Shyness: Putting shyness in the spotlight

You've been thinking about that hot new kid all month. So when you see the object of your affection by the lockers, you take a deep breath and head over. As you approach, though, those clear green eyes turn your way and suddenly you can't breathe — much less think of what you wanted to say. So you keep on walking . . . right past your crush and over to the trophy display case, where you pretend to be fascinated with the 1992 boys' state badminton championship plaque. You gather your courage. Too late! A friend at the lockers has struck up the conversation you wish you could be having. You stare at the dusty awards and mentally shake yourself for wimping out.

Why can it be so hard to approach new people or try new things? If you find yourself hesitating because of what others might think or because of a fear of being rejected, embarrassed, sounding silly, or making a mistake, then chances are shyness is the culprit.

What Is Shyness?

Shyness is a social emotion that affects a person's feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Shyness is about feeling uncomfortable, self-conscious, scared, nervous, or insecure around others. When people feel shy, they hold back on saying or doing things because they're concerned about how others might respond. Physical sensations can be part of shyness, too — like feeling flushed, shaky, queasy, speechless, or breathless.

Shyness tends to strike in certain kinds of social situations — like the first day of school, when you're meeting someone new, initiating a conversation with someone you feel attracted to, or giving a presentation in class. People are more likely to feel shy in situations where they're not sure what will happen, how others will react, or when all eyes are on them. People are less likely to feel shy in situations where they know what to expect and what to do or say or where they are among familiar people.

Shyness can vary from person to person. People can be mildly shy, moderately shy, or extremely shy. Some people with mild to moderate shyness feel shy only in certain circumstances. For these people, shyness may feel uncomfortable at first, but it often melts away after a few minutes. They often learn to push through their immediate shyness, knowing they'll warm up to new people or situations if they can just get through that initial reaction.

People who are extremely shy find it hard to push through their initial shyness. They may avoid social situations, have trouble making friends, or hold back on trying new things. Eventually this can interfere with their self-confidence and self-esteem.

What Causes Shyness?

Occasional mild to moderate feelings of shyness are like any emotion — as with happiness or sadness, feelings of shyness can be a part of how we experience things and react. But other factors can also influence shyness:

  • Temperament. People can be shy by nature in the same way that people can seem grumpy, upbeat, nervous, or easygoing. Scientists believe that temperament is determined by the genes children inherit from their parents. Someone with a shy nature is more likely to be cautious, slower to get used to changes, and prefer to stick to what's familiar. He or she is more likely to hesitate when faced with something new. People who are shy by nature are also more likely to watch everyone else for a while before joining in on a group activity. They might be more sensitive to emotions — not only their own, but the feelings of others as well. Because of their emotional sensitivity, people with this temperament are often kind and caring toward others.
  • Learned behaviors. Someone's natural tendency to be shy can be influenced by what they learn from others, especially family members. If parents are overly cautious or shy and find socializing uncomfortable, their actions might teach a child (especially one with shy temperament) that socializing is uncomfortable or distressing — even without meaning to! Young children also learn to expect certain reactions based on how people respond to their actions. If children are constantly receiving critical or disapproving reactions, they may grow into adults who expect others to judge them negatively. These people are more likely to be reserved, shy, scared, or intimidated by certain situations.
  • Uncomfortable experiences. What a person learns from experience can influence shyness, too. Someone with a shy nature might become even more shy if they get pushed too much into unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Getting teased, bullied, treated unkindly, or humiliated by peers, siblings, or adults will probably make someone who's already shy retreat even more. On the other hand, if someone who's shy is allowed to approach new things little by little, this positive experience can help them learn to feel less shy.

What Can Someone Do About Shyness?

The good news is that no one is destined to be shy. People with shy natures can overcome shyness. Old patterns and experiences can be unlearned when they're replaced with new, positive experiences that teach new skills. If you're a shy person, the key to overcoming shyness is surrounding yourself with good people.

The way others react to someone who's shy can make a big difference. When you're shy, simply having someone who understands and accepts you is really, really important. This person might be a parent, a sibling, aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher, counselor, or best friend. Knowing someone's behind you as you learn to take slow forward steps can help shyness melt.

Good friends and supportive family members know how to help a shy person approach a new experience at their own pace. Really good friends and loved ones also know not to overprotect someone who's shy. Being protected from an experience doesn't allow someone to learn to handle it. The person doing the overprotecting sends a message that the experience is too much for the shy person to handle — even if they don't really believe it. That's not a confidence builder!

Here are some tips things to keep in mind if you're dealing with shyness.

  • Learn and practice social skills. People who are shy give themselves fewer chances to practice social behaviors. It's no wonder that people who shy away from socializing don't feel as socially confident as peers who chat it up a lot. Practice social behaviors like eye contact, confident body language, smiling, introductions, small talk, asking questions, and invitations with the people you feel most comfortable around. Build your confidence this way.
  • Plan ahead. When you're ready to try something you've been avoiding — like a phone call or a conversation — write down what you want to say beforehand. Rehearse it out loud, maybe even in front of the mirror. Then just do it. Don't worry if it's not perfect (few of the things more confident-seeming peers do are perfect either). Be proud that you gave it a go. Next time, it'll be even better because it will be easier.
  • Be your own best friend. People who are shy are concerned with how others might judge them. Because they're always tuned in to the possibility of negative judgments, shy people are sometimes pretty judgmental themselves. And the people they're the hardest on? Themselves. Notice the negative judgments you might be making about yourself. Ask yourself whether you'd criticize your best friend for the same things. If not, then treat yourself like your own best friend. Accept yourself with all your imperfections.
  • Act as if you're not shy. Sound strange? "Acting as if" is a technique that can help you shift into a more self-assured attitude and let you try social behaviors that you don't normally use. Think of people whose social ease you admire and respect. Act as if you were in that person's shoes.
  • Develop your assertiveness. Shy people are often less assertive, but that doesn't mean they're wimpy or cowardly. Because shy people might be overly concerned with others' reactions to them, they don't want to rock the boat. But this can mean they are less likely to speak up for themselves when they should, ask for what they want when they need to, or tell people when their toes are being stepped on (ouch!). Assertiveness skills can help people find respectful ways of standing up for themselves and build self-respect. Think quiet power.
  • Focus on your strengths. What do you do best? What qualities in yourself do you feel really good about? Ask your best friend or family members what they think your strengths are, too. When you're in a situation that makes you nervous, think about your qualities and strengths. As with assertiveness, when you feel competent, you feel more self-assured. And your confidence builds.
  • You're just fine the way you are. We can't change our true inner nature. (And who would want to? If everyone were perfect, we'd all be the same — which means we'd all be pretty bored with each other!) But we can learn outer behaviors, like "acting as if" and confident body language, that help us cope better with the situations we face.

When Shyness Is Extreme

For as many as one out of 10 people, shyness can be as powerful as any strong fear. With extreme shyness, someone rarely feels comfortable around others and might feel very anxious in almost any social situation.

Mild shyness might make someone blush and want to crawl under the desk when they say something silly in class. Extreme shyness can interfere with a person's ability to answer in class at all. People who are extremely shy might sit through class completely unable to pay attention because they are so preoccupied with the fear that the teacher might call on them.

People who are extremely shy might feel so uncomfortable at a party or so afraid they won't know what to say at the lunch table that they avoid these situations completely. This kind of extreme shyness is called social phobia. Like other phobias, social phobia is a fear reaction to something that isn't actually dangerous, although the body and mind react as if the danger is real. The person with social phobia who's afraid of being called on in class might stop going to class completely.

When someone is so extremely shy or so fearful about talking to others that he or she just doesn't talk in school, to certain people, or in certain social situations, that's a form of social phobia known as selective mutism. This term simply refers to not talking (being 'mute') in certain situations but not in others (selective). People who feel too anxious to talk because of social phobia or extreme shyness do have completely normal conversations with the people they're comfortable with (such as parents or siblings, or a best friend) or in certain places (like home). But other situations cause them such extreme discomfort that they may not be able to bring themselves to talk at all.

Although avoiding the situations that prompt social phobia may seem like a relief at first, it can actually make things worse. The more a person with social phobia avoids a particular situation, the more fearful he or she becomes about it. That person may continue avoiding more and more social situations until he or she feels alienated and alone.

Because of the intensity of feelings involved in extreme shyness, it can be a lot harder to overcome alone. People with social phobia or selective mutism often need the help of an expert to talk through their difficulties and help them find solutions to their problems. Professional therapists who are trained in dealing with shyness can not only help teach a shy person new social skills but also work on managing the anxiety and reducing the stress that go along with social phobia.

Avoid Avoidance

What happens when you get into a swimming pool and find the water really cold? If you jump out immediately, you miss out on the fun of swimming. Imagine if the next day you don't even put your foot in because you think to yourself, "the water might be cold and I'll feel awful." That's avoidance. It's the same thing as planning to talk to your crush but then bailing out because you think it might feel uncomfortable. Guess what? It might be uncomfortable at first. But you can handle it.

Back to the pool. What happens if you jump right into that cold water? After a bit, you feel warmer, not because the water has heated up but because you've become used to it. The same is true for shyness. If you stay in the situation, you'll get used to it and warm up. Warming up takes a little more than just staying power, though. A person could stand shivering in the cold pool and not warm up much. That's where a social situation is like the pool. Warming up means being a little active, using your skills. Talk, smile, say something (anything!), and remember your strengths. It's not easy, but it's worth it. After all, that hottie with the gorgeous green eyes may want to talk to you as well — but be too shy to make the first move.

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