Shyness is a remarkably common affliction. Experts believe the incidence of shyness in the United States is close to 50 percent—and rising.
Most shy individuals are not experiencing the problem at the acute level in which it becomes a social anxiety disorder. Yet even “gentle shyness” can be painful since it derives from the fear of social disapproval and humiliation.
It’s important to distinguish between shy people and introverts. Some introverts are shy, of course, but shyness is inherently painful while introversion is usually not. Shyness is rooted in fear, while introversion is largely derived from one’s preference for quieter, more solitary situations and experiences.
It’s also important to distinguish shyness from sensory processing disorder. People with this disorder experience varied unpleasant sensations due to how they process input from their own body and the environment. For this reason, they often avoid social situations—for instance, noisy parties and restaurants with strong smells—and can be seen as shy.
Shy people process social encounters through inner fear. (This correlation between shyness and inner fear is shown here.) Because their perception of the world and others is tainted by inner fear, shy people see the people they encounter as being indifferent to them, disappointed in them, critical of them, or hostile toward them.
Inner fears are leftovers from the helplessness of childhood. They account for much of the irrational fears that adults still experience, both consciously and unconsciously. (Read, The Infantile Basis of Our Fears.) Shy people (and others, too) can overcome these fears by being watchful and observant of them. The aim is to recognize everyday fear as irrational and to understand that it’s based on old emotional associations.
Experiencing one’s everyday life through fear is obviously not healthy. When such fear is not exposed as irrational, people use various rationalizations and defenses to validate the fear, thereby making it seem more legitimate. People need to look inward and stop being so eager to disown their unresolved fears. The fears are disowned when they’re projected outward onto alleged external threats, thereby exaggerating the threats or turning situations into self-created problems.
A shy person sees and experiences others as if they, in turn, are seeing him or her in some negative light that often includes scorn and mockery. The inner fear also induces the impression that others are menacing and capable of harm. The shy person’s fear causes him or her to feel threatened, even though the nature of the threat is vague or obscure. Being around people he or she knows to be friendly and kind is calming and reassuring.
Their impression of being threatened feels real to shy people because that’s how, through their inner critic and self-doubt, they experience themselves. On an inner level that’s largely unconscious, they experience their inner critic as a threating presence.
Unresolved inner fears are quite ready and willing to be felt. They simmer just beneath the surface of shy people. They leak to the surface during social encounters. They can even arise when a person is just thinking about such encounters. This inner fear has many kinds of symptoms—including worry, anxiety, and depression—and shyness is just one of these symptoms.
Inner conflict is part of the problem. Consciously, shy people want to be seen in a positive light, but unconsciously they’re ready and willing to experience themselves in the old familiar way, namely through the emotional impression of being seen in a critical, mocking, or scornful manner. Consciously, they want to feel strong, but unconsciously they’re still prepared to experience themselves through weakness and fear.
They’re compelled, based on their whole psychological history, to continue to experience themselves through such conflict. They’re in danger of remaining trapped in the conflict unless they can see and understand the dynamics of their entrapment.
Let’s look more deeply at the shy person’s unconscious resonance with being seen in a negative light. This can involve expectations of being seen as a disappointment, as a lesser person or a bad person, or as someone who’s lacking in value. Why would someone expect to be seen in a negative light? I’ve discussed that question in an earlier post. I’ll just note here that such negative self-assessment derives from inner conflict associated with inner passivity, inner fears, the sex drive, bodily functions, and shame.
Shyness is a symptom of inner fear and inner conflict. In addition to being a symptom, shyness can also become a defense against recognition of the nature of one’s inner conflict. Here’s how: As part of the inner conflict, the shy person experiences disapproval from the inner critic for (1) the emotional attachment to the negative sense of self and (2) the symptom of shyness itself. In other words, the individual feels condemnation—from the inner critic or superego—for the shyness as well as for his or her resonance with a negative self-concept. “Look at you, you weakling,” the accusation goes, “you’re just a wimpy, gutless, insignificant person. Nobody takes you seriously. You like feeling that way, don’t you! That’s how you secretly want to feel about yourself.”
The shyness is now enlisted as a defense. “No, I don’t want to feel this way about myself. Look at how much I hate being shy. Look at how much I suffer as a result. I’m always wishing I had a great personality. I want to be stronger. I don’t want to be shy. I hate it!” To make this defense work, the individual must now feel more guilt, shame, and depression in association with the shyness. The suffering is a bribe made to the inner critic to get it to overlook the person’s resonance (identification) with the weak, passive sense of self.
Shy people can also use another defense. Here they “plead guilty” to a so-called lesser crime: “I’m not attached to the feeling of being seen in a negative light. The problem is, my shyness causes it to happen. People see me this way because of my shyness.” The shyness is blamed, but as a result the individual must feel more guilt and shame in association with the shyness. As well, the individual “needs” to continue to be a shy person in order to maintain this defense and to cover up the emotional identification with weakness. Escape from the shyness is now more difficult.
It’s a different story when the person exposes the defenses for what they are. The individual is now able to remove unconscious motivations for maintaining the shyness. He or she can become less identified with shyness.
As a common symptom, shy people, even when superficially at ease around others, are prone to torture themselves beneath the surface. They’re also critical and judgmental of others. These characteristics mirror their own conflicted relationship with their inner critic.
A lot of successful people—including movie stars, along with TV and stage performers—were shy in their youth and continue to be shy to some degree. “I was very kind of shy and reserved,” comedian Steve Martin noted, “so there’s a way to be on stage and be performing and balance your life out.” Actor Al Pacino remarked, “My first language was shy. It’s only by having been thrust into the limelight that I have learned to cope with my shyness.” Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter, said, “Shyness displays itself differently in me. I think it’s more an awkwardness.”
In these examples, inner conflict is sublimated. That means the conflict is resolved to some degree, though not necessarily with any deep awareness. Still, people are now able to exhibit themselves in a positive rather than a negative manner, even though inner conflict may continue to plague them in other ways. Successful sublimation occurs when the power of one’s imagination, talent, and intelligence override the effects of inner fear and inner conflict.
Shyness need not be a handicap. The solution is to uncover the self-knowledge that strengthens one’s connection to self and thereby to inner strength. Shy people can take note of their determination to see indifference, disappointment, or malice in the faces of others and connect that determination with how, deep down, they allow their inner critic to judge them.
In short, I tell shy people, “Examine and understand your fears, and keep identifying their irrationality as well as your attachment to them. Be conscious of how your shyness can serve as a defense. Keep studying yourself and believing in yourself. In the meantime, you’re a great person. Don’t let your inner critic tell you differently.”