Overcoming shyness by speaking in front of small groupShyness, a personality trait or emotional state, might be characterized by awkwardness, worry, or tension around other people, especially strangers. It is not a diagnosable mental health condition, but someone who wants to overcome shyness might seek psychotherapy to address it.

Shyness is not synonymous with or linked to generalized anxiety, social anxiety, isolation, introversion, or agoraphobia, though someone with these issues might also be shy.

Characteristics of Shyness

Shyness can manifest in both physical and emotional ways. Some physical characteristics of shyness might include an upset stomach, blushing, sweating, trembling, or a pounding heart. Shy people also often experience a range of psychological or emotional signs, such as:

Though behaviors look different for anyone who is shy, shyness might be the reason someone has trouble making eye contact or finds it difficult to make small talk on an elevator. Some people might stutter slightly; lower their voice when communicating; or cope with nerves by fidgeting, swallowing repeatedly, or using closed-off body language such as crossed arms or legs. These behaviors do not always indicate shyness, however.

One of the most notable components of shyness seems to be a hypersensitivity to the experience of shyness in itself. For someone who is shy, the understanding and awareness of their own shyness can be as emotionally distressing as the shyness itself. This might be due to internalization of social expectations that demand a more outgoing personality and enthusiastic demeanor. The experience of shyness, thus, can be as much a preoccupation with self-image and self-presentation as an awkwardness surrounding social interaction.

Distinctions Between Shyness and Mental Health Issues

For some, shyness is a childhood trait outgrown in adulthood as individuals learn ways of overcoming (or ignoring) the difficulties associated with it. But it’s not uncommon to continue experiencing shyness throughout life, or even to start noticing shyness in adulthood. Research on shyness is mixed: Some theories maintain shyness is biological or hereditary, but others suggest shyness will not persist if a child is exposed to certain kinds of social interactions and stimuli.

Commonly associated with agoraphobia or social anxiety, shyness might bear some resemblance to each of these issues from an observer’s perspective. People who are shy do not necessarily loathe people or social interaction but simply find interpersonal communication awkward or uncomfortable. Someone might be shy and social, shy and unsocial, unshy and social, or unshy and unsocial. But while someone with agoraphobia feels a fear of being trapped, this component is not present in shyness.

Shyness is also sometimes confused with introversion; however, introversion means a more broad sensitivity to environmental stimulation than a specific discomfort with social interactions. And though agoraphobia and social anxiety may become debilitating for some people, shyness is far less likely to affect life dramatically. A vast majority of researchers and psychotherapists today agree shyness is simply an aspect of personality–not reason alone to label, diagnose, or alter their behavior.

How Psychotherapy Can Help Shyness

Some people feel ashamed of being shy or worry shyness is a negative personality trait. Some even wish for a “cure” of sorts, hoping to overcome the awkwardness or tension they feel interacting with other people. It is a good idea to keep in mind, however, that shyness is only one aspect of personality, and many other traits help define who a person is and their relation to other people.

Some people find shyness affects daily life to the extent they feel unable to have conversations with other people without seizing up or removing themselves from the situation altogether. Shyness might prevent someone from fully enjoying hobbies, being productive at work, or maintaining an enriching social life. For these reasons, an individual might seek help from a psychotherapist to mediate their shyness or give them skills to cope and adapt with shyness when it arises.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and individual talk therapy in general have helped some people cope with shyness, especially when shyness manifests in habits (fidgeting, avoiding eye contact) that can be addressed individually. Other researchers have noted that for an issue defined by a difficulty interacting with strangers and groups, a more effective treatment option might be group therapy. In this setting, people who wish to change how they are affected by shyness can mimic interactions they find awkward or uncomfortable. Group therapy offers a safe environment for exploring deeper aspects of shyness such as low self-worth or worry related to self-presentation.


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Last Updated: 09-28-2017

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