Some people welcome new experiences and new people. They look forward to any opportunity to socialize. They’re often the first to introduce themselves and they jump into a conversation easily. Josh is like this. For him, being friendly and outgoing is natural, energizing, and fun. It doesn’t take much effort at all.
Other people are more like Josh’s friend Megan. Ever since elementary school, Megan has thought of herself as quiet and shy. She prefers to warm up slowly to new people or situations.
Some people may mistakenly think that Megan is standoffish or unfriendly. But it just takes time to get to know her. Megan’s classmates know she is a caring friend, a great listener, and an amazing wit. Her closest friends know even more about her — including the fact that she’s a talented pianist who writes her own music.
What Is Shyness?
Shyness is an emotion that affects how a person feels and behaves around others. Shyness can mean feeling uncomfortable, self-conscious, nervous, bashful, timid, or insecure. People who feel shy sometimes notice physical sensations like blushing or feeling speechless, shaky, or breathless.
Shyness is the opposite of being at ease with yourself around others. When people feel shy, they might hesitate to say or do something because they’re feeling unsure of themselves and they’re not ready to be noticed.
Reacting to New Things
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 are more likely to feel shy when they’re not sure how to act, what will happen, how others will react, or when all eyes are 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.
Like other emotions, shy feelings can be mild, medium, or intense — depending on the situation and the person. Someone who usually or often feels shy might think of himself or herself as a shy person. People who are shy may need more time to get used to change. They might prefer to stick with what’s familiar.
People who are shy often hesitate before trying something new. They often prefer watching others before joining in on a group activity. They usually take longer to warm up to 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.
Why Are Some People Shy?
Shyness is partly a result of genes a person has inherited. It’s also influenced by behaviors they’ve learned, the ways people have reacted to their shyness, and life experiences they’ve had.
- Genetics. Our genes determine our physical traits, like height, eye color, skin color, and body type. But genes also influence certain personality traits, including shyness. About 20% of people have a genetic tendency to be naturally shy. But not everyone with a genetic tendency to be shy develops a shy temperament. Life experiences also play a role.
Life experiences. When people are faced with a situation that may lead them to feel shy, how they deal with that situation can shape their future reactions to similar situations. For example, if people who are shy approach new things little by little, it can help them become more confident and comfortable. But if they feel pushed into situations they don’t feel prepared for, or if they are teased or bullied, it can make them even more shy.
The examples other people set can also play a role in whether a person learns to be shy or not. If the parents of a shy child are overly cautious or overprotective, it can teach the child to back away from situations that might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar.
Many people want to reduce their shyness. But people who are naturally shy also have gifts that they might not appreciate in themselves. For example, because shy people may prefer listening to talking, they sometimes become really good listeners (and what friend doesn’t appreciate that?!).
People who are shy might also become sensitive to other people’s feelings and emotions. Because of their sensitivity and listening skills, many people with a shy personality are especially caring toward others, and interested in how others feel. People often consider them the finest friends.
Of course, some people want to feel less shy so they can have more fun socializing and being themselves around others. If you’re trying to become less shy, it can help to remember:
- Overcoming shyness takes practice. People who are shy tend to give themselves fewer chances to practice social behaviors. It’s no wonder that people who shy away from socializing don’t feel as socially confident as those who are outgoing — they have less practice! The more you practice social behaviors, the easier they get, and the more natural they feel for you.
- Take slow, steady steps forward. Going slow is OK. But be sure to go forward. Stepping back from any situations that might trigger you to feel shy can reinforce shyness and keep it at a level that’s hard to get past. Build confidence by taking one small forward step at a time.
- It’s OK to feel awkward. Everyone does sometimes. People who are shy are often afraid to feel awkward or uncomfortable. But don’t let that keep you from doing what you want. You might feel awkward asking your crush for a first date. That’s perfectly natural. Whether your crush says yes — or no — is out of your control. But not asking at all means you’ll never get that date. So go for it anyway!
- Know that you can do it. Plenty of people learn to manage their shyness. Know that you can, too.
When Shyness Is Extreme
Most naturally shy people can learn to manage their shyness so that it doesn’t interfere with what they enjoy doing. They learn warm up to new people and situations. They develop their friendliness and confidence and get past shy feelings.
But for a few people, shy feelings can be extreme and can seem hard to conquer. When shy feelings are this strong, they prevent a person from interacting, participating in class, and socializing. Instead of warming up after a while, someone with extreme shyness has shy feelings that build into a powerful fear. This can cause a person to avoid social situations and hold back on trying new things or making new friends. Extreme shyness can make it uncomfortable — and seem impossible — to talk to classmates or teachers.
Because extreme shyness can interfere with socializing, it can also affect a person’s self-confidence and self-esteem. And it can prevent someone from taking advantage of opportunities or trying new things. Extreme feelings of shyness are often a sign of an anxiety condition called social phobia. People with social phobia often need the help of a therapist to overcome extreme shyness.
Someone with social phobia — or extreme shyness — can overcome it! It takes time, patience, courage, and practice. But it’s worth the hard work. The payoff is enjoying more friends, having more fun, and feeling more confident.
Be True to Yourself
We can’t change our true inner nature (and who would want to?). If you have a naturally shy style, or if shyness holds you back, you might have to work at developing a sense of ease around new people.
Most people find that the more they practice socializing, the easier it gets. Practicing social skills — like assertiveness; conversation; and friendly, confident body language — can help people overcome shyness, build confidence, and get more enjoyment from everyday experiences.
Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2013