Shy people are like ducks: calm on the surface, paddling like crazy underneath
Shyness is linked with depression, anxiety and drug use, but it doesn’t have to limit you
Nicole Kidman. Photograph: Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images
Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg, David Letterman and Richard Branson have all claimed to be shy. Shy people are preoccupied with what others think of them. They are self-conscious and dislike being the focus of attention. Some visibly appear uncomfortable, but many are privately shy. While they appear at ease, they struggle with high levels of adrenalin and a self-critical inner dialogue. Like a duck, calm on the surface, they are paddling like crazy underneath. After interactions, it can take hours to recover from a social hangover.
Shyness is on a spectrum from mild social awkwardness to chronic withdrawal. It differs from introversion in that introverts do not fear social situations, but have a preference for time alone and solitary activities. Social anxiety is when symptoms become extreme, with avoidance and panic attacks often featuring.
Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo refers to “shy extroverts” who can publicly appear outgoing but experience anxiety and negative self-assessment. They are trained extroverts functioning with ease in roles such as talk show hosting and politics and are able to “act” outgoing in their comfort zones.
Research findings indicate that shyness is linked with depression, anxiety and loneliness. Alcohol and recreational drugs are often used by shy people to relax in social settings. Studies have found that verbal fluency is a consistent variable linked with success. Opportunities may be lost as the desire to join a club, date or go to an event is thwarted by inhibition. Shyness can also contribute to sexual difficulties and Zimbardo’s studies found a link with shy men frequenting prostitutes.
On the positive side, a shy person is usually a good listener, reflective, thoughtful and empathic. Deeper bonds in friendships can evolve. Their quietude can have a calming effect on others, and there is often modesty, which is an appealing quality.
So what causes shyness? It develops from an interplay between biological and environmental factors. According to developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan and colleagues at Harvard University, up to a third of shy adults are born with this temperament. Furthermore, shyness is passed on through generations, with parents and grandparents of inhibited infants reporting being shy as children.
A shy person’s life story may include being bullied, family conflict or over-protective parenting. The formation of early emotional bonds or major transitions and challenges later on in life can contribute to being shy.
Being shy does not have to limit your life. The first step to overcoming shyness is acceptance. See it as just another way of being, and work on boosting your self-esteem. Accepting that you will not be everyone’s cup of tea and vice versa takes the pressure off the need for external validation.
Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh said “When you touch non-fear, you are free”. Mindfulness practice can help you calm yourself and can guide your headspace into clearer territory, ameliorating the negative self-talk that exacerbates socialising. The Headspace app and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work or courses based on his eight-week programme guide novices into this smoothly.
Your inner critic can be assessed and shrunk. In therapy with me, people disclose negative self-talk experienced mid-conversations such as “ I sound boring”, “This person will think I’m an idiot”, and then negatively rewind with post-interactional analyses including “That was a stupid thing to say”, “ I made a fool of myself”, and on and on the self-abating goes.
Such thought processes need to be tracked down and replaced. Learning focusing methods eases the social tension experienced. Conversational skills are exactly what it says on the tin, and can be mastered to act and feel less shy. Using open-ended questions with who, what ,where, when and how, and preparing a range of topics on current affair items, places you have visited, films seen, lifestyle, your work all build confidence in interactions.
Take the pressure off yourself by realising that conversations are 50-50 and not all up to you. If there’s a gap, it’s not all on your shoulders to fill it.
Words are only a small part of the communication process. Non-verbal communication has a significant impact with tone of voice, open posture, eye contact, facial expressions and nodding. Rehearse these on video or in front of a mirror to improve on them.
Take social risks
Zimbardo recommends taking social risks, such as saying hello to people, smiling and learning small talk. Setting up the social situation can alleviate anxiety spikes. Focus on what you will enjoy most about the social engagement, such as seeing an old friend or enjoying a tasty meal. Socialise in small steps by meeting a friend for an hour initially, then longer the next time.
Richard Branson, despite having been naturally shy, has referred to being the first to say yes and tackling his fears head on. Although he has admitted to still feeling nervous before going on stage, he tries to talk as he would to a best friend. He is an example of someone not ashamed of his shyness and not limited by it.
While technology might seem ideal for the shy, it is limiting social skills acquisition, with people communicating more to screens. Even in workplaces, meetings may involve conference calls or emails sent to colleagues a few desks away. Tweets are short and sweet. And more people are working from home, alone. Early interventions such as social skills training, real-life games and drama can all help shy children thrive and reach their potential.
There is a plethora of self-help resources, such as Zimbardo’s book Shyness: What It Is, What to Do about It, that provide useful strategies to implement. If your shyness is restricting you from fully living, discuss with your GP and explore evidence-based therapy, such as CBT. Branson says growth happens when you put yourself outside your comfort zone.
So start pushing those boundaries out and welcome in the world.