The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

June 26, 2014

The science of shyness

Shy people have quite a bit to contend with - not least the word itself.

 It has a number of different meanings, none of which are flattering. To "shy away" from something implies avoidance; to "shy" can also mean to move suddenly in fright; to "be shy of" something can mean to come up short, or be insufficient.

And to be a shy person in our extrovert-worshipping age can be seen as being inadequate for the task of relentlessly positive self-presentation.

I recently wrote a memoir called "Shy" as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT University and have been exploring the different definitions of the word "shy" as part of a quest to understand the impact of shyness on my own life story. As at least 40 percent of us would self-identify as shy, I suspect my deep interest in this subject will be shared by many fellow-sufferers.

Psychologists would say it is a temperament trait, one that can induce feelings of social anxiety ranging from mildly distressing to severely debilitating. I have been relieved to discover, though, that shyness is also accompanied by a range of socially useful and positive character attributes.

Part of my research involved interviewing my mother, Melbourne University psychologist Margot Prior, who has been studying temperament for more than three decades. In her view, all children fit somewhere on a spectrum called "approach-withdrawal," ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.

For the shy ones among us, this fear comes from our biology, specifically from the reactivity of our nervous systems. American psychologist Jerome Kagan has studied the physical symptoms of so-called "timid" and "bold" children and found in the timid ones a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress.

In short, those children were shown to sweat more and their hearts beat faster in response to new situations. Some kids grow out of shyness, but many of us carry this anxiety into adulthood, when this reactivity commonly manifests as blushing, trembling and hyperventilating.

I had two shy parents, so it is hardly surprising that I inherited a large dose of shyness. As a child and teen-ager, I found that this shyness often got in the way of my initiating social contact for fear of rejection. As an adult, I have grappled with social anxiety and been forced to find strategies to overcome my irrational fears.

One such strategy has been to create professional personas for myself, enabling me to function as an apparent extrovert in the workplace. In the memoir I label this persona "Professional Sian" and analyze how she has managed to perform the roles of environment campaigner, choral conductor, opera singer, broadcaster, arts critic and university lecturer.

I now call myself a "shy extrovert." If I was an introvert, I might be quite happy to remain in the background and avoid social situations. Shy people long for social connections but have to fight through a thicket of fears to make those connections.

Managing anxiety often comes at a cost to the shy person's body. Swinburne University psychologist Simon Knowles has studied the "brain-gut axis" and its role in the fraught relationship between anxiety and the gastro-intestinal system.

Many of Knowles' anxious patients present with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), an inflammatory bowel condition caused by the interaction between the gut's nervous system and the brain. My own digestive system has reacted to decades of nervous stress by developing a broad range of food intolerances.

While the symptoms of shyness can be difficult to control, the distress of social anxiety can be compounded by feelings of shame and embarrassment. We shy people often feel like incompetent idiots in social situations.

English sociologist Susie Scott believes this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. But she blames these feelings on what she calls "the illusion of competence": the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.

In her 2007 book "Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence," Scott argues that shy people are perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations and that, while non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable.

The misperception of shyness as rudeness or aloofness plagues shy people, but in fact we long for social inclusion and connection.

 But the news is not all bad. According to Macquarie University psychologist Ron Rapee, shyness usually comes with a range of positive attributes, including greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty.

When I interviewed Rapee, he told me shy people were often reliable, conscientious and good listeners who demonstrated high levels of empathy. Many shy people can be found in the caring professions, working in roles that are generally non-self-aggrandizing and non-domineering.

The social acceptability of shyness is also somewhat dependent on the culture in which you're living. According to Canadian psychologist Xinyin Chen, while North American parents typically react to their children's shy-inhibited behavior with disappointment, in group-oriented societies such as China, shy-inhibited behavior may be encouraged because it is conducive to group organization.

My autobiographical quest to understand shyness has not "cured" me of this temperament trait, as I had hoped. But it has erased my shame and embarrassment about my social anxiety and reassured me that without shy people the world would be a far less compassionate place.

 

1
Text Only
Opinion & Letters to the Editor
  • Brent Laurenz Special election adds to the mix

    RALEIGH – A busy slate of judicial elections this November got even busier recently when Judge John Martin of the N.C. Court of Appeals announced his retirement.
    A special statewide election to fill Martin’s seat will be added to the general election ballot, joining the four N.C. Supreme Court seats and three N.C. Court of Appeals races already slated for this fall.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Patrick Gannon Fake news or sign of some more trouble?

    RALEIGH – Of the three situations I can recall where agencies receiving large sums of taxpayer dollars wouldn’t divulge employees’ salaries, two of them ended badly. The third – involving a group of charter schools in Southeastern North Carolina – is playing out right now.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Almost half of America's obese youth don't know they're obese

    WASHINGTON - The good news is that after decades of furious growth, obesity rates finally seem to be leveling off in the U.S.. The bad news is that America's youth still appear to be dangerously unaware of the problem.

    July 23, 2014

  • Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates

    On the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, Jar Jar is considerably more popular than the U.S. Congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65.

    July 23, 2014

  • D.G. Martin Where did all these new voters in North Carolina come from?

    “Voters born elsewhere make up nearly half of N.C. electorate.”
    So begins the latest DataNet report from the UNC Program on Public Life, directed by former journalist Ferrel Guillory.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Patrick Gannon Some light for Dems in their time of darkness

    RALEIGH – Earlier this year, state Sen. Ben Clark, a Hoke County Democrat, became a hero for a day among his party and environmentalists when his amendment to require more well water testing near future fracking sites passed the Senate. It even gained the support of a number of GOP senators, against the wishes of the Republican bill sponsor.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Doug Creamer Maintaining hope

    Gardeners are facing challenges with the weather this year. It seemed like we were getting great conditions in April and May. The weather was warm and we were getting some good rains. Then sometime in June the rain stopped. It got so dry that I didn’t have to cut the grass. While I enjoyed the break, the garden was not happy at all. I was having to water quite a bit to keep the vegetable garden alive and growing.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jason O. Boyd I may be a bit behind the times, but at least I can find ‘America’

    I seem to be reading about and dealing with technology a lot lately.
    I  love technology and have always been fascinated by gadgets of all kinds and the wonderful things they can do. You never seem to go through an entire day without some form of invention enhancing your life.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Brent Laurenz Meeting out in open helps negotiations move ahead

    RALEIGH – State lawmakers reconvened in Raleigh on May 14 promising a brief legislative session this summer, but as July moves along they are still in town and tackling big issues.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content