People who are shy are often mistaken for being cold, aloof, or awkward. Even though shyness is a common trait, there’s still a societal tendency to tell people how not to be shy — as if it’s a personality trait greatly in need of correction to properly navigate the world. Yet, no one would think of telling a socially gregarious person how to be a bit more reserved.
The science behind shyness has revealed that this personality type isn’t entirely down to genetics. In fact, only 30% of shyness is inherited. Researchers have found that environmental factors also play a role. Because shyness is partly inherited and partly developed, it can actually be changed.
Is Shyness a Trait That Needs to Be Alleviated?
The question remains: Is shyness a trait that needs to be changed? To assume it needs treatment is to assume that people who are shy are suffering as a result of it. Experts believe that shyness only needs treatment if the person experiencing it develops social anxiety as a result. Otherwise, it’s actually a normal personality type that doesn’t need to be corrected.
Shy people can make others uncomfortable, prompting a need to “fix” the trait. Yet, it only needs fixing if the person who is shy finds it to be problematic at work, in relationships, or for purposes of daily functioning. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that people aren’t projects, and shyness is a normal part of the spectrum of humanity.
The Difference Between Introversion and Shyness
Yet, many people still mistake shyness for introversion. Introverts can be as social as extroverts. They simply prefer more time alone to recharge. The difference between social introverts and their extroverted counterparts is that introverts often feel depleted after social interactions and need time alone whereas extroverts thrive on socializing.
A shy person can be either introverted or extroverted. An extroverted shy person can exist when someone thrives in the company of people they know but are reticent in new social situations. Shyness can be largely situational. Someone who is shy is unlikely to appear that way to someone they have a comfortable relationship with but may be actively avoidant of other social interactions.
Introverted shy people can also exist. In this case, a person thrives on being alone and is particularly unlikely to approach others due to discomfort with new situations. It’s possible for an introverted shy person to be socially avoidant and yet content with their lives. It’s a mistake to assume that the presence of either introversion or shyness indicates a need for change.
There is no therapy that will change an introvert into an extrovert. Since shyness is partly environmental, it can be addressed through treatment if it becomes problematic for the shy person. Note: treatment is not simply required because those around the shy person would be more comfortable with others if they were more outgoing.
Shyness Can Be Its Own Reward
While there are many who will extoll the virtues of un-learning shy behaviors, researchers discovered that people who identify as shy may have more activity in the reward center of their brain than people who are more social. While it’s been commonly understood that shy people experience heightened fear, we’re only just learning that shyness can be rewarding, too. Scientists believe this could be due to heightened overall sensitivity.
For individuals who enjoy this reserved temperament, there is no reason for them to take measures to change it. Although many people with shyness can be more vulnerable to mental health issues like anxiety or depression, it’s possible for someone to be socially reserved and perfectly content that way. In this case, it’s superfluous to suggest they change if they report being happy with their lives.
Shyness vs. Social Anxiety
It’s also important to distinguish between shyness and social anxiety. While it’s possible for a shy person to experience social anxiety, not every person with social anxiety is shy. A shy person can experience discomfort in social situations whereas a person with social anxiety has a mental health condition that is characterized by excessive fear related to social interactions.
While they may have some overlapping characteristics, a shy person may have situational avoidance of social situations. They may feel more comfortable blending into the background of life and are unlikely to seek out new social opportunities. While someone who is shy may be avoidant, they are still capable of interacting when necessary.
Someone with social anxiety could have physical symptoms related to anxiety and overwhelming fear before, during, and after social occasions. A person who experiences this type of anxiety may freeze up in social situations and feel incapable of managing them. Unlike a preference to be alone, social anxiety can be extremely debilitating to those who experience it. It can also get worse over time whereas shyness tends to remain the same.
Shyness is Relative
It’s also important to note that shyness is relative. In Western countries where individualism is revered, being shy is seen as a social impediment. However, in Eastern countries, shyness is not seen as a problem. Instead, it is considered a positive trait that benefits the collective over the individual.
Understanding cultural differences is important when considering why some people are shy and others aren’t. Culture is a key part of our environment. Additionally, it’s more likely that people will feel the need to fix shyness when living in the Western part of the world rather than in the East where this trait is more accepted.
How NOT To Be Shy
For those who find their shyness problematic for daily functioning, there is help available to learn how to address their discomfort and become more adept at navigating social situations. In other words, it’s possible to learn how not to be shy —but only if you want to. Here’s how.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that could be used to treat shyness. CBT can help people who experience shyness learn to address the thoughts and behaviors that come with their reserved behavior. With practice, someone who is shy can use CBT to become more social or to address any uncomfortable aspects of their personality.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques include the following:
- Reframing thought patterns
- Deep breathing techniques
- Guided discovery
- Exposure therapy
- Addressing cognitive distortions
- Behavioral experiments
- Interoceptive exposure
- Mindfulness meditation
Each of these treatments is intended to help process and integrate thoughts, feelings, and physical situations that come with social discomfort. With practice both in and outside of therapy, a person who is shy can learn to initiate social interactions with less fear and physical discomfort. It can also be used in conjunction with other treatments such as group therapy.
Group therapy can also be used to support someone who is experiencing challenges related to being shy. In a group setting, a shy person could have opportunities to practice social skills with others. This could be a good opportunity to discuss social tendencies and to share this experience in a safe space with others who understand the ways shyness can impact one’s life.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is one way to treat the discomfort that comes with new social situations. Learning to become aware of the body to better relax tension can help someone who is shy learn to deal with the physiological effects of dealing with uncomfortable situations. While it’s not a cure for this personality type, it could be helpful to anyone who would like to be more outgoing.
While SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are often used to treat social anxiety, it presents an ethical issue to assume that shyness itself needs to be medicated. Unless shyness presents with social anxiety, medication is likely unnecessary. It’s important to see a mental health professional to be evaluated to see if the shyness has become a social phobia rather than a social preference.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is an evidence-based therapy technique that has been used to treat trauma and anxiety. Because shyness can develop due to environmental factors, EMDR can be used as a form of treatment to address any fears that may have influenced this personality adaptation. EMDR is considered one of the most affordable therapeutic options due to its short-term nature and long-term effectiveness.
Self-Help for Social Skills
There are also self-help options for shy people. While this can include self-help books, podcasts, and other resources, it can also be as simple as practice. While practice doesn’t make perfect, it certainly makes progress. For anyone looking to overcome shyness, it could be helpful to attend meetups and social events to practice socializing with new people.
Starting small can be helpful. Even speaking to one new person in a social situation could help ease the discomfort. Attending a meetup at an already familiar location can be another way to self-soothe during the process. Additionally, bringing a friend along for support can make it easier to try new things and make new friends.
What NOT To Do
It’s also important to talk about ineffective treatments for shyness. While mental health therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can successfully treat shyness, there are some ways of dealing with social discomfort that can be maladaptive. For instance, using alcohol as a form of “liquid courage” or using drugs to lower inhibition could prove harmful to oneself or others.
Additionally, suggesting a “fake it until you make it” mindset around social situations could also be ineffective. It would be better for someone who is shy to build genuine confidence rather than to fake being outgoing. Building self-esteem could be far more effective than simply learning to mimic it.
It’s important to note that ignoring unsolicited advice is a good general rule of thumb. If someone is happy being shy, it’s best to ignore anyone who suggests they correct it. Being shy, like being outgoing, is normal.
Shy people are often told to simply step out of their comfort zone and into their lives. Yet, comfort zones are there for a reason. For many shy people, their socially reserved nature is just a part of who they are and how they function. It is often more problematic for others than for themselves. In this case, there’s no need to address it further.
For those who experience shyness and dislike the way it impacts their lives, further treatment could help alleviate the anxiety that comes with social interactions. For those who enjoy being shy, keep calm and carry on. Otherwise, it may be possible to un-learn much of the shyness to step outside of the old comfort zone and into a brand new one.
Article originally published in The Truly Charming
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