Are You Just Shy or Do You Have a Social Phobia?

There’s a 50% chance that you consider yourself shy. But is this ‘just’ shyness or is it a mental disorder?

Shy Woman

[Photo by gre]

There’s a 50% chance that you consider yourself shy. But is this ‘just’ shyness or is it a mental disorder? Since 1980 the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by psychiatrists in diagnosis has included the categories of ‘social phobia’ and ‘social anxiety disorder’. This suggests that what would previously have been your particular way of being, has become a ‘disorder’ with a biological cause which needs some medication…

No one would dispute the fact that shyness is on a continuum, but in his new book, ‘Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness‘, Christopher Lane argues that the bar has been set way too low:

The problem, Lane argues, is that DSM-defined symptoms of impairment in 1980 included fear of eating alone in restaurants, concern about hand trembling while writing checks, fear of public speaking and avoidance of public restrooms.

By 1987 the DSM had removed the key phrase “a compelling desire to avoid,” requiring instead only “marked distress,” and signs of that could include concern about saying the wrong thing. “Impairment became something largely in the eye of the beholder, and anticipated embarrassment was enough to meet the diagnostic threshold,” says Lane.

“That’s a ridiculous way to assess a serious mental disorder, with implications for the way we also view childhood traits and development,” Lane adds. “But that didn’t stop SAD from becoming what Psychology Today dubbed ‘the disorder of the 1990s.'”

Privately shy

Where, though, are all these shy people hiding and what causes it? Bernardo Carducci, Director of the Shyness Research Institute and Phillip Zimbardo explain:

  • Many people are shy without appearing ill-at-ease. Only a small percentage (15-20%) are visibly shy to the casual observer.
  • Shyness is mostly the result of parenting and life experiences although it does have a small genetic component.
  • Levels of shyness vary across cultures with Israelis being the least shy and those from Japan and Taiwan being the most shy.
  • Levels of shyness in the US have increased by about 10% to the current figure of 50% in the last three decades.
  • Some people are shy extroverts – US talk-show host David Letterman is a good example of someone who has learned to ‘act’ extroverted.

Costs of shyness

Shy people are at risk of losing out in many situations:

  • Shy children may self-select solitary activities which fail to boost their social skills.
  • Shy children are the easiest targets for bullies at school as they are usually highly reactive.
  • Shyness leads to loneliness. Loneliness isn’t good for anyone.
  • Shyness leads to a lack of social support. We all need someone to give us a bit of perspective. Without it we can easily hold onto unrealistic beliefs about ourselves and others.
  • Shy people find it difficult to live in the present in social situations – they will tend to hesitate while they review what are perceived as past failures.

Carducci and Zimbardo only mention one ray of hope for the shy: they make good listeners. It’s not much, though, set against this litany of disadvantages.

Overcoming shyness

John Wesley, who explains his shyness is a major weakness, has some useful suggestions about how to overcome shyness:

  • It’s Not You It’s Them‘ – Realising that the perceived slights from others shouldn’t be taken personally.
  • Other People Aren’t So Different‘ – Well now you know 50% of people consider themselves shy – that’s a lot of people who feel the same as you.
  • Realizing Self-Worth‘ – Get used to sharing your thoughts with others by forcing yourself to speak up.
  • The Duty to Contribute‘ – Shyness can limit your own growth and your ability to contribute.

These are useful suggestions and most of them involve what shyness expert Dr Carducci sees as the central issue (Carducci, 2000). For the shy, he argues, the key is to become more other-directed.

A group identified in the research as the ‘successfully shy’ recognise their own shyness and take particular steps to combat it. They plan ahead for gaps in the conversation, they arrive early to parties to get the lie of the land, they rehearse conversational opening gambits. They use any trick to move their focus of attention from themselves and their own self-consciousness and outwards to the other people.

Dr Carducci argues that what our society needs is not less shy people but actually more ‘successfully shy’ people. I couldn’t agree more.

Are you shy?

If you consider yourself shy do you agree with the research findings discussed above. If not, what is your experience of shyness? What strategies do you use to combat your shyness?


Carducci, B. (2000). Shyness: The New Solution. Psychology Today, 33(1), 38-40.

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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