Shyness is described as a feeling of anxiety or apprehension when around other people. Someone who is shy typically judges themselves negatively and may feel judged or fear rejection when around others. This may focus on how they look, our abilities or performance, or how we look so they feel different from and inferior to others.
Where does it come from?
It’s unlikely we were born thinking “I’m not good enough.” Instead, it’s likely that someone or something made us feel that way, perhaps a long time ago – maybe too long for us even to remember. Below we have outlined some of the reasons someone may experience shyness, this is not intended to be relevant to everyone but may help when trying to explore why or what factors can contribute to this difficulty.
Our experience also plays a role in the origins of shyness – for example:
Our family or early upbringing:
People who are shy may have experienced a lack of consistent, positive encouragements in early life. Maybe the person felt they weren’t praised enough when they were young. Or lived in a situation where a family, guardians or carers were unable to offer the consistent warmth needed for personal growth. Sometimes there may have been deliberate undermining or criticism – using shame and criticism as a way of teaching expected behaviours, or by using excessive control with little expression of warmth or comfort.
At other times there may have been good levels of support, however the person still came to feel they were different from others because they felt they stood out in other ways. For example, having a speech impediment, skin problem, or that they felt too thin or fat – or were different in some other way.
Sometimes peers at school may have been cruel about someone’s looks or abilities. Or somehow someone has come to expect so much of themselves that failure or rejection is bound to happen.
Other factors can include a chaotic family life, negative interactions such as being ignored or glared at, physical or emotional neglect or abuse.
Life situations that hit home to hurt the person can have long-term impact. For example, living through frequent changes in life can disrupt relationships and damage friendships. So, moving from one school or town/city to another again and again and always being the new person having to try to fit in can be an enormous challenge. The same can happen if there are multiple changes or disruptions to family life, for example when being fostered by different foster parents several times in their young life.
Our Social environments:
Starting in new places gives fresh opportunities for self-judgement. Changes of any type can worsen shyness – for example, stressful school or work situations. Teenagers who feel they look different from others may also develop shyness – for example eczema, acne, psoriasis or prominent ears or other body part. Sometimes key people such as managers/teachers can be hostile, critical, domineering, or bullying. Bullying doesn’t always involve physical hits. It can be less obvious but still hurtful – for example with teasing, ignoring/overlooking the person or always leaving them out. The same may occur if people feel they are clumsy or lack skills needed for performance/competitiveness e.g. at school or work.
Our Beliefs and Behaviours:
If someone believes they are no good/useless/unattractive/unskilled, and overall judge themselves as being less than those around them, they can start to behave in a way as if it were true. Shy people can become pre-occupied with negative self-judgement and caught up in a vicious cycle of negative thoughts, feelings, physical feelings, and behaviours.
What people think affects what they do – their behaviours. People with shyness very often avoid people, places, or situations where they think they will perform badly in. Avoidance is a central feature of shyness and anxiety. This can prevent people living life as they otherwise would do. Because hiding away leads to immediate relief, it can be very reinforcing and tends to happen more and more. The vicious cycle can therefore continue spinning and lead to increasing avoidance, self-isolation, and social phobia – high levels of social anxiety and avoidance that regularly occur in social situations. The hiding away also prevents the person finding out that social interactions often go better than they would predict.
Sometimes people with shyness try and cope with their feelings by using drink or substances to create false confidence and help to relax. Sometimes people adopt a “look” in terms of clothes or hair or makeup, to fit in to a particular work or social setting or group, or otherwise show their individuality without always having to say anything.
How common is shyness?
Shyness and social anxiety can affect anyone at any age. However, it’s estimated that as many as 40 – 50% of people may consider themselves to be shy in nature. It is more common in women who are two or three times more likely to experience it than men.
Shyness is on a continuum. As social beings, for most people it matters what others think of them. At one end of this spectrum is shyness which may be described as a mild and everyday discomfort. Many of us feel like this when we meet people for the first time. However, that anxiety usually settles quite quickly, and most people can go on to enjoy the event or meeting.
At higher levels of fear, the social anxiety moves beyond everyday shyness and can become what doctors would diagnose as social phobia, with far higher levels of fear and frequent avoidance. When social anxiety occurs at that sort of very high level, it’s usually intense enough to stop the person doing things or enjoying very many social activities they would otherwise like to do.
What might the signs be that social anxiety is a problem for an individual?
If shyness is becoming more intense, and the associated fear and avoidance are growing so that it increasingly interferes with daily life, it is worth seeking help. At times when anxiety is rising, anxious fears start to dominate thinking not just when with others, but also in anticipation of meeting others, and afterwards looking back on conversations with regret and unhelpful post-mortems of the event. If someone finds they are worrying all the time about their own performance or how they look, or constantly feel others judge them badly, this leaves them with emotional exhaustion. Other warning signs to seek help might be increasing alcohol or substance misuse. Additional signs that problems need to be addressed include situations where the person passes over and avoids potential relationships, jobs or other opportunities because of their social anxiety.
Someone with shyness may also often be unassertive – not expressing what they want, always saying ‘sorry’ for things even when there’s no need to apologise and saying “Yes” when they mean “No”.
All of this means they don’t live life as much as they could or would like to. They may cancel social events, become isolated, thus missing out on important experiences of positive social interaction opportunities.
Is it possible to fully overcome feelings of ‘shyness’ and social anxiety?
There are several ways someone can get help to overcome or manage their shyness.
Self-help resources based on the CBT approach:
- Try to capture thoughts about yourself or the images in your mind at times of anxiety and look at new more helpful ways of talking to yourself.
- Try to spot ‘safety behaviours’ such as mis-using alcohol to get through social events.
- You can build social confidence by adopting a step-by-step approach to break social activities down into manageable chunks/steps. Then take the first step and face your fears and start changing your life. Each step needs to be big enough to move things forward. But not so large it seems impossible and overwhelming.
- Do some research and find out what might work best for you. There are a number of helpful self-confidence books, including the Worry Box Book, by Chris Williams – available at store.llttf. This helps readers Face it (overcome avoidance), Fix It (problem solving to tackle problems), and Forget it (thinking changes).
Psychological support such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT):
- Speak to your G.P. and discuss what treatment options are available in your area.
- Ask to talk to someone – a guided self-help worker, Psychological wellbeing practitioner (PWP), mental health practitioner, counsellor, psychologist who are all experienced in helping people using various techniques.
- Practicing how to relate to others- by building assertiveness and conversational skills.
- Work together to plan ways of overcoming avoidance in a planned step by step way.
Medication can sometimes be helpful under the guidance of a medical doctor.
How can you help a loved one or friend who is shy?
- Encourage the person to talk to you about their experiences e.g. by commenting: “I’ve noticed that you’re finding some situations difficult- how can I help?”.
- Demonstrate empathy and understanding, acknowledging that most of us will feel a sense of shyness from time to time. But for some people this can really impact on their lives and happiness. Left unattended, shyness tends to slowly worsen, so it’s important to encourage them to make step by step life changes to prevent it slowly getting worse.
- Help the person challenge their negative thoughts about themselves and others, by also offering praise of specific things they have done and the strengths you admire in them (“It’s great you came to the wedding – we both enjoyed it- and I know the couple really appreciated it”).
- Encourage the person to write fears down, test them out by looking at the facts so as to develop more helpful ways of looking at themselves, their situation and others. It can help to ask them “What words of kind encouragement would you offer to your best friend who said the same thing?” Often, we can offer better advice to others than ourselves.
- Help them agree and set realistic, achievable step-by-step goals.
- Encourage them to seek good professional advice and support if they need.
Other source of help
www.llttf.com available free of charge Look out for the Living life to the full course, and the module on I’m not good enough/Building inner confidence module. Also, the linked thinking modules and worksheets (Why does everything always go wrong/Looking at things differently).
Book for parents: Overcoming Your Child’s Shyness and Social Anxiety (Overcoming Books) by Lucy Willetts and Cathy Creswell (2007).
Book for adults: The Living life to the full (Williams C J. 2018 ISBN 9781906564582) is available free of charge in every library across England and Wales (also available in the Welsh language in Welsh libraries ISBN: 978-191-324-5122).
Overcoming anxiety, stress and panic: a five areas approach 3rd edition by Dr Chris Williams (2012) ISBN 9781444163148