I was standing in line in the lunchroom one day in fifth grade when I heard someone call my name. A boy from my homeroom class was standing a few feet away waving me over to him and his group of friends. I felt my face turn beet red and a ten-pound boulder dropped into the pit of my stomach. My body froze, unsure of what to do next. I slowly walked up to the group of eleven-year-olds. “Are you a mute?” He asked. I responded by squinting my eyes and looking confused. “I mean, can you talk? We never hear you talk.” I quietly said something like, “Yeah, I can talk,” and walked away. Some of the boys laughed. I was mortified. That was the first time I realized the profound effect shyness had on my life. As a child, I experienced painful shyness and introversion. Now, in my late twenties, I’m a thousand times more confident than I was at eleven, yet there are plenty of times that I still feel like the shy kid who doesn’t know what to say.
What Is Shyness?
One of the pre-teen girls I volunteer with once described her own shyness as “fearing the giant, deadly snake that’s following you around even though you know the snake doesn’t actually exist.” In my own experience and in the experience of many other shy people, shyness is not a positive feeling.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. Severely shy people may have physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.”
If that sounds like a pretty terrible experience, it’s because it is. Painfully shy people often deal with issues such low self-esteem, lack of confidence, few or no friends, limited social skills, anxiety, depression, and stress. They can also experience negative experiences like bullying, and feel withdrawn from family members, friends, and partners.
Since shyness is often linked to the painfully shy descriptions such as the one from the APA, many believe that being shy is a mental fallacy. Many people view it as an illness, and though it closely resembles social anxiety disorder, shyness and anxiety are not the same things. Nearly every person experiences shyness at some point in their lives. Many people, like myself, experience shyness as children and grow more self-confident with age.
There are several people who experience a healthy amount of shyness. Extroverts and introverts alike may fear public speaking or attending a social event where they don’t know anyone. Being shy doesn’t make you a lesser person, but most shy people want to be less shy simply because shyness and anxiety aren’t things that make us feel good.
Differences Between Shyness and Introversion
Shyness is not the same thing as introversion. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and founder of Quiet Revolution, “Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.”
Many introverts do not fear negative judgment to the extent that it profoundly impacts their everyday lives. In fact, many extroverts deal with crippling shyness and social anxiety. There is little correlation between shyness and introversion. So why do we equate introversion with being shy? On Dictionary.com, the definition of “introvert” is “a shy person” even though this is scientifically inaccurate.
The assumption that all introverts are shy is one of the biggest misconceptions about introversion. This is because society as a whole still views extroverted personality types as more popular, assertive, and successful. Many people believe that if an introvert works to overcome shyness, they can become an extrovert.
According to most personality type theories including the MBTI, introversion is not something that changes over time. An introverted personality type can work to develop their cognitive functions to reach their highest potential, but any attempt to “become an extrovert” will be unsuccessful because they’re going against their natural personality preferences.
However, an introvert can work to overcome their shy preference. Many introverts are bold, outgoing, and well-liked. People assume this means that they’re actually extroverted when it really means that they’re confident, friendly, and/or emotionally intelligent. At the end of the day, they still need quieter environments to recharge.
Shyness In The Brain
While shyness is not the same as introversion, research suggests there could be a link between shyness and high sensitivity.
According to a study on shyness in infants, “As early as four months of age, some babies show strong responses to novel stimuli…. While most babies might stare at a new mobile or coo in response to a new musical toy, a handful react with signs of distress, arching their backs and crying. Those babies are more likely to become the shy kids in the classroom.”
Studies have also indicated that shyness can affect cognitive performance. Shy children are thought to perform poorer on exams due to using brainpower to focus on the anxiety or fear of being evaluated. High performing shy children have drastically different brain patterns than high performing non-shy children and low performing shy and non-shy children (the latter three groups have similar brain patterns). This suggests high-performing shy kids have discovered a “neural workaround” that allows them to focus on work despite anxiety or fear.
We know that the brain is capable of working around shyness if the rewards are greater than the inhibition. This is why so many adults report being less shy with age. If being shy isn’t a personality trait, like introversion, or a mental disorder, like anxiety, then we can assume with enough practice and experience almost anyone can overcome it.
Shyness In Dating and Relationships
Now that we’ve defined what shyness is, we can more closely examine how it impacts us in everyday life. In the next article in this series, I’m going to discuss shyness in relationships. Is it attractive? Why do some people value shyness in a partner while others don’t? Do shy people tend to be more or less happy in relationships? How can shy people become more successful at dating? I’ve answered those questions and more in the next article in this series. Read it here.