Understanding Shyness: The Components and Types of Shyness

Shyness is conceptualized as a syndrome of affective, cognitive, and behavioral components characterized by social anxiety and behavioral inhibition resulting from the feeling that others are evaluating you.

The affective component of shyness reflects the anxiety, muscle tension, increased heart rate, upset stomach, and an assortment of other psychophysiological reactions experienced by shy people.

The cognitive component of shyness reflects the excessive sense of self-consciousness (e.g., Everybody is staring at me.), negative self-appraisal (e.g., What I said was so stupid.), irrational belief system (e.g., Nobody at the party will find me interesting.) characteristic of the way that shy people think about themselves.

The behavioral component of shyness is expressed by behavioral inhibition (e.g., not speaking to others at a party) and social avoidance (e.g., avoiding eye contact or standing in the corner during a group discussion).  

Thus, shyness is not just one or two symptoms but an all-encompassing collection of characteristics that manifests itself in the mind, body, and behavior of shy people.

The Pervasiveness of Shyness: If You’re Shy, You’re Not Alone

Although most shy people feel they are more shy than other people (Carducci & Clark, 1996), shyness is a self-reported characteristic of personality that is expressed by over 40% of those surveyed (Carducci & Clark, 1996; Carducci & Stein, 1988; Zimbardo, 1977). Only about 7% of Americans surveyed indicate that they have never experienced shyness in their entire life (Zimbardo, 1977). Thus, shyness is a pervasive phenomenon; if you are shy, you are not alone.

Types of Shyness: The Shades of Shyness  An important development in the understanding of shyness is that shy people are not all the same; there are different types of shyness. Publicly shy people express distress as a consequence of more overt manifestations of their shyness, such as through being too quiet, behaving awkwardly, and failing to respond appropriately in social situations (e.g., not acknowledging a compliment) (Pilkonis, 1977). Privately shy people express distress as a consequence of more covert manifestations of their shyness, such as through intense psychophysiological arousal (e.g., pounding heart, muscle tension, and anxiety reactions) (Pilkonis, 1977). Socially anxious shy people express distress as a consequence of more cognitive manifestations of their shyness, such as being excessively self-conscious (e.g., do my clothes fit right) and overly concerned about being evaluated socially by others (e.g., I wonder what she thinks of my comment) (Carducci & Clark, 1994; Melchior & Cheek, 1990). Thus, while shy people tend to experience all of the affective, cognitive, and behavioral components of shyness, some experience one of the components more than others, which helps to explain the different types of shyness.

What Shy People Do to Deal with Their Shyness: Limitations and Liabilities

While it might be tempting to conclude that shy individuals simply accept their fate and react passively to their shyness, this is not the case.

Recent research indicates that shy individuals exhibit a variety of strategies to deal with their shyness (Carducci, 2000b). Unfortunately, many of the self-selected strategies utilized by shy individuals to deal with their shyness tend to be limited in their effectiveness. For example, the most common self-selected strategy used by shy individuals is “forced extroversion,” in which shy individuals report forcing themselves to go to social situations, such as parties, bars, shopping malls, and art receptions, in the hopes of meeting others. However, a limitation of this strategy is that just showing up is not enough. More specifically, being in social situations means being social, such as approaching others and initiating and maintaining conversations, which are tasks many shy individuals find difficult (Carducci et el., 1998), as expressed by this shy individual:

I have tried to overcome my shyness by being around new people as much as possible and getting involved in the conversation, however, after a few seconds, I become quiet. I have a problem keeping the conversation flowing.

Another self-selected strategy identified is that of“liquid extroversion,” in which shy individuals consume alcohol or other non-prescription drugs to make themselves feel more relaxed in social settings. However, limitations of this strategy are that it does not really address the underlying cognitive (e.g., feelings self-consciousness) and behavior (e.g., not knowing how to promote the flow of conversation) components of shyness and, while there may be some immediate benefits (e.g., feeling less aroused and anxious), the subsequent consequences can range from personal disappointment the development of a drinking problem (Carducci & McLeish, 2000), as expressed by this shy individual:

I do like drinking with my friends, but I notice that I tend to indulge myself in alcohol to feel more loose and more talkative when it comes to meeting my boyfriend’s friends. But when I see them sober, I feel like such a looser because they just saw me the other night as a happy talkative drunk.

Although these and other self-selected strategies used by shy individuals seem to be of limited utility, it should be made clear that there are many other more constructive strategies that shy individual can utilize to deal successfully with their shyness. It the next section, you will consider some of these strategies.