Full disclosure: Shyness is by no means a negative trait. In fact, scientists say that shyness is quite normal. Whether you find it difficult talking to people at work, or any situation where you feel like you're going to be judged (maybe at the gym, in a restaurant, at a party), experts say everyone experiences moments of inadequacy and anxiety at some point.
However, it's when shyness inhibits people from socializing entirely that it can become a problem. "Most people experience the feeling of being shy at one point or another, but for some, it can be debilitating enough that it prevents them from participating in social situations that are important to personal or professional goals," writes psychologist Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., professor, and author of Think Forward to Thrive.
Vilhauer explains how, at its worst, shyness can result in isolation, loneliness, or even depression or substance abuse. On the bright side, for those interested, she also offers up an actionable solution for overcoming shyness and thriving in any social situation: Shifting your mindset, and planning for social gatherings to go well. But first, let's explore where shyness comes from, and its history.
What is Shyness?
According to a BBC article on the psychology of shyness, Dr. Thalia Eley, professor of developmental behavioral genetics at Kings College London, says that genetics is only responsible for 30 percent of the trait, while the rest, "comes about as a response to the environment." Eley makes note that there are thousands of genes involved, mixed with our individual day-to-day life experiences that each play a role in shaping your temperament. “It’s not that it’s one or the other; it’s both [genes and environment] and they work together,” Eley tells BBC.
From an evolutionary perspective, shyness in humans may have been a survival mechanism, as "it was also useful for people who were more risk averse, [were] more aware of threat and would do a better job protecting young offspring, for example,” Eley says.
In more modern times, "Shyness, unlike introversion, which is associated with being quiet or reserved, is characterized by a strong tendency to overestimate negative scrutiny," Vilhauer explains. "So a good deal of thought in a social setting is spent on how to not do something wrong, instead of on how to do something right."
So, if science says shyness is mostly environment-related, then it's possible to reshape our environment to overcome (or at the very least, manage) shyness so it doesn't prevent us from living our best, most fulfilled lives.
That said, Vilhauer says one good way to reduce your anxiety is to spend more time thinking about what you could do to make a social situation a success. That might begin with asking yourself what exactly you're afraid of or worried about in a particular situation. For example, if you're scheduled to give a work presentation or doing any type of public speaking, are you worried that you'll have to nail your speech verbatim? Or, if you're at a social gathering, are you afraid you won't have anything interesting to talk about, or are you worried people won't find you engaging? Recognizing the root of your anxiety is the first step in challenging those fears.
Prepare For Social Situations
Additionally, ahead of social situations, Vilhauer recommends brainstorming topics for small talk ahead of time and coming up with an emergency exit strategy. "Exposing yourself to your fear is the best way to overcome it. However, it is also important to feel like you are in control," she concludes. "If you know you have a worst-case scenario exit strategy, then you won't feel trapped." Keep these conversation starters and exits for inspiration for your next dinner party, work event, or any instance where you feel you'll be stretching beyond your comfort zone.
- Where are you from? Have you lived anywhere before this? How do they compare?
- What's your favorite thing to do around here?
- What do you like to do with your time?
- Do you have any pets?
- What brings you here? How do you know so-and-so?
- Do you have any book/restaurant/movie/TV show recommendations? Tell me more about them.
- I'm going to use the bathroom. I'll be right back.
- I didn't realize it was getting so late! I have to dip out soon, but it was great chatting with you.
Jones KM, Schulkin J, Schmidt LA. Shyness: Subtypes, Psychosocial Correlates, and Treatment Interventions. Psychol. 2014;05:244–54. doi:10.4236/psych.2014.53035
The Science Behind Why Some of Us Are Shy. BBC. June 5, 2019.