Shyness is a subject we most often think of in relation to children, but it can often become a trait which persists well into adulthood. Some studies estimate that up to 80% of adults may acknowledge that they consider themselves to have been shy at some point in their lives.
When shyness persists into adulthood it can have a significant impact on the life of an individual, not least because of the increasing social demands placed upon us. Many of us will be familiar with the sense of discomfort or inhibition that creeps over us in certain social or professional situations. Often it happens when we are called upon to do something new or unfamiliar. We worry about being judged by colleagues or feeling embarrassed when we don’t know how to act around new people, we might be reticent to speak up in a meeting at work or too intimidated to initiate a conversation with someone we feel attracted to at a social event. Increasingly as our interactions with others become focused online, social media can also become another place for a shy person to hide or feel intimidated. This can be very frustrating and we may feel we are missing out in life, or on the opportunity to be seen and heard.
For many shy adults it is possible to navigate life quite successfully, but for others it can lead to difficulties in relationships, low self-esteem or feelings of shame or sadness. At this point it seems important to distinguish shyness from social anxiety, shyness while uncomfortable is not the same as social anxiety which involves intense fear or avoidance of situations and a clinically significant level of suffering to the individual which may impair their ability to carry out their daily life. While shyness is uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to manage it does not impact daily functioning in the same way as social anxiety. A shy person can enjoy being sociable, they might just prefer not to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Many people don’t feel negative emotional responses when they feel shy and some people view their shyness positively.
But when it is difficult, how can we help ourselves as shy adults or help those we know to manage their shyness? There are a number of approaches we can take. Often it is helpful to evaluate a potentially difficult situation in advance when we are feeling calm.
We can ask ourselves the following questions:
- How likely is that my behaviour will really be inadequate?
- Am I realistically likely to be judged negatively in a given situation?
- What are the consequences likely to be and how much do they matter?
In most cases our imagination has led us up a winding path towards an outcome that is not realistic to the situation in which we are going to find ourselves. We might blush or briefly feel embarrassed but when we look at the evidence we have, we can build a better assessment of the situation. Sometimes it helps to talk these questions over with someone we trust.
And take small steps to confront our concerns, such as:
- When you are not sure of something, don’t be afraid to ask. The more informed we are in many situations, the less we need to be fearful of.
- Practice what you might do or say in advance of a situation in which you might feel uncomfortable and try to see yourself calmly and confidently navigating the discomfort.
- Try increasing eye contact when communicating with others, rather than avoiding their eyes or staring at the floor. Little by little it can help to reassure you and build confidence when you engage more fully with the person you are talking to.
Offer your shy-self compassion, while gently nudging it towards your objectives.