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The Concept of Shyness in Psychology and Its Relation to Anxiety

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“My feelings are too loud for words and too shy for the world”

– Dejan Stojanovic

Shyness is the term, used to label the emotional state of feeling anxious and inhibited in social situations. From a social psychological perspective, situations differ in their power to elicit reactions of social anxiety. Shyness is the awkwardness or apprehension some people feel when approaching or being approached by other people. Shyness refers to an anxiety that a person has in social situations that usually has 3 parts, a feeling of emotional arousal and specific physical effects such as nausea, acute self-consciousness and being cautious and quiet (Nugent, Pam M. S. 2013). Shyness is defined as an anxious preoccupation of the self in response to real or imagined social interactions (Melchoir & Cheek, 1990).

Shyness is characterized by active avoidance of social contact (Rubin, Stewart, & Coplan, 1995) due to fear of social scrutiny and embarrassment, feelings of negative self-worth (Crozier, 1981), low self-esteem (Schmidt & Fox, 1995), anxiety (Hirshfeld et al. , 1992), and occasionally depression. Unlike introverts, who feel energized by time alone, shy people often desperately want to connect with others, but don’t know how or can’t tolerate the anxiety that comes with human interaction. Ratings of shyness-eliciting events reveal that interactions with strangers, especially those of the opposite sex or in positions of authority, encounters requiring assertive behavior, and explicitly evaluative settings such as job interviews provoke the strongest feelings of social anxiety. Quietness, gaze aversion, and awkward body language are the most common behavioral signs of shyness. New and unfamiliar situations can bring out shy feelings like the first day of school, meeting someone new, or speaking in front of a group for the first time.

People feel shy when they’re not sure how to act, don’t know how others will react, or when attention is on them. People are less likely to feel shy in situations where they know what to expect, feel sure of what to do or say, or are among familiar people. Shy feelings can be mild, medium, or intense but, it depends on the situation and the person. People who feel shy often or at times, might think of themselves as a shy person. Shy people may be a good listener and they may hesitate to try out new things. They usually take much time to get with new people and situations. Sometimes being quiet and introverted is a sign that someone has a naturally shy personality. But that’s not always the case. Being quiet is not always the same as being shy (D’Arcy Lyness, 2016). Recent research supports the negative image of the trait by documenting how shyness can be a barrier to personal well-being, social adjustment, and occupational fulfillment. Some people prefer to spend time alone rather than with others but also feel comfortable when they are in social settings. Such people are non-anxious introverts, who may be unsociable but are not shy. The opposite of shyness is social self-confidence, not extraversion. The problem for truly shy people is that their anxiety prevents them from participating in social life when they want to or need to.

Below are some of the factors that leads to shyness

  • Lack of self-confidence: Low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence can force the brain to try to protect the person by making him shy.
  • Inferiority complex: feelings of inferiority could lead to shyness. If a person felt worthless he would be too reluctant to express himself or to interact with people.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionism can lead to shyness. If a person wanted to say everything perfectly then he might end up speaking much less and so becoming shy.
  • Lack of social skills: When a person lacks proper social skills he will become self-inhibited around others and he might become shy because of not finding anything to say.
  • Self-image problems: Any kind of self-inhibiting thoughts can lead to shyness. Since self-image issues can lead to self-inhibition around others they can lead to shyness.
  • Fear of people: A bad past or a dysfunctional family can lead to many problems such as fear of intimacy or fear of people (Radwan, 2007).

Shyness is a personality trait that affects a child’s temperament. Some infants are born shy and more sensitive. Some of them are quiet when they meet new people or might sink his/her head into his/her mother’s shoulder. Some children may feel shy in certain situations, like when meeting new people. Other children may learn to be shy because of experiences in school or at home. As of 2004, research tended to distinguish shyness from introversion. Introverts simply prefer solitary to social activities but do not fear social encounters as shy people do, while extroverts prefer social to solitary activities. Eysenck (1947) believed that most individual differences in personality could be explained by varying and interacting levels of neuroticism and extraversion. The initial concept of shyness was rooted in this interaction. Individuals low on extraversion and high on neuroticism were characterized as being socially shy. A distinction can be made between individuals who are introverted and individuals who are characterized as temperamentally shy.

For example, both introverted and shy children may prefer to be alone and engage in solitary play activities; however, an introverted child does not typically display overt signs of anxiety and is unlikely to experience difficulties in social interactions. On the other hand, an extremely shy child is likely to display overt signs of distress and experience problems when attempting to enter social situations (Schmidt & Fox, 1999). Over the last two decades, there has been an increase in the amount of research dedicated to the study of shyness. Shyness is a common and pervasive phenomenon that over 90% of the general population has reported experiencing at some point in their lives (Zimbardo, 1977). Temperamental shyness is a personality feature that emerges during early infancy and is characterized by a more severe and persistent form of shyness and social withdrawal. Ten to fifteen percent of people experience temperamental shyness (Kagan, 1994). Research shows, however, that 25 percent of the time genetic predisposition to shyness does not develop into shyness. Some researchers believe that a shy temperament may require environmental triggers, such as insecurity of attachment in the form of difficult relationships with parents, family conflict or chaos, frequent criticism, a dominating older sibling, or a stressful school environment. Although decades of research have been dedicated to studying human shyness, problems with adequately defining shyness persist.

Researchers in the field have used numerous terms interchangeably to characterize and study similar constructs such as social reticence, social isolation, social withdrawal, social anxiety, social phobia, introversion, timidity, low sociability, social inhibition, social wariness, and behavioral inhibition (Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993; Schmidt & Buss, 2010). Shyness was originally believed to be a unitary construct (Pilkonis, 1977a, b); however, due to disagreement regarding the conceptualization of shyness, some have suggested that the construct of shyness is multidimensional (Crozier, 1981). Different subtypes of shyness have since been proposed. Buss (1986) suggested that there are at least two types of shyness: a fearful shyness and a self-conscious shyness.

According to Buss, fearful shyness emerges early in development during ages 6-12 months and is associated with the infant’s fear of strangers. Fearful shyness does not require self-awareness and is associated with inhibition in novel situations. Self-conscious shyness is a later-developing subtype of shyness that emerges around 3 to 4 years of age and coincides with the development of self-awareness, perspective taking, embarrassment, and self-conscious emotions. Self-conscious shyness involves an individual’s ability to assume a detached-observer perspective toward the self. Empirical evidence suggests differences between the two shyness subtypes on multiple levels. Bruch, Giordano, and Pearl (1986) reported that the two subtypes differed on self-report measures of behavioral inhibition, social skills, and somatic anxiety. Fearfully shy adults experienced greater difficulties in these areas.

Results also indicated that fearful shyness had an earlier onset than self-conscious shyness. Schmidt and Robinson (1992) found that fearfully shy adults had significantly lower self-esteem than self-consciously shy adults. According to Asendorpf’s approach-avoidance heuristic framework, shyness develops from an approach-avoidance conflict (individuals who score high on social approach and social avoidance). Children who are socially shy wish to engage in play activities with their peers but cannot successfully enter the social playgroup. Shy children are contrasted with avoidant children (individuals who score low on social approach and high on social avoidance). Individuals who score low on social approach and low on social avoidance are described as introverts, and those who score high on social approach and low on social avoidance are characterized as sociable. Each of these subtypes of shyness yields different developmental and psychosocial outcomes (Rubin & Asendorpf, 1993). Shy children experience high levels of anxiety during socially evaluative situations (Fox et al. , 1995), whereas children who are described as avoidant are typically socially withdrawn and may experience greater depression (Rubin et al. , 1995).

There are a range of measurable correlates of shyness that are found in children and adults. These correlates include: psychophysiological (e. g. , high morning and daytime cortisol levels, right frontal brain electrical asymmetry, and heightened baseline heart rate; Beaton et al. , 2006; Schmidt, 1999; Schmidt, Santesso, Schulkin, & Segalowitz, 2007); cognitive/affective (e. g. , low self-worth, loneliness, distress, negative emotional intensity, dispositional negative affect, depression, and neuroticism, low self-esteem, anxious thoughts, heightened negative emotion; Ashbaugh, Antony, McCabe, Schmidt, & Swinson, 2005; Brunet & Schmidt, 2007, 2008; Crozier, 1981); behavioral (e. g. , behavioral inhibition, startle response, gaze aversion, reduction in speech, poor development of social skills, competence and less assertiveness, Pilkonis, 1977a,b; Snidman & Kagan, 1994); and psychosocial (e. g. , social anxiety disorder, substance use disorders, eating disorders; Beidel & Turner, 1998; Zuckerman, 1994; Bulik, Sullivan, Weltzin, & Kaye, 1995).

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