The Times West Virginian

Life

June 27, 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somewhere on a spectrum called "approach-withdrawal," ranging from the most engaged and extroverted kids to the most withdrawn, fearful and anxious kids.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
Life
  • An alternative diagnosis to ADHD: Schoolchildren need more time to move

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that in recent years, there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2011.

    July 18, 2014

  • Why it's basically impossible to delete those naked selfies you text

    If you're selling an old Android smartphone on an online auction site, you could be giving away rather more than you intend to, according to a recent investigation by anti-malware company Avast.

    July 18, 2014

  • wheat1.jpg Backlash has begun against gluten-free dieters

    The swelling ranks of Americans adopting gluten-free diets have given rise to another hot trend: people calling the whole thing a bunch of baloney.

    July 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can plants hear? Study finds that vibrations prompt some to boost their defenses

    They have no specialized structure to perceive sound as we do, but a new study has found that plants can discern the sound of predators through tiny vibrations of their leaves - and beef up their defenses in response.

    July 8, 2014

  • "A Hard Day's Night" getting better all the time

    The Beatles' classic film, "A Hard Day's Night," is getting a fab makeover for its 50th anniversary.

    July 6, 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.

    June 27, 2014

  • breaking-up.jpg Thinking about breaking up? Flip a coin

    In their latest book, 'Think Like a Freak," Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner suggest that, contrary to what many people have told you in life, you should quit. That is, when things get tough, you shouldn't always tough them out and stick with it. Instead, you should quit and do so sooner rather than later.

    June 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • baby-generic.jpg For millennials, out-of-wedlock childbirth is the norm

    This month brings us yet another reminder that, for young Americans, having children outside of marriage is very much "the new normal," as The New York Times once put it.

    June 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • Each glass of bubbly has at least a million reasons to drink it anytime

    So don't wait for a special occasion. Make one: a lousy day, a minor victory at the office, a tough commute home. That chilling bottle of bubbly might be just what's needed.

    June 24, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-25 at 4.52.16 PM.png Don't download these: 3 totally unnecessary apps

    There are apps to help you manage your time, your money and your health. If you have problems waking up or going to sleep, there's an app for that. But there are a few apps that absolutely no one needs.

    April 28, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Featured Ads