The Personal Cost of Shyness

Has someone nearby been sending you emails rather than calling or meeting you face-to-face? When you do get together, does she or he stand back, avoid holding eye contact, or speaking up?

While there are many possible reasons for their behavior, that person may, in fact, be a victim of what has become "the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder" according to Dr. Lynne Henderson, a director of The Shyness Clinic. Yes, shyness.

Along with Dr. Phil Zimbardo of Stanford University, Henderson has been studying what they believe is a growing social epidemic. In their research, nearly half of Americans describe themselves as chronically shy. Another 40% considered themselves as previously shy and only about 5% believed they were never shy. Dr. Zimbardo intends to draw more public attention to this disorder in his role as the new president of the American Psychological Assocation.

Shy people tend to smile, touch and speak less. In social situations they experience symptoms such as rapid heart beat, perspiration, and butterflies in the stomach . . . often. Henderson and Zimbardo say that shyness is a form of excessive self- preoccupation. Shy people think more negative thoughts about themselves, are more likely to expect to be rejected and perceive others as less approachable than less shy people.

They are even more likely to forget information presented to them when they believe that they are being evaluated. In short, the world looks like a scary, unfriendly place, so, ironically, they prove themselves right and often look unapproachable.

At what cost? Shy people obviously have more trouble meeting people, conversing, forming relationships -- participating in life. Professor emeritus Thomas Harrell of Stanford University examined Stanford M.B.A.'s over a 20 year period to elicit their "success" factor and found that,"The number one factor linked with success was social extroversion, the ability to speak up, something that shy people are least apt to do.

The bad news continues. In addition to the pervasive loneliness which shyness engenders, two potent, negative consequences of shyness are

1) greater health problems because shy people tend to have a weak network of friends and are thus less resilient to illness and less likely to even tell give doctors sufficient information to be treated, and

2) likely to make less money, live up to their potential at work or feel appreciated for their contributions.

Metaphorically, shyness is a shrinking back from life that weakens the bonds of human connection. In her book, "That's Not What I Meant", Dr. Deborah Tannen wrote that, "Little of what we say is really important, relative to the words that are used, but it is the conversation itself that shows involvement."

Why are more American describing themselves as shy? Is it our growing social isolation? Machines are replacing humans in many of our everyday interactions, from bank ATMs to gas stations to Email. Dr. Henderson believes that, "The growing context of indifference to others means a lowered priority is being given to being social." With less time spent in face-to-face interaction people are feeliing less comfortable with their ability to connect when they do want that closeness, turning modern-day shy.

What can you do to reach out through your shyness? Shyness expert, Jonathan Berent, offers four pieces of advice which I have paraphrased:

1. When you feel safe you do not feel shy.

Seek out and create safe environments to experience the non-shy parts of yourself, where you can be completely yourself without fear of judgment or negative consequences.

2. You are responsible for your actions, not your feelings.

A natural instinct is to be driven to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. But you can remove feelings or control them. You can only feel them and then move onto what you want to feel or do next.

3. Your feelings are not within your control, but your follow-up thoughts and actions are.

Trying not to feel shy leads you to trying not to feel at all. Try stuffing your feelings and you may turn compulsive, obsessive, addicted to something or someone and/or withdraw.

If you try to stay with your feeling of shyness and see the worst that you can feel, then, over time, you know that you can survive, and even thrive in situation that had seemed scary.

4. Shy people are often attracted to those who do not return the affection which is a very painful way of creating safety.

Knowing this, you can become more aware of people who are comfortable enough to reciprocate your reaching out.

One final personal note. Most of my childhood I was quiet and kept to myself, mostly because I enjoyed daydreaming and reading. But most people thought that I was shy. In fact a school therapist diagnosed me as "phobically shy." I saw how isolating their view of me could make my life if I did not learn to reach out more so that people would be comfortable with me when I did want to connect.

We all know from harsh experience that, while everyone yearns to be known and cared for, not everyone knows how to show appreciation in the face of caring. You "say it better" to connect and care, not because those gestures will always be acknowledged, but because, it is your brave and warm expression of how you want to live your life. Yes?

Kare Anderson is the author of LikeABILITY (see Grand Store at, Make Yourself Memorable and SmartPartnering. A popular speaker on SmartPartnering and on how to be more frequently-quoted to become your kind of customers' top- of-mind choice, she also publishes the SayitBetter newsletter, with 32,000 subscribers in 28 countries.

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