Taking the Pain Out of Painfully Shy

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At the core of our existence lies a powerful drive to be with other people. There is much evidence that in the absence of human contact, people fall apart physically and mentally; they experience more sickness, stress and suicide than well-connected individuals. For all too many people, however, shyness is the primary barrier to meeting that basic need.

For more than two decades, I have been studying shyness. And in 1995, shyness pioneer Philip Zimbardo, PhD, and I summed up 20 years of research, concluding that the incidence of shyness is increasing. I also ran a small survey that included five open-ended questions asking the shy about their experiences.


We received thousands of responses. It was as if we had turned on a spigot, allowing people to release a torrent of emotions.


“My ex-wife picked me to marry her, so getting married wasn’t a problem. I didn’t want to get divorced, even though she was cheating on me, because I would be back out there trying to socialize. (But) I have a computer job now, and one of my strengths is that I work well alone.”

Traditionally, shyness has been seen as a personal problem, a result of such characteristics as excessive self-consciousness, low self-esteem and anticipation of rejection.

The survey responses have shown, however, that shyness is also promoted by outside forces in our culture. And the research has led us to conclude that there is nothing at all wrong with being shy. Respondents told us that they feel imprisoned by their shyness, a feeling that seems to be at the core of their pain. But, ironically, we find that the way to break out of the prison of shyness may be to embrace it.

“My shyness has caused major problems in my personal/social life. I have a strong hate for most people. I also have quite a superiority complex. I see so much stupidity and ignorance in the world that I feel superior to virtually everyone out there. I’m trying [not to], but it’s hard.”

Of the many voices we “heard” in response to our survey, one in particular emerged clearly--a group I call the “cynically shy.” These are people who have been rejected by their peers because of their lack of social skills and are angry about it. And like the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia in Littleton, Colo., they adopt a stance of superiority as they drift away.

“As we talked, I felt uneasy. I worried about how I looked, what I said, how I said what I said and so forth. Her compliments made me uncomfortable.”


A critical feature of shyness is a slowness to warm up. Shy people simply require extra time to adjust to novel or stressful situations, including everyday conversations and social gatherings.

The good news is that shy people eventually achieve everything that everyone else does--they date, marry, have children. But it takes them a little longer, which sometimes means they lack social support. When they want to talk about first-date jitters, for example, their peers will be talking about weddings.

Our surveys show that 48% of people are shy, an increase from 40% 15 years ago. So not only are the shy not alone, they probably have plenty of company at any social function.

“I can be anyone I want to be on the Internet and yet mostly be myself, because I know I will never meet these people I’m talking with and can close out if I get uncomfortable.”


It’s no secret that the Internet, e-mail and cell phones are changing the culture we live in, speeding it up and intensifying its complexity. We are also undergoing “interpersonal disenfranchisement.” Simply put, we are disconnecting from one another. We go from our cubicle to the car to our gated community, maintaining contact with only a small circle of friends and family. Other people become just e-mail addresses or faceless voices. And, again, the shy pay. They are the first to be excluded, bullied or treated hostilely.

It is no accident that the pharmaceutical industry has chosen this cultural moment to introduce the antidepressant Paxil as a cure for being “allergic to people.” The use of Paxil, however, makes shyness into a medical or psychiatric problem, which it has never been.


Ninety-one percent of shy respondents said they had made at least some effort to overcome their shyness. By far, the top technique they employ is forced extroversion. Sixty-seven percent said they make themselves go to parties, bars, the mall. That is good.

But unfortunately, they expect others to do all the work, to approach them and draw them out. Simply showing up is not enough.

The “successfully shy” recognize that they are shy. They develop an understanding of the nature and dynamics of shyness, its impact on the body, on cognitive processes and on behavior. And they overcome their social anxiety by letting go of their self-consciousness, that inward focus of attention on the things they can’t do well (like tell a joke). They accept that they aren’t great at small talk or that they get so nervous in social situations that they can’t draw on what is in their minds.

The successfully shy don’t change who they are. They change the way they think and the actions they take. There is nothing wrong with being shy. In fact, I have come to believe that what our society needs is not less shyness, but more.