The Psychology of Shyness


Do you consider yourself shy?  If so, how shy?  Shyness is that tendency to feel socially uneasy, awkward, tense, and anxious when confronted with having to interact with people.  Social situations presented by parties, school life, and work may instil a bit of fear in many people.  Shyness can vary in degree from slight to severe.

It is normal for people to be shy from time to time or be generally shy during social interactions such as meeting new people or presenting something to an audience.  Shyness becomes abnormal however when it is pervasive and so intense that it keeps the person from relating to others even if they need to or want to.  When extreme shyness starts to be debilitating to one’s career and everyday life, shyness has morphed into a mental disorder called social phobia or social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Acute shyness was not recognised as a mental health problem until 1980, yet not many people have sought treatment for it.  Perhaps it is not considered as serious as other mental health issues; hence, the sufferers endure in silence and often cannot get what they want out of life.  Acute shyness is actually a phobia, an all consuming fear which incapacitates a person from carrying out work-related interactions or even normal everyday activities.  A person with social phobia may be so afraid of talking to others that he may avoid going to family gatherings, school, or even the grocery.

The Pain of Severe Shyness or Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

Unreasonable fears of social embarrassment, other people’s negative opinions, or people’s expectations are some of what characterise severe shyness or social anxiety disorder.  Individuals who are extremely shy often have the following personality problems:

  • Low self-confidence and low sense of self-worth; feelings of inferiority
  • Trouble asserting themselves
  • Very sensitive to criticism
  • Putting one’s self down with constant negative talk
  • Negative self-image
  • Inadequate social skills
  • Excessive self-consciousness
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Baseless negative perceptions and irrational thoughts

The tragedy of untreated social phobia is that it affects all spheres of the individual’s life, from career to personal relationships.  An extremely shy person may:

  • be bypassed for promotions
  • have limited job opportunities
  • not finish his education or may drop out of school as the complexities of social interactions may be too much to bear
  • resort to substance abuse in the attempt to derive some social courage from these
  • develop eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia as a coping strategy
  • have the inability to establish intimacy in relationships
  • isolate himself from other people at work or even from family members
  • have difficulty starting or maintaining friendships
  • engender marital or familial conflicts due to low self worth

Indeed, a socially phobic person’s world is a lonely one where the sufferer imposes his self-isolation due to fears blown out of proportion.  Sometimes, the fears are so unreasonable but real to the people-phobic person that he may not even be able to carry out simple tasks that need being around and possibly communicating to strangers such as  going to the grocery, speaking to someone over the phone, using public restrooms, or trying out a new diner or cafe.

Because of these fears and self-imposed limitations, a very shy person may descend into depression and suffer from anxiety disorder as well.

Cause of Extreme Shyness

Social phobia may stem from a combination of many factors rooted in the biological, psychological, and environmental areas.  Some scientists believe it is genetic and that imbalances in hormones or brain chemicals contribute to feelings of anxiety and fear.  The environment may also shape the development and degree of SAD if an individual is constantly exposed to situations that decrease his level of self-worth and engender fear of being judged as inferior.  In many cases, it is not easy to point to one direct cause as the causes have not been clearly defined.

Treatment of Shyness


A combination of psychiatric counselling and prescription drugs may be an effective treatment strategy for those with social anxiety disorder coupled with depression and generalised anxiety
disorder from SAD.  For those whose shyness is of a lesser degree, sans clinical depression or major panic attacks, only professional counselling may be all that is needed.

Counselling may involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  Such therapy could include development of social skills; identification of the “whys and whats” of situations which are causing the social phobia; and improvement of perception and thinking patterns for better handling of social situations.

Prognosis for shy people opting to undergo CBT is very good.  One can overcome social anxiety if they follow and apply the cognitive strategies taught to them consistently in their daily lives.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)


Dialectical Behaviour Therapy is a specialized type of talking therapy under the general category of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  This kind of CBT was developed by psychologist, Marsha M. Linehan, in the 1980’s  to especially focus on treating Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and has since proven to be a valuable treatment for this particular mental illness.

What does “Dialectic” in DBT mean?

The word dialectic in the term Dialectical Behaviour Therapy refers to the unification or synthesis of two opposing positions, concepts, or realities.  DBT seeks to meld two key concepts that naturally oppose each other:  acceptance and change.

Acceptance refers to coming to terms with who you are—your emotions, experiences, and natural responses.  Change means altering your responses and thoughts toward more positive behaviour and coping strategies in order to reach personal and social goals in becoming a more integrated individual.

People with Borderline Personality Disorder have very heightened negative emotions.  As a result, they are often acutely emotionally unstable and have a tendency toward inflicting self harm and attempting suicide.  DBT seeks to help BPD patients accept their personal liabilities and to help them acquire new behavioural skills to replace their ineffective and damaging responses for achieving emotional stability and personal goals.

Four Stages of Treatment with Dialectic Behaviour Therapy

The end goal of all four stages is to mould the patient toward making their own paradigm shift from feelings of worthlessness to:  I am worth as much as everyone else; life is worth living.

Stage 1:  Achieving Behavioural Control

At the start of therapy, the patient’s condition may be dangerously low—in psychological misery, out of control, and therefore may be self-destructive with drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, or binge eating.  They may also be suicidal with a history of attempts or still at the contemplation stage.  The objective of Stage 1 therapy is to assist the patient into gaining command of his spiralling out-of-control thoughts and behaviour.

Stage 1 is all about setting and achieving three main goals:

  1. Stop suicidal or self-harming behaviour
  1. Rid the patient of obstacles or behaviour that prevent or interfere with therapy — the patient may justify to himself why he does not need to go on with therapy or his family may be embarrassed about his condition and prevent him from getting needed treatment.
  1. Addressing issues that lower patient’s quality of life — Problems like depression, unstable relationships, or being expelled from school may be issues distressing the patient to a volatile degree.

At this stage, the therapist tries to equip the patient with emotion-managing skills so that the patient can disengage from dangerous behaviour and gain some mastery over his negative thought patterns.

Stage 2:  Emotional Experiencing

Although Stage 1 behaviour control has been achieved, the patient continues to suffer quietly.  Their emotional turmoil is usually due to past trauma and invalidated feelings.  For those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), past trauma is explored and analysed and its accompanying negative beliefs and behaviours, verified.  PTSD is treated at this stage.

The goal of stage 2 is to move the patient past suffering with inhibited emotions and on to a level where they experience their emotions in full.  At this second stage, the therapy involves the following:

  1. The patient is encouraged to remember and accept the traumatic event.
  2. Reduction of stigmatization
  3. Reduction of self-blame
  4. Lowering incidences of negative intrusive and denial syndromes

Stage 2 goals can only be achieved once negative behaviour is under control.

Stage 3:  Learning to Live

Stage 3 focuses on building self-esteem, owning one’s behaviour, creating trust and value for one’s self, and goal setting.  The patient is gradually led toward coming to terms with happy and unhappy events in life, thus enabling him to live life normally.

Stage 4:  Building Capacity for Joy

Some people stop at stage 3 but for others, stage 4 is an important part of recovery.  Stage 4 is all about spiritual fulfilment which helps the patient feel connected to humanity as a whole.  The goal at this stage is to help the patient go beyond just living day to day and be able to incorporate the ability to experience joy and freedom.


Scientific evidence has proven Dialectical Behaviour Therapy to be effective in lowering rates of suicides, self-harm, dropouts in treatment, depression, hospitalization, and substance abuse.  DBT has indeed helped many patients to improve functioning and relationships in their personal and social lives.

Personality Disorders


personality disorder

Personality disorders are a class of mental disorders that involve the maladaptive way a person acts, feels, thinks, and perceives things which often deviate from normal norms.  These abnormal patterns of cognition and perception are enduring and disrupt an individual’s personal, social, and career lives.

A personality disorder may be diagnosed as such if it falls under the criteria outlined in the mental and behavioural disorders section of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published by the World Health Organization.  The ICD is the international “standard diagnostic tool for epidemiology, health management, and clinical purposes.”

Normal Personalities vs. Personality Disorders

Although normal people do behave differently from one another, they still have a set pattern of behaviour and thinking which are fairly predictable and conform to the general accepted criteria.  Normal healthy personalities are flexible enough to adapt to life changes or mistakes.  People with personality disorders on the other hand have limited coping mechanisms and are therefore more inflexible in the face of stress.  Because of the curtailed range of emotions, attitudes, and behaviours,  people with personality disorders often find life changes, whether minor or major, difficult to manage and so that daily life becomes a constant struggle.  Consequently it also becomes difficult for other people to adequately relate to them.

Personality disorders become markedly distinct in adolescence or early adulthood, although these illnesses may have begun in childhood.  Because the affliction distorts perceptions and behaviour, it often makes working with or relating to other people, difficult.  Unstable personalities often feel isolated or alienated because people may seem scary, threatening, or simply not very understanding of the way they see things, for the most part.

Types of Personality Disorders

As the term personality disorder refers to an umbrella malady, there exist many types of mental illnesses under this broad category which are further divided into three sub-categories:

  1. Cluster A

This group tends to exhibit more eccentric or strange behaviours as its constituents seem to exist in a world of their own.  Disorders under this sub-category are:

  • Paranoid personality disorder — characterized by suspicion and distrust.  Paranoid people tend to:
    • read threats where none exists
    • be constantly watchful of signs of hostility and betrayal in other people
    • be mistrustful even of close friends or family
    • often think they are being fooled or being taken advantage of
  • Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) — characterized by an absence of consideration for other people because these types behave for themselves without regard for other people’s antisocialfeelings or situations.  Antisocial people may show the following behaviour:
    • reckless and impulsive actions without thought about consequences to self and other people
    • may be aggressive, constantly irritable, and may pick fights with others
    • may engage in criminal or illegal actions
    • may truly believe in the survival of the fittest philosophy in which he grabs every opportunity to the detriment of others and even to himself
    • may have had a misdemeanour or disorderly conduct charge before the age of 15.
    • possess no guilt or regret for hurting others and therefore would put his needs over anyone else’s always
  • Schizoid personality disorder — typified by the following characteristics:
    • uninterested in forming close relationships with anyone, including family
    • cold and emotionally distant
    • wants to live alone away from the company of others
    • have little interest in sex or intimacy
    • has a very negative outlook or perception about life
  • Schizotypal personality disorder — manifests weird or aberrant behaviour.  People with this disorder tend to:
    • express themselves unusually like using their own language or vocabulary for certain things
    • believe they have extraordinary powers or gifts such as a sixth sense or future forecasting
    • have extreme difficulty in forming any social relationship, even with a family member
    • behave oddly
    • exhibit paranoia and anxiety in social situations
    • feel tense and nervous around anyone who do not share their beliefs
  1. Cluster B

The Cluster B personality disorder group struggles to control their emotions which often swing erratically between positive and negative moods.  Behaviour from this group is often unpredictable, exaggerated, and disturbing.  Disorders that fall under this group are:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder — symptomised by:
    • an extreme and pervading feeling of entitlement that puts the individual in a rank above others
    • having low self-esteem that needs to be fed by recognition of one’s worth and needs by others
    • selfishness
    • resentment of other people’s achievements and successes
    • having the capacity to take advantage of other people
  • Histrionic personality disorder — A person with this disorder always needs to be the centre of attention and is very needy about getting the approval of others.  A histrionic personality will flirt, seduce, or “put on a show” to get the attention and focus he craves.


  1.  Cluster C

This third group struggles with chronic anxiety and fear and therefore manifests antisocial behaviour that is more withdrawn than hostile.  This group includes:

  • Avoidant personality disorder — People in this group are often extremely shy and inhibited because of overwhelming feelings of inadequacy.  Rejection is often a very sensitive spot for people in this category.
  • Dependent personality disorder — typified by extreme passiveness and submissiveness stemming from very low self confidence and severe neediness.  People with a dependency disorder may not be able make their own decisions or function well without help or support.  These people view themselves as so much less capable than others in many aspects.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) — characterized by the obsessive need for perfectionism.  OCPD is different from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which is a form of behaviour rather than a personality type.


People with a personality disorder may find hope in recovery over time.  What is needed is adequate support and professional help.  Mild to moderate personality disorders may improve with psychotherapy alone.