Shackled by shyness?
August 4, 2005
by Humair Hashmi

Some behaviour therapists consider control of shyness a behavioural skill, like learning to ride a bike or swimming. How does one learn to ride a bike or swim? Ride one or jump in the pool respectively! Breaking one’s shyness is no different. An individual should expose herself to situations which trigger shyness

Do you feel anxious about a job or admission interview? Do you notice your heartbeat accelerating the moment you step into a roomful of strangers? Do you grope for words making the class presentation? Does your mind go blank during a public speech? Do your knees knock when you see a member of the opposite sex that you really like?

What causes these reactions in you, which most of your friends and acquaintances do not encounter? Is it a psychological disease? If left unattended, will this tendency appear as a full-blown psychosis in the future? Fortunately not.

Some people feel more shy or anxious than others. It is almost like a personality trait.

Shyness is a form of social anxiety and most of us feel that way, some more so than others. Diagnostic manuals of mental disorders classify these reactions under social phobia. It is characterised by a marked and persistent fear of social situations or performance situations which may cause embarrassment. Such situations provoke excessive anxiety.

The individual feels that she might be negatively judged by others; be seen as different, crazy, weak, or stupid. Someone of this disposition may be hypersensitive to criticism, she may fear a negative evaluation or rejection by others; she may find it difficult to be assertive, may have a low self-esteem and harbour feelings of inferiority.

Behaviourally she might experience a tremor in the body, trembling of hands, a shaky or weak voice, muscle tension, palpitation, gastrointestinal discomfort, poor eye contact with others, and clammy hands. These are behavioural symptoms of shyness or social phobia.

This individual is usually an underachiever in school, college and in her job, is less likely to marry and raise a family of her own volition. If she marries, it is under pressure from parents and elders. Studies suggest that shyness or social phobia is more common among females than males. The incidence of this problem in the general population ranges between three to 13 percent.

In one study at least, shyness or social phobia appeared as an excessive fear only in the eastern cultures. Because the shy person under performs at school, college or on the job and because she keeps to herself, she loses social support. Because she shies away from social situations, she invariably ends up as a social isolate. She is shackled by her shyness and its attendant symptoms.

Is there no escape from it? Is she condemned for life? Can she break free of these self-imposed shackles?

A number of psychologists have suggested a number of strategies to break free from one’s shackled existence of shyness. Breaking free of shyness may involve a three-step approach. Step one is to become aware of the dilemma and be determined to break out of it. The main stumbling block at this stage is one’s inertia. An individual usually assumes that if the shyness is ignored, or if she gives into it once in a while, it will go away.

These are nothing but excuses. They do not address the problem and may even add to it. In such circumstances, it is helpful to advise shy people that they are capable of achieving much more in life and that the glasshouse of shyness that they have built around themselves is self-created.

Step one is also usually the most difficult. The resistance on the part of protagonist stems from her enjoyment of the security of being confined in her shyness.

The social environment may also compound the mental state. Her parents, elders, siblings, friends and peers, reinforce her shyness, consciously or unconsciously. Hypercritical parents, domineering elders, envious friends and jealous peers can create and reinforce shyness. Because she is constantly bombarded by negative criticism, coercion to accept authoritarian commands, rivalry, envy and jealousy from sibling, peer or friend, her shyness is reinforced. If she receives these stimuli weekly, daily or even hourly, it is difficult to break loose.

But if she can exercise control over her inertia and realise that her problem is compounded by the contribution of others, step two and step three may be easier. Step two involves changing her cognitions, thoughts, and ideas. Cognitive psychotherapists suggest changing one’s thoughts that are the basis of one’s problems and the attendant misery. Many ideas lie behind shyness.

For example the idea that one should always be approved and loved for everything that one does. A second idea that causes shyness maybe that one should be adequate, competent, and successful in everything that one undertakes. Another such idea maybe that it is horrible and catastrophic if one is not competent and loved and appreciated for all that one does.

Such ideas, psychotherapists believe, are the main cause of shyness and its attendant problems. They suggest that changing these beliefs and replacing them with more realistic ones enables one to break loose from the shackles of shyness.

The third step is to take concrete, behavioural steps to come out from this self-imposed prison. Some behaviour therapists consider control of shyness a behavioural skill, like learning to ride a bike or swimming. How does one learn to ride a bike or swim? Ride one or jump in the pool respectively!

One would initially fall, or swallow some water, but with practice, one learns to balance on a bike or keep afloat. Breaking one’s shyness, behaviour therapists assert, is no different. An individual should expose herself to situations which trigger shyness in her. She will learn to cope with the situation, learning the behavioural techniques of controlling and overcoming her shyness.

Repeated exposure helps develop behavioural technologies of exercising control over shyness. Breaking the shackles of shyness involves shedding one’s inertia, replacing irrational shyness-producing ideas with realistic, rational ones, and exposure to situations that may produce shyness, thereby giving oneself a chance to overcome shyness. A piece of cake, isn’t it?

Humair Hashmi is a consulting psychologist who teaches at Imperial College