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.