking endeavors than their less shy counterparts.
In work-related situations, chronically shy persons tend to achieve lower occupational status and stability (Caspi, Elder, and Bem 1988). Also, shy adults fail to take advantage of the employment opportunities available to them and are less confident and active in occupational endeavors (Phillips and Bruch 1988). For elderly adults, shyness is associated with greater life disruption as a result of retirement, widowhood, and other changes toward the end of the life cycle (Hansson 1986). However, because the social roles of the elderly have fewer effects on other people and the evaluations of others are not as important to the elderly, shyness may have fewer or less dramatic consequences as people grow older.
Variations in Shyness
Shyness appears to vary in conjunction with gender. Gender role stereotypes may play a role in the development of adolescent shyness. Shyness is considered to be a feminine trait; therefore, it is not surprising that girls report more self-conscious shyness after age eleven than boys (Simmons and Rosenberg 1975). Stereotypes make it more acceptable for girls to be shy and shyness may be a more serious problem for boys because they are expected to take the initiative in social encounters (Porteus 1979). Research also suggests cultural variation in shyness. For example, one research group (Pilkonis and Zimbardo 1979) found self-labeled shyness to be highest among samples of Japanese, Taiwanese, and Indian national groups and lowest among samples of Jewish Americans, Israelis, and Mexicans. The origin of such variation has not been determined, however.
Shyness and Adjustment
Another important issue that has not been fully resolved is the point at which shyness ceases to be an everyday problem common to many people and becomes a form of psychopathology. There is evidence that shyness is related to introversion and neuroticism more or less equally (Briggs 1988). However, although studies indicate a convergence between shyness and various diagnoses such as anxiety disorder, social phobia and avoidant personality, most research suggests that shyness results in such debilitating conditions in only a small number of cases (e.g., Prior et al. 2000). Moreover, shyness tends to be most seriously problematic during life transitions (e.g., going away to college or changing jobs) that require social skill and assertiveness to acquire new social networks and relationship partners as compared to more stable periods of life ( Jones and Carpenter 1986). Finally, there is also evidence that both "everyday" shyness and its variants of greater clinical significance can be successfully treated with psychological and other forms of intervention (Cappe and Alden 1986).
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warren h. jones
Attitudes toward children's shyness have varied over time. These changes frequently reflect cultural shifts in child-rearing goals, interpersonal relationships, or perspectives on femininity and masculinity. In the United States, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the early part of the twentieth century, shyness was regarded as an ideal characteristic for white middle-and upper-class girls, one that ultimately protected their chastity and limited their participation in the public sphere. Domestic fiction written for these girls celebrated the virtues of silence and meekness, while pundits warned them against displays of wit or learning. Some girls seem to have taken these lessons to heart, for a number of foreign visitors complained that it was nearly impossible to engage them in conversation; however, other travelers' disparaging remarks about American girls' decidedly unfeminine self-confidence and outspokenness suggest that not all girls embraced the shy ideal.
White middle-and upper-class boys had a different relationship to shyness. While some degree of timidity may have been acceptable in the home, shyness was a liability among other boys. Nineteenth-century boy culture valued boldness, self-assertion, aggression, and conflict, all qualities at odds with shyness. In his interactions with his peers, a boy engaged in games, dares, and pastimes that left little room for fear of others, and instead taught him to impose his will on other boys.
Adults did not display a great deal of concern about boys' shyness until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when fears about the feminization of American society focused attention on the apparent lack of manhood among white middle-and upper-class boys. A new term, sissy, was created to label insufficiently manly boys and men, and shyness and timidity were identified as two of his prominent characteristics. To reclaim their masculinity, shy, retiring boys were urged to fight with other boys, join all-male organizations like the Boy Scouts, or toughen up their bodiesat the YMCA.
By the 1920s, shyness was no longer a valued quality for white middle-and upper-class girls, either. In his influential study Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), psychologist John B. Watson argued that the ideal child–girl or boy–was free of shyness and able to meet and play with other children easily and openly. This change in attitude toward girls' shyness was due, in part, to the newly emerging culture of personality. Spurred by a growth in leisure activities and consumerism, the previous century's culture of character, with its emphasis on adult self-control, self-sacrifice, and discipline, was replaced by a culture of personality, the key ingredients of which were the ability to appeal to others and to be noticed for one's appearance, poise, charm, and manners. Personality formation became a new goal of child rearing, and a good personality for white middle-and upper-class girls and boys was considered by child-rearing experts to be one devoid of shyness. By the late 1940s, parents were largely in agreement with experts: interviews revealed that parents considered shyness in all of its shadings, including self-effacement, quietness, and insufficient gregariousness, to be an undesirable personality trait in boys and girls.
In the 1950s, child-rearing professionals writing for a white, middle-class audience continued to sound the alarm about shyness. They warned of dire consequences if children's shyness was left unchecked, including school failure, alcoholism, institutionalization, and suicide. Despite this inflammatory rhetoric, parents were given relatively little advice regarding what to do about their children's shyness. At most, mothers (as the assumed primary caregivers) were counseled to encourage greater independence on the part of their shy children and to provide opportunities for them to be with other children. The rest was up to the child–she or he had to learn to face the fear of other children and to get along with them. Getting along well with other children was particularly important during the 1950s, a period in which sociologist David Riesman characterized Americans as increasingly other directed, that is, concerned with securing others' approval and liking. Shy children risked being rejected by their peer group as too submissive; the ideal personality struck a balance between reserve and sociability.
The 1970s saw the introduction of several new ideas about children's shyness, as well as a slight softening of tone regarding the implications of shyness for white middle-class boys and girls. A number of authors of child-rearing manuals argued that shyness was a phase that many young boys and girls went through, related to anxiety over the new and unfamiliar. As a temporary phase of a child's development, parents had much less to fear from shyness. The experts did not mean, however, that parents could ignore it completely: child-rearing experts continued to offer advice to parents on how to help shy children overcome what they still regarded as a decided interpersonal disadvantage. This advice was more complex than it had been in the 1950s, introducing ideas from behavioral psychology like positive reinforcement and systematic desensitization. Rather than simply provide playmates for their shy children, parents were now required to take a more proactive role in managing their children's shyness.
An Inherited Handicap
Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing into the mid-1990s, many child-rearing professionals began to argue that shyness, previously considered a learned condition, was, in fact, an inherited trait. Some responded to this new perspective on shyness by emphasizing previously unreported positive aspects of shyness–such as good listening skills and empathy–and encouraging parents to simply accept shy children as they were. Most, however, argued that despite the inborn nature of shyness, shy children could be taught to be more outgoing. The key to this training was for parents not to push shy children to change too quickly, and above all, never to label them as shy, for to do so would encourage the child to accept the label, and all it implied, as fact. This aversion to the shy label suggested that, despite the experts' general tone of acceptance toward what was now, after all, assumed to be a characteristic, like eye color, inherited from one's parents, children's shyness remained highly stigmatized, a handicap to be overcome with patient effort on the parents' and child's part.
See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life; Gendering; Parenting.
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Patricia A. McDaniel
Shyness is a psychological state that causes a person to feel discomfort in social situations in ways that interfere with enjoyment or that cause avoidance of social contacts altogether.
Shyness can vary from mild feelings to moderately uncomfortable in social circumstances to debilitating levels of anxiety that interfere in children with the process of socialization (social withdrawal). Shyness is a personality trait that affects a child's temperament . Some infants are born shy and more sensitive. Some of them are quiet when new people enter a room. A shy baby might sink his head into his mother's shoulder, while a baby who is outgoing might smile or squeal with delight when someone new visits. Some children may feel shy in certain situations, like when meeting new people. Other children may learn to be shy because of experiences in school or at home. As of 2004, research tended to distinguish shyness from introversion. Introverts simply prefer solitary to social activities but do not fear social encounters as shy people do, while extroverts prefer social to solitary activities.
Evidence suggests a genetic component to shyness. Studies on the biological basis of shyness have shown that shyness in adults can often be traced as far back as the age of three. A Harvard study of two-year olds showed that, even at that age, widely different personality types can be recognized: roughly 25 percent of children are bold, sociable, and spontaneous regardless of the novelty of the situation, while 20 percent are shy and restrained in new situations. The remaining 55 percent of newborns fall between the extremes of shyness and boldness. These two basic temperaments were also recognized in studies examining infants as young as four months old. As children grow, their shy temperament tends to display itself in predictable ways: for example, in play groups at age seven, shy children play by themselves, while more outgoing children seek to play together in groups. Evidence of a genetic predisposition for shyness is found in parents and grandparents of shy infants who report childhood shyness more often than relatives of children who are not shy. Further evidence for a congenital link to shyness is found in studies that show that identical twins (who have identical genes) are more likely to be shy than fraternal twins (who are no more alike than other siblings).
Research shows, however, that 25 percent of the time genetic predisposition to shyness does not develop into shyness. Some researchers believe that a shy temperament may require environmental triggers, such as insecurity of attachment in the form of difficult relationships with parents, family conflict or chaos, frequent criticism, a dominating older sibling, or a stressful school environment.
Research has also identified a strong cultural link to shyness. In the United States, shyness surveys typically show that shyness is highest among Asian Americans and lowest among Jewish Americans. Using culturally sensitive adaptations of the Stanford Shyness Inventory, researchers in eight countries administered the inventory to groups of 18 to 21 year olds. Results showed that a large proportion of participants in all cultures reported experiencing shyness to a considerable degree—from 31 percent in Israel to 57 percent in Japan and 55 percent in Taiwan. In Mexico, Germany, India, and Canada, shyness levels were close to the U.S figure of 40 percent. In all countries, shyness is perceived as more negative than positive, with 60 percent or more considering shyness to be a problem. There is no gender difference in reported shyness, but males tend to conceal their shyness because it is considered a feminine trait in most countries. For example, in Mexico, males report shyness less often than females do.
When shyness is intense, it can often lead to social anxiety disorder or to avoidant personality disorder, both characterized by the avoidance of interpersonal contacts accompanied by significant fears of embarrassment in social interaction. According to the most recent statistics, provided by the National Co-morbidity Survey—carried out in 1994—approximately 40 percent of Americans consistently report since the early 1970s that they are shy to the extent of considering it a problem in their lives. Subsequent research showed that the percentage of problem-related shyness gradually increased during the 1990s to nearly 50 percent. The National Co-morbidity Survey results were also indicative of a lifetime prevalence of social anxiety of 13.3 percent, making it the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder in the United States.
Excessive shyness usually leads to social withdrawal. If it is based on social fear and anxiety despite a desire to interact socially—such as in children who are unhappy because they are unable to make friends, it is called "conflicted shyness"; if it is based on the lack of a strong motivation to engage in social interaction, it is called "social disinterest." Both types are detected at an early age. The major behavioral components of excessive shyness in children are as follows:
- difficulty talking, stammering, stuttering , blushing, shaking, sweating hands when around other people
- difficulty thinking of things to say to people
- absence of outgoing mannerisms such as good eye contact or an easy smile
- reluctance to play with other kids, to go to school, to visit relatives and neighbors
Parents may worry about if their shy infant, child, or teenager has a socialization problem. Parents should know that a child who seems mildly anxious or quiet at certain times may be shy. The best thing they can do is to help the child feel comfortable about being shy, by explaining that shyness can be a normal part of growing up. Teasing or being critical can make a shy child even more afraid to be around people. Sometimes, just encouraging a quiet child to play with others helps the child overcome shy feelings. Although many children who are shy remain shy all of their lives, many others overcome it in time as they develop social skills. Many children overcome shyness by themselves, some through associating with younger children, which allows them to display leadership behavior, still others through contact with other sociable children. Nothing assists in overcoming shyness more than experiencing social successes, as when a child takes the initial risk of engaging in some social activity that is rewarded, for example, in successfully developing friendships.
The use of video games , CD-ROM games, Web surfing, and other computer-related marvels all interfere with the time required to seek out direct contact with others for fun and friendship. Increasingly, social time is being replaced with the anonymous exchange of information within an externally imposed medium that effectively promotes shyness in young people. While some shy children may benefit from using the anonymity and structural control features of cyberspace, the danger is that for many others virtual on-line reality may become a substitute for the reality of close human relationships. Many parents are concerned because their young children prefer "chat time" on their computers more than actually talking face to face with other children, so these children may not socialize as much in the homes of neighbors and friends.
When to call the doctor
When a child is excessively shy, when shyness is persistent and results in high levels of anxiety in social settings and leads to social withdrawal and parents feel that their child is unhappy being shy, they should seek professional help. It is very important to determine if there is a social anxiety disorder, and if so, what treatment can best help the child overcome shyness. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are trained to help parents sort out whether their child's level of shyness is normal introversion or indicative of a disorder.
Antony, Martin M. 10 Simple Solutions to Shyness: How to Overcome Shyness, Social Anxiety, and Fear of Public Speaking. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2004.
Carducci, Bernardo. The Shyness Breakthrough: A No-Stress Plan to Help Your Shy Child Warm Up, Open Up, and Enjoy the Fun. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2003.
Hillard, Erika B., et al. Living Fully with Shyness and Social Anxiety: A Comprehensive Guide to Managing Social Anxiety and Gaining Social Confidence. New York: Avalon Publishing Group, 2005.
Swallow, Ward K. The Shy Child: Helping Children Triumph over Shyness. New York: Warner Books, 2000.
Battaglia, M., et al. "Children's discrimination of expressions of emotions: relationship with indices of social anxiety and shyness." Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 43, no. 3 (March 2004): 358–65.
Coplan, R. J., et al. "Do you 'want' to play? Distinguishing between conflicted shyness and social disinterest in early childhood." Developmental Psychology 40, no. 2 (March 2004): 244–58.
Eley, T. C., et al. "A twin study of anxiety-related behaviors in pre-school children." Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 44, no. 7 (October 2003): 945–60.
Henderson, H. A., et al. "Psychophysiological and behavioral evidence for varying forms and functions of nonsocial behavior in preschoolers." Child Development 75, no. 1 (January-February 2004): 251–63.
Jefferson, J. W. "Social Anxiety Disorder: More than Just a Little Shyness." Primary Care Companion: Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 3, no. 1 (February 2001): 4–9.
Yuen, C. N., and M. J. Lavin. "Internet dependence in the collegiate population: the role of shyness." Cyberpsychology Behavior 7, no. 4 (August 2004): 379–83.
Zimmermann, L. K., and K. Stansbury. "The influence of emotion regulation, level of shyness, and habituation on the neuroendocrine response of three-year-old children." Psychoneuroendocrinology 29, no. 8 (September 2004): 973–82.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016–3007. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
American Psychological Association (APA). 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002–4242. Web site: <www.apa.org>.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). 8730 Georgia Avenue, Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Web site: <www.adaa.org>.
The Shyness Institute. 2000 Williams St., Palo Alto, CA 94306. Web site: <www.shyness.com>.
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Monique Laberge, Ph.D.
Avoidant personality disorder —Chronic and longstanding fear of negative evaluation and tendency to avoid interpersonal situations without a guarantee of acceptance and support, accompanied by significant fears of embarrassment and shame in social interaction.
Extroversion —A personal preference for socially engaging activities and settings.
Extrovert —A person who is outgoing and performs well socially.
Introversion —A personal preference for solitary, non-social activities and settings.
Personality —The organized pattern of behaviors and attitudes that makes a human being distinctive. Personality is formed by the ongoing interaction of temperament, character, and environment.
Social anxiety disorder —Persistent avoidance and/or discomfort in social situations that significantly interferes with functioning.
Social withdrawal —Avoidance of social contacts.
Socialization —The process by which new members of a social group are integrated in the group.
Temperament —A person's natural disposition or inborn combination of mental and emotional traits.
Shyness can be defined by the presence of anxious reactions, excessive self-consciousness, and negative self-evaluation in response to real or imagined social interactions to the degree that it produces enough discomfort to interfere with and inhibit one’s ability to perform successfully in social situations and also to the extent that it disrupts one’s personal and professional goals. The symptoms of shyness can be affective (e.g., heightened feelings of tension and anxiety), physiological (e.g., racing heart, dryness of the mouth), cognitive (e.g., heightened self-consciousness and excessive thoughts of critical self-evaluation), and behavioral (e.g., increased interpersonal distance, inhibited verbal participation, and lack of eye contact). The number of adults who consider themselves to be chronically shy (e.g., shy their entire lives) is approximately 40 percent (Carducci 1999).
Subtypes of shyness include situational shyness (temporary shyness triggered by specific situations such as meeting a famous person), shy extroversion (outgoing appearance coexisting with a high degree of anxiety and negative self-evaluation, often experienced by entertainers), and transitional shyness (an extended period of shyness brought on by life changes such as moving to a new town). Introversion is not considered a subtype of shyness. Although shyness and introversion are similar in their overt expressions of behavior, they differ in their underlying motives. Introverts do not necessarily fear social situations, but simply prefer more solitary activities. Shy individuals, like extroverts, prefer social activities but are restrained in their participation by the experience of shyness. This approach-avoidance conflict is a source of distress for shy individuals.
The characteristic features of shyness include an excessive degree of self-consciousness, negative self-evaluation, and negative self-preoccupation. Shy individuals also demonstrate a slow-to-warm tendency characterized by an extended period of adjustment to social situations, especially those that are novel. Situational shyness is the transitory experience of shyness that can be triggered by a variety of situations, the most frequent being interactions with authorities, one-to-one interactions with members of the opposite sex, and unstructured social settings.
The most frequently used measure of shyness is the Revised Shyness Scale (RSS). The RSS contains fourteen items assessing the three principal dimensions of shyness: affective/physiological (e.g., “I feel tense with people I don’t know”), cognitive (e.g., “I feel painfully self-conscious when I am around strangers”), and behavioral (e.g., “it is hard for me to act natural when I am meeting new people”). The RSS uses a five-point Likert scale, with responses ranging from 1 (“very uncharacteristic or untrue, strongly disagree”) to 5 (“very characteristic or true, strongly agree”). Scores on the RSS demonstrate acceptable test-retest reliability and validity by correlating highly with other measures of shyness, social avoidance, and interpersonal difficulty.
Distinctions have been made between shyness and other socially related constructs. Like shyness, embarrassment is characterized by heightened self-consciousness, but unlike shyness, embarrassment includes feelings of guilt and is a response that occurs after an inappropriate social response in the presence of others. Individuals do not experience embarrassment prior to the performance of an inappropriate response or when others are not present. In contrast, the affective (e.g., anticipatory feelings of anxiety), cognitive (e.g., assuming one’s comments will be judged unfavorably by others), and behavioral (e.g., not approaching others) responses characteristic of shyness can occur prior to the actual performance and in the absence of others (e.g., before entering a social situation). Social anxiety, like shyness, involves anxiety and self-critical evaluation in novel social settings, but to a greater degree: Individuals affected by social anxiety have greater difficulties in social situations (e.g., parties) and therefore may avoid them, but there is little disruption in other social aspects of their public lives (e.g., riding on public transportation, eating in a restaurant, or going shopping). Social phobia, which is experienced by approximately 8 percent of the population, is a clinically diagnosed psychiatric condition that, like shyness and social anxiety, involves feelings of anxiety and excessive critical self-evaluation, but to such a greater degree that it has a much more pervasive and disruptive influence on one’s ability to participate in everyday situations.
Causes of shyness can be psychological (e.g., the result of family dynamics), biological (e.g., determined by hormonal and neurotransmitter levels), genetic (e.g., inherited temperament), neurological (e.g., bed nucleus of the striate terminals), or cultural (e.g., prioritizing the individual over the collective). The evolutionary benefits of shyness include cautionary behavior in novel and potentially threatening situations and the facilitation of social exchange and cooperation through the reduced tendency for self-serving expression. The personal costs of shyness include increased personal blame for interpersonal failures, loneliness, and substance abuse; the social costs, particularly for males, include less stable marriages, career delay, and lower levels of career advancement.
Interventions available for dealing with shyness include informational Web sites, self-help books, self-directed programs, online and offline social support groups, and structured clinical programs. Different treatment approaches are utilized depending on which component of shyness is targeted. Approaches for dealing with the affective component of shyness tend to focus on the reduction of bodily arousal, such as progressive relaxation techniques and biofeedback. Approaches for dealing with the cognitive component of shyness typically emphasize cognitive modification, such as revising self-perceptions, altering attributions, and adjusting expectations for defining success in social situations. Approaches for dealing with the behavior component of shyness emphasize the acquisition and development of social skills, such as strategies for approaching others, techniques for initiating and maintaining conversation, and procedures for entering ongoing conversations. Structured clinical programs typically involve combining elements from all the approaches, such as cognitive modification to identify which situations produce the most critical self-evaluations and structured role-playing exercises within the context of systematic desensitization to reduce anxiety, teach appropriate behavioral responses, and build self-confidence. An emerging, controversial view of shyness links it to more serious psychiatric conditions such as social phobia and emphasizes its treatment with prescription drugs, such as those based on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
SEE ALSO Anxiety; Neuroscience; Personality; Psychotherapy; Temperament; Trait Theory
Carducci, Bernardo J. 1999. Shyness: A Bold New Approach. New York: HarperCollins.
Crozier, W. Ray. 2001. Understanding Shyness. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave.
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Schmidt, Louis A., and Jay Schulkin, eds. 1999. Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia: Origins, Biological Mechanisms, and Clinical Outcomes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bernardo J. Carducci
Uneasiness experienced when confronted by new people and situations.
Most people, from social recluses to the rich and famous, probably have experienced feelings of shyness at various times in their lives. Physiological symptoms may include blushing, increased heart rate, sweating, and shaking. Just as these outward manifestations vary in type and intensity from person to person, so do the inner feelings. Anxious thoughts and worries, low self-esteem , self-criticism, and concern over a lack of social skills, real or imagined, are common. The causes of shyness are not known. Some researchers believe it results from a genetic predisposition. Others theorize that uncommunicative parents restrict a child's development of the social skills that compensate for discomfort caused by new experiences and people, resulting in shyness. Variously, it has been considered a symptom of social phobia or a simple characteristic of introversion .
Psychological research that follows large numbers of children from very early childhood to adulthood has found that a tendency to be shy with others is one of the most stable traits that is preserved from the first three or four years of life through young adulthood. Learning or improving social skills through self-help courses or formal training in assertiveness and public speaking are some of the methods used to diminish the effects of shyness.
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Kagan, Jerome. Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
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When an infant or toddler is confronted with strangers, either adults or children, an initial reaction of reticence and withdrawal is generally accepted and understood. Being cautious with strangers, animal or human, served for millions of years as a built-in safety device and was advantageous for survival. But from age three or four onward, most parents in modern societies like to see their children overcome their natural inhibitory tendencies soon after being introduced to other people. Cultures differ in their acceptance of shyness. In the United States, having an outgoing personality is highly valued, and thus parents worry when their child is socially inhibited by temperament, fearful when confronted by strangers, says as little as possible when in the company of unfamiliar people, and prefers playing alone. In other cultures, such as in Sweden, shy, reserved behavior is preferred to bold, attention-getting behavior, and consequently shyness is seen as less of a problem. In both cultures however, when people who were shy as children become adults, they tend to marry a few years later than adults who were not shy in childhood.
Kerr, Margaret, William Lambert, and Daryl Bem. "Life Course Sequelae of Childhood Shyness in Sweden: Comparison with the United States." Developmental Psychology 32 (1995):1100-1105.
Rubin, K. H., and Jens B. Asendorpf, eds. Social Withdrawal, Inhibition and Shyness. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992.