Shyness causes an uncomfortable feeling when a person in introduced into a situation with new or unfamiliar people. It affects the way we think: feeling that we are not as good as others. It affects the way we feel: excessive nervousness, racing thoughts, negative self-evaluation, scrambled thoughts. It even affects the way we react physically: shakiness in hands and even in the voice, tightening in the stomach, tension headache – these feelings can be slight or severe, and short or long-lived.

Between 1970 and 1980, shyness grew among American adults by 10% and continues to grow. In one survey, only 5% of the interviewees stated that they were never shy.

So it seems as if shyness is natural and if so why should we be concerned? There are many negative consequences to being shy. The degree of shyness determines the degree of detriment to the individual. Some are deeply troubling:

  • They don’t take advantage of social situations
  • They date less
  • They are less expressive verbally
  • They experience more loneliness
  • Males marry later and postpone families.
  • They have been found to use alcohol to alleviate social anxiety
  • This can lead to social inappropriateness and substance abuse.
  • They anticipate failure
  • They’re social strategies are self-handicapping (“I can’t do it because I’m shy)
  • Chronic social isolation leads to increasing loneliness and the related mental health problems.
  • It can even lead to chronic illness and a shorter lifespan.

There is some evidence that shyness may have its roots in genetics, it is, however, treatable. That is not to say that after a few sessions it can be completely defeated, but with some guidance, work and time, we can overcome most of the negative consequences.

Professor Jerome Kagan of Harvard spent many years researching the characteristics and origins of shyness.

The following signify genetically predisposed shyness:

  • Children who don’t have friends
  • Play alone
  • Avoid joining groups
  • Avoid speaking out in groups
  • Fearfulness of dogs or heights
  • Pickiness about new kinds of foods

Children who exhibit shy behaviors around new people but are adventurous in other ways are probably dealing with some kind of environmental stress rather that a shy temperament.

Temperament does not automatically mean that a person will grow up to be a shy adult. If, however, they grow up in a stressful environment, such as bickering parents, bullying at school or at home, or very overprotective surroundings, shyness is likely to develop.

It is estimated that 10 to 15 % of children are born with temperamental shyness. These children generally show the symptoms of shyness from their very early months up to about age 2.

On the other hand, environmental shyness is seen between the ages of five and six.

Parents concerned about a shy child should provide a calm, affectionate, predictable, yet somewhat demanding and encouraging home and school life. This will ease their discomfort. This does not mean that you will completely reverse the temperament of an hereditarily shy child, but you can widen their circle of social contacts.

For those children who are shy because of a stressful environment, removing the source of that stress can work wonders. Giving a child reasonable responsibilities that show great promise for success is one way to help child gain self-confidence and help a child learn how to fit in.

For any type of shyness, other family members can help by sharing feelings and memories to help them feel less alone, better understood and more hopeful about fitting into a social environment.

Adults also feel shy. Besides the temperamentally and environmentally shy person, there is a category that I read about the other day called the shy extrovert. I put myself into this category.

The shy extrovert has usually grown up in an extremely stressful and unstable environment and the problem is more centered on low self-esteem and fear of rejection. These adults have often been abused as children. They had parents who have unrealistic expectations and criticize even when the child achieved the goal set for them. Nothing is ever quite good enough for these parents. They can always find some flaw in the behavior, accomplishments, or even the appearance of the child.

Treatment for shy adults consists of behavioral homework such as forcing oneself to converse with coworkers or people met in stores and gas stations, developing a “tool kit” using drills and exercises that train in positive social behavior, building trust, converting negative thoughts about oneself, and training in effective communication skills like opening a conversation, assertiveness and negotiation.

I will cover some of these activities in the area of interpersonal skills under the heading of tolerance of discomfort. In surveys, only 15% report never feeling shy. Since some shyness is a discomfort among nearly 85% of all American adults, I feel it useful to include some exercises to help ease this particular distress. I would recommend that even if you don’t consider yourself shy, that you practice these skills.

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