All About Shyness

By Meredith Whitten
21 Aug 2001

Are you shy?

If you answered yes, you've got plenty of company -- almost half of all adults consider themselves shy, according to Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D.

"When shy people hear that (statistic), they always say, "I thought it was just me!'" Carducci says. "But 40 percent to 45 percent of adults say they are shy."

Shyness in adults, like shyness in children and teens, is a form of excessive self-focus: a preoccupation with your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions.

"When we talk about shyness, we are talking about three characteristics that involve a sense of self: excessive self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation and excessive negative self-preoccupation," Carducci says.

Shyness and Its Impact on Lifestyle

Although people of all ages experience shyness, the effects of shyness -- from mild social awkwardness to totally inhibiting social phobia -- can have a severe impact on adult situations, such as finding and advancing in a job and developing close personal relationships.

Shy people experience difficulty meeting people, initiating and maintaining conversations, deepening intimacy, interacting in small groups and in authority situations, and with asserting themselves, Carducci says.

According to Lynne Hamilton and Philip Zimbardo, people who suffer from ongoing shyness don't take advantage of social situations, date less, are less expressive verbally and nonverbally, and show less interest in other people than those who are not shy. As a result, shy adults may find difficulty asserting themselves in the workplace or in social situations.

Carducci notes that shyness tends to manifest itself during periods of change, which come in many forms for adults. "Getting divorced, getting laid off, moving to a new location -- it's during these types of periods of transition that shyness kicks in," he says. Still, he adds, "There are almost as many different stories about why someone is shy as there are shy people."

Commonalities Among the Shy

Although shyness varies from person to person, Carducci identifies commonalties that help define how shyness works.

First, he says, the shy avoid situations that involve interaction with others, particularly strangers or authority figures. Carducci calls this approach "avoidance."

"Shy people truly want to be social, but for some reason they feel like they can't," he says. "And that's the typical pain of shyness -- when we want something we can't have."

Second, Carducci says, shy people tend to be slow to warm up in social situations. "Shy people will go to an event and stay 10 minutes, then leave," he says. "They haven't given themselves enough time to warm up -- they need to stay longer.

"One mistake shy people make is if a party starts at 8 p.m., they'll go at 9 p.m. But showing up late actually works to their disadvantage. They should show up early, maybe at 7:30 p.m., get used to the surroundings and greet people one on one as they arrive, so by 9 p.m. they are comfortable," Carducci says.

That leads to Carducci's third characteristic. "Shy people have what we call a small or limited comfort zone," he says. "Shy people have friends and a social network, but it's a small circle. They tend to do the same things with the same people again and again, because they feel at ease in a situation they know. As a result, they won't try new situations, or they restrict their contacts. They might be at a social function and see someone new they'd like to talk to, but they won't step out of their comfort zone. They truly want to expand their comfort zone, but they feel they can't, so they're stuck."

Shyness and the Workplace

For adults, such shyness can make job hunting challenging. Interviewing, calling potential employers, and mingling with company representatives at career seminars and job fairs require poise, self-confidence, verbal skill and ease around others.

Statistics also show that shy people tend to have more trouble than extroverts advancing on the job. Says Dr. Jonathan Cheek, author of Conquering Shyness; The Battle Anyone Can Win. "Underemployment-being stuck in a job that requires less skill or training than you possess -- uneasy work relationships, and slower advancement mark the careers of shy people."

Dr. Cheek points to research done at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma that shows that the shyer a person is, the less prestigious his or her last job title tends to be. "Almost every lucrative career requires solid communication skills, an assertive personality and an astute sense of office politics," he concludes.

Shyness vs. Introversion

Research differentiates between shyness and introversion, although they are related. Introverts prefer solitary to social activities, but do not fear social encounters like shy people do. "If you see two people standing by a wall at a party," Carducci says, "the introvert is there because he wants to be. The shy person is there because he feels like he has to be."

In fact, shy adults often attempt to force themselves to be extroverted, Carducci says. "That is the number one way people try to deal with shyness," he says. "The problem with this strategy is it's incomplete. Once a shy person is at the party or event, he thinks that's all he has to do. But that's just the first step. Shy people have trouble taking the next step -- approaching people and making conversation."

Carducci says one way to deal with this is to master the art of small talk. "Shy people say once they're in a conversation, they're OK. The problem is initiating it. So, we teach them small talk," he says.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

The by-products of social anxiety, including shyness, can consist of depression, self-medication (often with alcohol), family distress, and an inability to compete in our stressful, competitive society characterized by poor performance and a lack of productivity.

Although medications exist to help people deal with anxiety and depression, there is no magic pill for shyness. Henderson and Zimbardo say it is important to recognize that shyness is a consequence of inadequate social skills, which are not improved just by taking a pill.

Carducci agrees. "The problem is that medications don't always work because people use them incompletely," he says. "Sure, they may reduce your anxiety, but just because you're calm doesn't mean you're ready to go to the next step. So, they'll go to social functions and they're relaxed, but they still don't know what to do."

Shyness may also become a self-handicapping strategy -- a reason or excuse for anticipated social failure that over time becomes a crutch. For example, shy people may say to themselves, "I can't do it because I'm shy."

Becoming "Successfully Shy"

"There is a misperception of shy people," Carducci says. "People tend to think of shyness as a negative trait, but that's because they don't understand it. I talk about becoming successfully shy. It involves realizing that there's nothing wrong with you. Most people don't care about you, they care about themselves. It's very liberating when you realize this."

Being shy does not mean your professional and personal achievements are limited. Shy adults can succeed on the job as well as initiate and maintain close relationships, Carducci says.

"I tell shy people, the key to shyness is truly in the heart," he says. "Instead of being self-conscious, be other-focused -- be concerned with other people. When you start to show that you're approachable it makes it easier for people to approach you. I tell them to get involved with the lives of other people, and in doing so they will help themselves, too."

"Shyness is not a disease, and we are not born shy," Carducci says.




Last updated: 16 Dec 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Dec 2015
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