Facing Up to Shyness

Social phobia is common to all ages and can seriously block a person’s emotional, social and occupational progress.  Individuals who complain of this condition dread being the focus of attention and will do anything to avoid such situations.  Depending on the intensity of the phobia, even being with friends can be a threatening experience.  A high percentage of adolescents experience debilitating shyness, but as their identity formation develops, they tend to feel more confident and less threatened by social events. 

However, there are a sizeable number of adolescents whose social fears persist into adulthood and more often than not would have endured from early childhood.  Once the fear of public embarrassment takes hold, these individuals feel powerless to think or reason their way out of panic.  Emotion is always stronger than reason.

Children are not born shy but they cleverly learn to develop shyness and timidity to offset humiliation, criticism and rejection.  Shyness is not a problem but rather a weapon against being hurt.  I’ve helped many young and older individuals with social difficulties, where I’ve placed the focus not on their shyness but on the expression of their unique presence and the development of independence of others.  Many of these persons would have told me of experiences of being embarrassed and ridiculed in front of people.  When I quote to them the saying ‘once bitten, twice shy’ and ask them ‘how often have you been bitten?’ the answer is often ‘several hundred times’.  The strength of shyness and timidity is its power to reduce judgement by others.  Ask yourself how you treat somebody who presents as shy and timid   The reply is ‘with kid gloves’; now who is controlling whom?

The typical signs of social phobia are:


Poor eye contact

Hunched posture


Physical shaking

Heart palpitations

Stomach butterflies

Panic attacks

Avoidance of certain or all social events

When asked why they dread socialising, people with a social phobia may give any of a number of explanations:

I can’t stand being the centre of attention

I’m afraid I’ll blush

I’m afraid of fainting

I’m afraid of making a fool of myself

I’m afraid of being rejected

When you consider that the most common phobia of all is the fear of public speaking, it makes sense that social phobia is also quite common.  Ninety per cent of people dread public speaking for precisely the same reasons given above for shyness.  However, you can go through life without having to speak in public but it is not possible to live your life without meeting people. 

What typically underlines a social phobia is poor sense of self, dependence on others for approval and a conviction that whatever you do or say, you are going to be rejected outright.  Your protection is to reject yourself before others even have a chance of rejecting you.  The causes inevitably lie in early experiences where you were rejected or humiliated when you displayed a behaviour that did not meet the approval of others.  Examples would be clinging, crying, blushing, over-weight, fainting, failure, stress.

Drug companies offer many ‘miracle’ drugs for shyness.  Whilst I have no difficulty with short-term medication to give people in such social distress an edge to overcome their shyness, what these individuals most need to do is to come to a place of acceptance of self, to cease defining themselves through their behaviour and to become independent of the approval of others.  Basically what is required for individuals who have been bitten and several hundred times shy is not to care whether or not they blush, shake, trip, fall, faint, stammer; they need to learn that behaviour is just a way of experiencing the world and neither adds nor detracts from their worth.  When such a process proves difficult it is wise to seek psychosocial help.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Self-Esteem, the Key to Your Child’s Future.