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Too quiet? How to understand your shyness (and be okay)

June 13, 2022 - 12 min read

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What is shyness?

4 types of shyness

5 causes for shyness

Shyness vs. introversion

Can you stop being shy?

​​What happens when shyness is extreme?

Moving forward

We all know the people who leap into the spotlight. They thrive in new environments and love to meet different people. Their social skills are top-notch, and they exude confidence. 

But for others, making small talk is a challenge. Unfamiliar situations fuel their nerves, and social situations make their hands sweaty. Carrying on a conversation with people they don’t know very well can be downright scary.

This is shyness, and it's quite common. People can be shy at work and more comfortable in personal social settings, or even the other way around. Learning what shyness is and how to overcome it will help you shine in social situations where you might be uncomfortable.

And if you’re not shy, you’ll be more understanding of shy people in your life moving forward.

What is shyness?

Before we learn how to work with and overcome shyness, we need to pinpoint what it is. 

Shyness is an emotion that makes people uncomfortable or worried in social settings of any size and affects people of all ages. Shy people may struggle with being authentic when creating connections with strangers.

The struggle to connect with people that shyness causes can also create low self-esteem and low self-confidence. As a result, people might be insecure about their shyness and more self-conscious, creating a cycle of avoiding exposure to people. 

Even simple things like making eye contact during a conversation are often difficult for shy people. Other physical symptoms like insecure body language, shortness of breath, and blushing are also tell-tale signs of shyness. 

At the same time, plenty of people thrive and succeed, even in business, despite being shy. There are ways to manage the impact.

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4 types of shyness

Everyone is shy in their own way. Since there are different types of shyness, people have different challenges to confront if they want to overcome their shyness. To begin, let's learn about the four types of shyness that Dr. Jonathan Cheek, a psychology professor at Wellesley College describes in his studies.

1. Shy-secure

When people have this type of shyness, they have a certain level of social anxiety, and they don’t want to participate in most social settings. If they have the opportunity to make small talk with unfamiliar people, they will, but only to a limited degree.

They aren't super interested in meeting new people, and when the opportunity presents itself, they'll do so in a calm manner.

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2. Shy-withdrawn

These people are more anxious in social situations than shy-secure people. They focus on the potential of being rejected and judged by those around them.

The shy-withdrawn type makes people question their abilities, experience imposter syndrome, and hesitate to speak or act because they fear they'll do something wrong. They’re also prone to loneliness because they don't want to put themselves out there.

3. Shy-dependent

This type of shyness occurs when people want to socialize and improve their social skills, but they don't put themselves first. Their friendships don't last very long because they lack assertiveness and don't speak up for themselves.

4. Shy-conflicted

Shy-conflicted people yearn for social interactions, but they feel anxious about them. They feel anxious in anticipation of social situations and go back and forth on whether they should withdraw or approach people.

According to Cheek, this type usually has the most problems and the hardest time overcoming their shyness.

5 causes for shyness

When we think about the cause of shyness, we must think about all ages of life. Shyness appears in young children and can result in them relying on their parents to navigate social situations. Shy children’s dependence on having someone else speak up for them can impact their level of shyness and social skills into adulthood.

Here are five causes of shyness to consider:

  1. Life experiences like bullying, peer pressure, or other trauma
  2. Fear of rejection, judgment, and failure
  3. Highly critical parents who have high standards
  4. New changes to navigate, like puberty or a new career
  5. Parents who are shy themselves

Sometimes, it's hard to move past things that have held us back for so long. With a BetterUp coach, you'll experience what it's like to have someone support you as you develop the skills you need to chart a more satisfying and confident future.

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Shyness versus introversion

Many people assume that just because someone's more of an introvert, they’re a shy person too. But there are some key differences between the two.

Introverts can thrive in smaller social settings and may not have social anxiety when making small talk with a few people. They aren't extroverts, so they aren’t as comfortable with unfamiliar people.

Introverts can still be social and outgoing people. They might not have as much social energy as extroverts do because they need time to rest, but they still like to socialize.

In situations where they feel comfortable and have the energy, introverts can be the life of the party. Other times, they might not be as interested in seeing people.

Shy people want to build connections with people but they’re too anxious or lack social skills. Their fears of making mistakes control their actions. They feel hesitant and awkward when interacting with others and often turn inward to shelter themselves from social situations.

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Can you stop being shy?

Shyness may be a personality trait that can't be changed, but people can practice things that can limit their shyness and make them more comfortable in social situations.

Being more aware of shyness is a way to recognize when people need to become more comfortable in social settings. People can practice asking questions or plan what questions to ask before gatherings.

They can also try to arrive earlier to places to help themselves get acquainted with their surroundings and the other early guests before socializing with everyone.

Deep breathing and meditation exercises help to relieve the stress and anxiety that accompany shyness. They help the body relax and think clearly about their feelings and why they feel that way. With time, people can overcome shyness or ease their feelings.

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Doing psychotherapy and behavioral therapy can help people of all ages cope with their shyness, providing insight into why they’re shy and how they can approach social situations differently.

Ultimately, practice drives progress, and taking small steps out of your comfort zone will help you be less shy in the long run.

​​What happens when shyness is extreme?

Shy people can learn how to manage their feelings to pursue their passions, seek new opportunities, and develop new relationships. But sometimes, shyness becomes extreme, and it can mean a lot more than just not enjoying conversation with strangers.

Perhaps you’ve had personal experiences that have reinforced your inhibitions to socialize or instinct to avoid new situations — that’s not unheard of.

For some, extreme shyness is very difficult to overcome and prevent them from engaging with their environment. Shyness can correlate to mental health issues like anxiety, social phobia, and depression. 

Speaking with health professionals can help people overcome shyness, especially if you think that your shyness becomes too much for you to handle on your own or stems from a  mental health issue.

Moving forward

There isn't a way to flip a switch and stop being shy or address a potential social anxiety disorder. It's a process and one that will pay off in the future.

Asking for help along the way doesn't mean your shyness is a weakness, either. It means that you're making a move towards becoming a more confident, secure version of yourself. 

Maybe you'll start by overcoming your shyness at your workplace and then move on to your personal life. That’s okay — it isn't a race. 

With sustained effort, you'll surprise yourself in some instances. Next time you have to order pizza or go somewhere you've never been before by yourself, you might notice that your shyness isn't as limiting for you. For any accomplishment, whether it's big or small, make sure you're proud of yourself.

Find support from someone who wants to see you achieve your long-term goals. A BetterUp coach will help you develop the skills you need to become comfortable with your voice and how you act in social settings.

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Published June 13, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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