What is shyness?

The last couple of weeks have taught me quite a bit about successful networking, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. To that end, I had planned a 2-part series on networking for people who are shy/introverted.  However, during my research, I realized that–despite the apparent shared stigma toward them–shyness and introversion are actually very different things, and people may want to know the difference. So I will set up the series with a couple of posts describing these concepts.

In short, introversion indicates a lack of interest in most socialization, while shyness (also called social anxiety by the psych types) is characterized by a fear of social interaction. I have both.

Shyness (and probably too much personal information) after the cut.


A little background

Although I am also an introvert, my life is much more impacted by my shyness (or social phobia, or social anxiety disorder–call it what you want, but none of these designations really describes the whole issue). This makes the topic very near and dear to me, so this post is longer than its introversion counterpart (and my apologies to the introverts, as I didn’t intend to give you short shrift).

My shyness has always been a huge obstacle to overcome, and for much of my life, it has ruled me. There have been many times when I was unable to do something I needed or wanted to do because I couldn’t get past the crippling anxiety. As my recent networking activities can attest, I have come a long way in the past couple of years. (I don’t want to go all mega-personal in this blog post because I think it would bore people–but if anyone wants to ask about my shyness and how I dealt with it, or if somebody simply wants an open ear (eye?) to help deal with their shyness, please don’t be afraid to contact me. I promise I won’t judge you!)

My purpose for this post is to help other shy people begin learning about the various facets of shyness so they will be able to conquer them one at a time. This post will not be particularly comprehensive, but I hope it opens the door to shy people starting to find more research on the topic, as it did for me. It is also my hope that my readers who are not shy will begin to understand that shyness is not just a single-faceted fear we can just “get over.” (Which is something I’d been told my whole life. “Getting over it” was a long process that had precious little to do with anyone telling me to do so. I can attest that getting past shyness requires a hefty does of self motivation.) There are many aspects of shyness, and addressing each has its own challenges.

A definition

Shyness, in its simplest form, is basically a fear of social interaction. However, you cannot boil down this definition to a fear of people. It is a fear of being judged by others and found wanting. It is a fear of being disliked by somebody or offending somebody. It is a fear of speaking up and drawing attention to oneself.

In other words, shyness is not really a fear of people–it is a fear of people’s reactions to you.  In fact, there are shy extroverts out there who are definitely not afraid of people. In fact, they long for social interaction, but may be too shy to act on that desire. Shy extroverts are not scared of other people; they are scared of negative judgment. Susan Cain discusses the various aspects of being a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert in her blog post, “Are You Shy, Introverted, Both, or Neither (and Why Does it Matter)?”

The various aspects of shyness

Shyness is a horrible cycle in our society because it is seen as weakness, social awkwardness, and weirdness, and it is just not socially accepted. Of course, shy people know this. So not only are we afraid of being judged in general, we are hyper-conscious of the fact we are being judged FOR being shy. Which just multiplies our anxiety, which makes us think everyone else dislikes us even more! It is a very difficult cycle to break out of, and it is one of the reasons being told to “get over it” is so abrasive. Incidentally, being told that over and over just reinforces the idea that we’re being judged for being shy, making it even harder to break out!

To break free of this cycle, one must first understand the basic aspects of shyness. According to the Shyness Research Institute (SRI) at Indiana University Southeast, shyness has three distinct parts: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. 

The cognitive aspect of shyness refers to the feelings of self-consciousness and self-recrimination that many shy people feel. In my experience, shy people feel anxious because we don’t like ourselves; therefore we think nobody else will like us. We are very harsh self-judges, and our self-appraisals are rarely positive. We project this behavior on to others; after all, if we don’t like us, who possibly could? Ironically, this means that shy people are incredibly self absorbed, but definitely not in a positive way.

Furthermore, there is a strong feeling of “everything’s my fault.” No matter why something actually goes wrong, shy people will go through elaborate mental hoops to blame themselves. This is also projected to others’ perceived judgments. We think, ‘Wow, something went wrong, and surely they’ll realize it was my fault and hate me forever!’ And I say that with only  a little hyperbole. Cognitive shyness really comes down to being judged by others and being blamed by others, because that’s really how we see ourselves. (SRI provides the following advice: “Stop whipping yourself!”)

The affective part of shyness is simply the physical manifestations of the anxiety. Sweaty palms, elevated heart rate, butterflies in the stomach–the works. Pretty much what every freshman feels on their first day of high school–and for many of the same reasons. They are, essentially, worried what all the other kids will think of them. However, a student afraid of being judged is considered perfectly normal, while your run-of-the-mill shy person is considered sick. Of course, we shy people are anything but unaware of that stigma. And it just increases the self-recrimination.

The behavioral aspect refers to the shy person’s actions in regard to the physical and emotional responses to the anxiety. Or, as it may be more accurate to say, the inaction toward them. Behavioral shyness is characterized by being unable to do things. When a shy person really wants to go to a party but stops–literally with her hand on the doorbell–panics, and flees to her car–that is behavioral shyness. When a person is on the outskirts of a conversation she finds fascinating, and she knows she can contribute, but she just can’t force the words out around the lump in her throat–that is behavioral shyness. This is the part of shyness that other people can see; this is the part that gets us labelled socially awkward. And this is the part that tells us that being judged isn’t necessarily a figment of our anxieties.

A conclusion

Overcoming my shyness would have been much easier had I understood these distinctions. I encourage anyone dealing with shyness to address each aspect individually. The SRI’s page, “How Do I Overcome Shyness?” is a great start, and there are multitudes of informational Web-pages and self-help books out there designed to help shy people. And, of course, Part 2 of my upcoming “Networking for the Social Challenged” series will provide tips I found worked for me. But, one thing I discovered in dealing with my shyness, sometimes all you need is somebody who understands what you’re dealing with and doesn’t tell you to man up and deal with it.

This post may have been rather long and less entertaining than my normal fare (assuming that is entertaining to begin with–time will tell, I guess), but it is a very important topic for me. If one shy person reads this and realizes they can, with some effort and time, grow past it through working on the individual parts, then I consider this post a success. Further, if one “get over it” type reads this and understands that shyness is not just a fear, but a highly complex emotional cocktail (with hints of oak and summer berries)–if one “get over it” type reads this and realizes that telling us to get over it only makes us self-judge even more than we already did–then I have gone above and beyond my original intent for this post.


5 thoughts on “What is shyness?

  1. Beautifully written. My crippling shyness was countered by a gigantic stubborn streak. In college I noticed that other people could do things I was afraid to do, and my French temper kicked in. I fought mine by making myself do things that scared me until they didn’t scare me anymore. hard way to do it but it worked. I’m still a bit socially awkward – Nerd To The End.

    • Thanks so much! Both for the compliment and for sharing!

      I can relate to the stubborn streak. Mine got me through college. It was, however, was sadly absent when it came to my shyness. My shyness is very cognitive. I was totally paralyzed by anxiety resulting from extremely poor self esteem and a lot of self-recrimination. I couldn’t handle the rest of it until I dealt with some of those internal issues.

      Major kudos to you for just fighting through the pain, as it were. It really is the hard way–and it’s the way most people think we should handle it. However, I think that the main takeaway of your comment is that YOU saw people doing things you wanted to be a part of, so YOU decided to “get over it” on your own terms. I think people get over their shyness a lot more easily when they stop listening to others’ unsolicited opinions and self-motivate to find what works for them. In fact, I think most of my better decisions in life came from not listening to what others had to say, but perhaps that is an entirely different blog post.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m one of the “get over it” people. Whether as a teaching assistant in college or as a coach to interns or junior colleagues, I’ve occasionally worked with shy people. I could see that many of them are smart, interested and caring, but I never fully understood what held them back. Thank you for taking the time – and having the guts! – to explain. May others also learn from this!

    • I’m so pleased to see my post has had a positive impact! Thank you for letting me know.

      I do believe a lot of the stigma and well-meaning (but misguided) “deal with it” attitude attached to shyness (and introversion as well to some extent) comes from a lack of understanding. However, I can’t take all the credit for this post! The fine folks over at the Shyness Research Institute were kind enough to freely publish their work, which formed the framework of my post. Honestly, I didn’t understand the different facets of my own shyness for a long time (heck, I didn’t even understand the difference between introversion and shyness two weeks ago!), so it’s no surprise that it is misunderstood by those who don’t have to cope with it. I’m really glad to see my message comes across clearly! (Despite a little residual bitterness I may have let seep in.)

      Thank you also for the Tweet!

  3. Pingback: Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 2: Shy | Second City Odyssey

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