Are You Shy, or is it Something Else?
I hate to break it to you, but our society’s beliefs about shyness have been all wrong. Shyness is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense in social encounters.” The term “shy” gets used often. People use it to describe any person who is uncomfortable in social situations. How many times have you been in a group of peers, a family gathering, some social event, or overheard a parent talking about their child and heard someone use the phrase “Oh, she/he is just shy” to explain away some kind of lack of interaction or social awkwardness? It happens all the time. It is labeled “shy” and brushed aside.
This label causes all kinds of damage. We are all taught that it’s better to be outgoing than shy, and made to feel the lack in ourselves if we are not outgoing, but we don’t actually realize the damage this perspective has or address what’s going on underneath the label.
Before we start redefining labels, it’s important to understand the difference between introversion, and what our society calls shyness. All people process experiences differently. Those who are farther towards the introverted end of the spectrum need to process thoughts and experiences internally first before they discuss them. It’s just the way their brains work. People on the extroverted end of the spectrum process externally by talking, doing, interacting. There’s nothing wrong with either, one isn’t better in any way than the other, and most people will fall somewhere between the two or go back and forth depending on the situation. However, the introverts’ need for time to process internally often gets labeled as shyness. It’s not; remember the definition of shyness is all about discomfort in social situations. That can apply to both introverts and extroverts. Introversion is not something that needs to be fixed, explained away, or viewed as socially awkward.
Now let’s discuss and redefine shyness. Shyness is simply fear. It can be viewed on a spectrum ranging from mild discomfort to full blown panic attacks. It usually starts as discomfort, and can escalate. By taking away the misused and minimalizing term “shyness,” we can start to understand and help. There is always a root cause for the fear. It may be something as simple as a child never being taught the social skills they need to be comfortable interacting with others. It may have started after a negative experience which caused a child to be afraid. These things can be easily remedied if caught early. It’s just a matter of creating a safe environment for the child to learn and practice their social interactions until they develop a level of comfort. However, that’s not usually what happens. Most often a teacher, parent, coach, or peer will try to help them by forcing them into high pressure social situations that just compound the problem such as calling on the child to answer questions or read out loud in class, give a presentation, perform, compete in front of an audience, etc.
A child exhibiting social awkwardness or a level of fear can also be a sign of something much worse. The child may be a victim of abuse, (verbal, physical, or sexual) either past or present, experienced a trauma or loss that has not been dealt with properly, or is being bullied by a peer. There are too many possible scenarios to outline, but the point is that the social discomfort is a symptom, and the root cause needs to be addressed. Many times if the child is a good student or doesn’t get in trouble, the problem gets ignored all together, which can lead to the problem of social discomfort/anxiety continuing on into adulthood or escalating into something more serious like an anxiety disorder.
The good news is that all of these things are fixable. The first step is to stop labeling people as SHY!