The Shy Personality

Excerpt from:  WHY YOU DO THAT, by John B. Evans, PhD, LCSW

This description covers multiple levels of shy and inhibited patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. Those with fewer or milder traits as well as those with the symptoms of a serious disorder may readily identify some of their thinking, as well as emotional and behavioral tendencies. A more comprehensive understanding of self usually requires an ongoing self-observation and self-reflection over time. These traits and characteristics are found in both men and women. 

     There is little agreement on the definitions and terminology for the various levels or subtypes of shyness.88 Typically, definitions and descriptions of shyness involve self-conscious anxiety and a persistent fear of being scrutinized and evaluated by others, and include both shy thinking and feelings of anxiety. Shyness may also have various subtypes, including performance anxieties such as public speaking, eating in public, using public restrooms, etc. The shy individual is overly sensitive to criticism, and fear and apprehension may occur in advance of an event as the individual thinks about how he will be perceived by others. Some shy people have physical reactions in social situations, such as awkward or nervous mannerisms, including blushing, sweating, racing heartbeat, muscle twitching, or a stiff body posture with less movement. Researchers have found that the negative images and emotions experienced by shy people actually trigger the same fear responses evoked by everyone when faced with a real threat.100 We all react to fearful thoughts. The shy person just has a greater number of irrational fears accompanied by emotional overreactions. There also 144 may be feelings of guilt or depression, and shy people may plan less for the future. Shy people may delay leaving their family of origin until they are older, and maturing into the usual roles of marriage and career may take longer.105 Researchers must also consider the effects of shame, anger, submissiveness, embarrassment, etc. in clarifying various subtypes of shyness. Are these different forms of shyness, or are they merely caused by different circumstances? While there appear to be both inherited and environmental, or learned, aspects of shyness,122 considerable research remains to be done in this area. What appears certain is that the more generalized the shyness has become to multiple areas of life, the more problems the sufferer tends to experience.88 People who actually do not care at all what other people think about them are obviously afflicted by some other problem. 

     Researchers have attempted to divide the concept of shyness into various categories, such as social anxiety disorder, social phobia, avoidant personality disorder, etc., yet there is no recognized point at which shyness splits into multiple and separate problems or disorders. Differences in the symptoms of shyness are usually a matter of severity.85,88,90, 93 For the purposes of this discussion, I will consider shyness as operating on the following continuum: 

  • Mild shyness 
  • Moderate to severe shyness: Social anxiety disorder (SAD) / Social phobia 
  • Extreme shyness: Avoidant personality disorder 

VIGNETTE: Moderate to Severe Shyness 

Ian is a successful computer analyst for a large company. With considerable effort and anxiety, Ian was able to get a college degree and a good job, although he has few fond memories of his college years. Ian went all the way through high school and college without a single date, and he only goes on dates now when the stars are aligned for him to meet an accepting lady in a nonthreatening environment. There have been a few times when a more assertive lady has taken the initiative to meet Ian, which occasionally has led to a conversation, but more often failed as Ian nervously found some excuse to flee the scene. 

Ian has long recognized that he needs special circumstances to meet women, so he now volunteers for group projects at work, and he invites some of the women he meets to join him at the group dinners he organizes so he will not have to ask them out on an actual date. A few times, Ian has watched in painful frustration as the object of his fancy has begun dating another more outgoing member of the dinner group. More recently, Ian has embraced the less threatening dating technologies now available, such as Internet dating, speed dating, and singles cruises where introductions are built into scheduled activities. Ian still gets severe butterflies when he meets someone he is attracted to, but he now accepts that the woman he meets may also be shy, and that if she rejects him because of his shyness, or some other reason, it does not necessarily reflect on him at all. Ian admits that he, in turn, has rejected several women over the years and that rejecting someone, or being rejected, is a natural part of the dance that can be embraced rather than feared. 

Ian has also become a big fan of Seinfeld reruns, where laughing at one’s own imperfections and foibles is modeled every minute or so. When Ian speaks to groups of coworkers, he asks them up front to please forgive his nervousness, which almost everyone in his audience can relate to at some level. Mentioning his shyness up front seems to reduce the power Ian’s shyness has over him, and his audiences seem to appreciate his candor. With the help of group therapy and Toastmasters meetings, talking to people is becoming easier for Ian. Ian is actually beginning to enjoy the challenge of speaking to strangers—or even a first date. 

Our relationships with other people are very important to our mental health and sense of well-being. Researchers have known for years that a lack of contact with other people can be harmful both mentally and physically, causing sickness, stress, depression, etc.80 Most people are able to meet their social needs whether they are outwardly gregarious or more reserved. Unfortunately, for some people, this relatively normal continuum descends into feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, inhibition, and social incompetence. Shy people are not rare. Various surveys report that about half of the general population reports some shyness,80 and up to 90 percent of the general population has experienced shyness at some point in their life.82 Shyness covers a lot of territory, and there is considerable variation in the symptoms of shyness. Some shy individuals are merely cautious, while others are extremely self- conscious and inhibited in social situations. 

By definition, the most difficult problem faced by most shy people is meeting other people and forming friendships and relationships. There are many shy people whose anxiety is limited almost exclusively to fears of social interaction. For some, shyness may increase because of the presence of another person who just happens to be near them in a restaurant, airport, elevator, etc. Shy people quickly tune in to any negative signals given off by other people and become highly aware of their own anxiety and heightened emotions. Drawing from negative social experiences from their past, they draw quick negative conclusions rather than waiting for more information.122 

To deal with their anxiety, shy people commonly develop “safety behaviorsâ€96,159,163 designed to increase their sense of security by helping them cope with anxiety and the feeling of being threatened. Safety behaviors may be a response to both internal stimuli, such as bad memories or disturbing thoughts and emotions, or to external stimuli, such as people, places, or events. Safety behaviors may include standing on the outside of a group, talking very little and expressing fewer opinions, or avoiding eye contact, which, of course, may only increase the awkwardness of their behavior. Safety behaviors may actually maintain anxiety over time because they prevent sufferers from confronting the feared situation, object, place, etc., and they do not learn better coping techniques.159 

Shy people may also be less assertive, have fewer leadership skills, talk with less fluency, speak more softly and with a lower tone of voice, have a flat facial demeanor with less smiling, or keep a greater physical distance from those they are speaking to. With feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and low self-esteem, the shy individual may not only seek less social contact, but may also be less approachable by others. These symptoms may be especially pronounced if they are attracted to the person they encounter. The attractiveness of the other person, their accomplishments, or their importance may also influence the degree of shyness. Some shy people experience shame and have a stream of negative thoughts about themselves.96 They may berate themselves for any mistakes with self-talk about their obvious flaws and how awful they are. They may then come to what they believe are obvious conclusions, such as, “I’m just stupidâ€, “She/He wouldn’t like me,†or “I’ll be fired in no time.†

There is considerable research suggesting that shy people irrationally see themselves in the same negative light they believe other people see them.162 Their ongoing mental image of themselves as they think they appear to other people, such as incompetent, boring, unattractive, weird, etc., play a major role in maintaining their shyness.163 They may compare this poor self-image to their exaggerated assessment of what others expect of them. This mental self-image may be overly influenced by negative social experiences in the past, which may include reactions such as profuse sweating, blushing, or freezing up from tension and not knowing what to say.89,96 Some shy people not only criticize themselves, but may also find fault with, and criticize, other people, and they may feel some resentment toward them.89 I have found some level of depression frequently plays a role in a shy person’s negative thoughts and feelings about themselves or others (see chapter: Mild Depression). 

The shy tend to think that everything they say must come out perfectly. They assume that most people are naturally critical of others and will certainly be critical of them.163 After an event, the mental image of their performance may appear worse each time they replay the event in their mind. Research has indicated that shy people tend to underestimate their social abilities and, therefore, overestimate the probability of negative reactions from others.17,163 Shy people may carefully and continually assess the facial expressions of other people for signs of the criticism, mockery, and rejection they expect and fear. Focused on detecting signs of imminent rejection, they lose the concentration and miss the social cues that would help them make a normal social response. They do not pay attention to the social interactions themselves, which limits their social involvement, and later on, they may have little memory of the actual conversation. They do not seem to be aware of the social information that is available at social events such that their later recollections of the event are based more on their negative preconceived notions about themselves rather than how the event actually played out.162 Studies suggest that shy people may not accurately interpret the difference between positive and negative social cues.162,163 They may interpret both positive and negative faces as threatening and miss the opportunities for positive social engagement.162 This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy where anxiety causes poor social responses, which lead to even more anxiety over future responses. The tense and fearful expressions shy people project may elicit from others the very ridicule and rejection they fear. The vicious circle is now complete as the negative reactions from others only confirm their doubts about themselves with an even greater expectation of negative reactions in the future. 

Shy people may think their way into believing a competent response or performance was highly flawed. Most shy adults do possess adequate social skills, yet feel socially inhibited in social situations.163 It does not help that feedback from other people is frequently ambiguous, and the negative mind-set of the shy person will frequently project negative evaluations onto the otherwise neutral reactions of others. These negative self-evaluations then become a part of the shy person’s ongoing negative self-concept.96 At social events, shy people typically compare themselves to the more outgoing and socially competent people in the room. They fail to notice that most people at the event are more reserved and have no desire to draw attention to themselves. Research suggests that individuals who receive positive praise for their social performance at one event may then have even greater anxiety at subsequent events believing their previous social success will cause others to have even higher expectations of them.164 In similar fashion, individuals who believe the expected standards are unreachable may fail to meet the standards on purpose to get others to lower their social expectations of them.163 

As you can see, much of the pain of shyness is over events that never take place. The shy person remains vigilant for the slightest signs of rejection and may feel rejection where there is none,90 and the fear and anxiety over what might occur takes a toll. Many shy individuals attempt to maintain control over their emotions and try to hide the fact that they are unhappy to avoid criticism and rejection.89 All of this, of course, is occurring while the shy person struggles to pay attention to a conversation. Tense and mentally preoccupied, shy people become less aware of the actual content of social encounters, which makes normal conversations more difficult. Other people may misinterpret the inhibitions, withdrawal, and awkward behavior of shy people as being something else. When shy individuals talk less, keep their distance, and do not smile, they may appear to others as aloof, uninterested, unfriendly, or snobbish. This, of course, may result in even more disapproval and rejection. 

Yet shyness does not always involve difficult or negative emotions or the avoidance of goals that are central to the individual’s life. The outward behavior of some shy individuals may appear relatively normal.89 It is now being recognized that some symptoms of shyness only manifest themselves under stressful conditions and are temporary, while other personality symptoms are more enduring and appear to be actual personality traits.93 Some shy people may have fewer problems dealing with their shyness because they choose social situations, and make career choices, that occur in less threatening environments.89 Shyness may no longer be a problem for shy people who finally get into a relationship.80 Depression seems to make symptoms of shyness more likely, and the symptoms may lessen if the sufferer obtains relief from the depression93 (see chapter: Mild Depression). 

The biggest difference between varied levels of shyness appears to be in the level of difficulty sufferers have with life, especially in their career and social functioning. These individuals may have failed to achieve their potential in work, income, education, or social relationships. Shy children, adolescents, and adults are less popular and have fewer friends than non-shy individuals. They also tend to have fewer intimate relationships, less support from others, and may not have anyone they can confide in. Those with more severe shyness are likely to be more neurotic, socially inept, introverted, suffer negative emotions such as depression, or experience other diagnosable problems such as a personality disorder.87 

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of people diagnosed with a serious level of shyness also suffer from at least one other disorder, with up to half of those suffering major depression. Other disorders commonly found with more severe levels of shyness include eating disorders, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Individuals with more severe shyness combined with another clinical disorder will typically suffer even greater dysfunction and a further reduced quality of life.92 Some shy people turn to alcohol or drugs to help allay their fears or just numb the pain of isolation and loneliness. Studies have shown many problem drinkers are shy.80 

Extreme Shyness (Avoidant Personality Disorder

At the extreme end of the shyness continuum is the much more severe avoidant personality disorder. Avoidants may view themselves as completely unappealing and deficient in every way and just assume negative evaluations from others are inevitable. Avoidants may avoid work, school, or social events simply because they fear they will not fit in and will be ridiculed to the amusement of everyone else. Their expectations of others are limited to criticism and disapproval, if not total rejection—a view guaranteed to create awkward encounters with strangers. Employment may be a problem for avoidants, since they may turn down job interviews or even promotions at jobs they have out of fear of criticism and rejection by the interviewer or other employees. 

Suffering the lowest of low self-esteem, and with intense feelings of inadequacy, avoidants may avoid social encounters completely unless they are absolutely certain beforehand that they will be accepted and liked. Consequently, considerable coaxing, with numerous offers of support and nurturance, may be required to get an avoidant to risk attending a social event. Still, with sufficient cajoling, avoidant personalities may submit to social contact because they do desire acceptance and relationships. Avoidants may fantasize extensively about an ideal relationship, and they are able to form intimate relationships if they believe they will have uncritical acceptance. Even then, avoidants will usually remain quiet, inhibited, and somewhat invisible from a fear they will overreact emotionally, and possibly start crying, if criticized. Overreacting to ordinary situations that are blown out of proportion, and avoiding new activities, avoidants live a very self- conscious and restricted lifestyle. With few friends or confidants, their lonely and isolated world may become terrifying in times of crisis when they have little support from others to help them weather the storm. Avoidant personalities are sometimes associated with obesity.50 

Extreme Shyness in Relationships 

Getting a relationship started with an avoidant personality is difficult at best. There is a good chance the potential partner will never meet the avoidant in the first place, since avoidants tend to avoid all social situations. Avoidants frequently form relationships with people they meet through work, since they have such difficulty meeting people anywhere else. 

VIGNETTE:  Extreme Fear and Anxiety

     As described by Martha’s fiancé: Looking back, I’m surprised I was able to get to know Martha in the first place. I would see Martha sitting alone having lunch in a small park near my office, and I would try to start a conversation, but she quickly excused herself from my first attempts. Only with persistence on my part did Martha eventually continue our conversation. Martha later told me she started having a glass of wine before coming to the park to make it easier for her to talk to me. She later told me that our conversations were the only social life she had at the time. With the exception of work and necessary errands, Martha was unable to go almost anywhere by herself if there was any chance she would be required to interact with other people. With almost no friends, Martha would sit at home alone with her dog and read romance novels while drinking wine to numb the loneliness, sometimes into oblivion. Only when Martha was dating someone was she able to go out into the world. 

     Even after Martha was comfortable with me, she was still reluctant to talk about herself in a personal way for a long time. She says she simply remained quiet to avoid saying the wrong thing and chasing me away. Unfortunately, Martha’s dependency on the men she had dated before I met her had resulted in some abusive relationships that Martha found herself unable to break off regardless of how abusive they became. It seems Martha did not know the relationships were abusive until a therapist finally told her. She thought the abuse was her fault, because she was such an awful girlfriend. She now recognized she was a sex toy for abusers who discarded her for days or weeks until they wanted to use their sex toy again. Martha did finally find a way to be self-employed, which was essential because of her fear of attending job interviews. She would work hard to get a job interview, and then fail to show up because she was certain she would mess up the interview anyway. With no confidence or initiative, Martha eventually lost most of the jobs that she did get. Even now, the thought of meeting new clients brings her feelings of dread back to the fore, but with the support she receives from our relationship and her group-therapy sessions, Martha is able to get through the ordeal. Martha’s growing self-confidence has really helped our relationship. We are both very content with our relationship now, and we sure are glad we hung in there. 

     Avoidants need a partner who will give them continuous and unconditional love for the duration of their relationship, regardless of the shifting moods the avoidant may experience. Years of keeping to themselves may cause avoidants to keep some habitual emotional distance from their partner as well as other people generally. Avoidants believe it is inevitable that their partner, just like everyone else, will eventually become critical or rejecting. Even in a loving relationship, avoidants may always be somewhat timid about discussing their most private thoughts and feelings, and they may always remain somewhat untrusting with an unshakable fear of being left alone. The wrong joke, minor sarcasm, or even constructive criticism may create fear and pain, and leave the avoidant questioning their partner’s level of commitment to the relationship. Avoidants may withdraw emotionally to an extreme degree if they believe their partner has criticized them, and attempts by partners to explain themselves and appease the avoidant may initially have little impact. Recovering from a step backward with an avoidant may require an extended period of reassurance and uncritical acceptance. Even in a very loving relationship, avoidants may vacillate between periods of trust and warmth toward their partner, and periods of fear, emotional distance, and rejecting behavior. 

     There is always the possibility avoidants will get scared and run from even a good relationship. It is critical that the avoidant’s partner have a good understanding of the shifting emotions and shifting levels of trust avoidants may experience from time to time so they do not misinterpret the avoidant’s behavior as rejection. As is common in relationships with difficult personalities, the avoidant may trigger the more stable partner’s own insecurities. Over time, the partners of avoidants may experience their own sadness when their attempts to lift the avoidants’ chronic depression are sometimes unsuccessful. 

     Since avoidants have a fear of going to new places and trying new things, a relationship with an avoidant may be somewhat limited and constricted. Avoidants may need considerable coaxing and encouragement before they will be willing to expand their horizons and meet new people. Simply discussing the fearful topic of increasing your social life may draw an anxious, fearful or even angry response. When social events do occur, expect avoidants to hover near their partner and remain quiet to avoid doing something for which they might be criticized. During the early stages of a relationship, avoidants’ reticence and tendency to be a chronic homebody may be more severe because of the newness of the relationship, or they may be somewhat more sociable due to the infatuation effects of honeymoon-stage brain chemistry. 

     During the initial honeymoon phase of a relationship, the relationship may seem very wonderful for both the avoidant and the partner. For some avoidants, though, their fears and anxiety over possible rejection may only increase as they become more emotionally attached. During the honeymoon stage, the partner may feel he is truly the white knight the avoidant needed in her life, and with the magic of their relationship, the partner expects the avoidant to move beyond the irrational fears that have ruled her life for so long. Unfortunately, the honeymoon stage with an avoidant may be relatively brief. As the brain- chemistry induced euphoria of the honeymoon stage draws to a close, the avoidant may experience increased fears and anxiety. Instead of recognizing the normal and expected end of a chemically induced euphoria, the partner of an avoidant may feel it is his own inadequacies that have caused the avoidant to relapse into fear and anxiety. Both partners may now experience some depression and despair. As the partner’s mood also begins a downward shift, the couple may find their negative moods playing off each other in an atmosphere of descending negativity, arguments and pain. As is so common in dysfunctional relationships, each partner may blame the other for their problems. 

Causes of Shyness 

     Shyness is very common and may have originally evolved as a protective behavior that allowed people to avoid negative or painful experiences. There is very strong evidence for a genetic connection in shyness, and the conventional wisdom is that shyness is caused by some combination of biological/genetic factors87 and psychological/social factors, including the original family environment.93 Although some theories suggest the involvement of the brain’s limbic system and the neurotransmitter dopamine, other theories emphasize dysfunctional childhoods including a low level of parental affection and nurturing,50 critical parents, overprotective parents, and parental arguments.17 Studies have suggested that up to 61 percent of adults with the more extreme avoidant personality disorder report excess levels of emotional abuse by their parents.50 Bernardo Carducci, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana State University Southeast, does not believe shy people are born that way since a “sense of self†does not form until about 18 months of age. At the same time, Carducci points to evidence that 15 to 20 percent of infants are born with an inhibited temperament,81 and there is research suggesting that children with a temperament involving high levels of inhibition are more likely to suffer shyness later in life.87 The genetic predisposition exhibited by an infant may be affected by the nature of the environment in which the child is raised.93 Children who experience rejection may become very self-conscious, begin to focus inward, and blame themselves for the problems they experience. This negative thinking leads to negative emotions, including feelings of shame.89 

     Childhood shyness usually recedes as children mature. In many cases, even severe shyness during childhood may lessen or even disappear with age,89 although some residual shyness may remain.23 In other cases, the shyness and fearful behavior may only increase during adolescence and the early adult years due to an increase in the awareness of the perspectives and evaluations of others. Adolescent girls must also deal with changes in their body shape.89 Although shy adults are usually not lacking in social skills, shy children are lacking in social skills. As children grow into adolescence and adulthood, there is a general shift toward more shy females than males, possibly reflecting cultural values that frown on shyness in males. 

     Shyness may begin early in life when parents of children who are overly emotional, inhibited, or easily distressed respond to their children with overprotection, insensitivity, physical and emotional rejection and abuse, criticism, control, ridicule, shaming, or the use of considerable correcting behavior. Criticism of children may create the expectation of humiliation, failure, and a sense of foreboding that may result in a life that just doesn’t seem to work.122 Many researchers in shyness argue that the socialization process with the parents is most important in allowing a child to develop an adequate sense of self, and to develop the ability to connect with others later in life. 

     Parents who suffer their own personality or emotional problems are more likely to respond with dysfunctional parenting.86 Some parents may be less social themselves because of their own shyness. Self-critical parents, especially the same-sex parent, may pass their tendency toward self-criticism on to their children.89 As the child grows, the parent(s) may continue to over control, protect, and micromanage the child’s life in an authoritarian and dictatorial manner. Criticism or ridicule may continue as well. Some of these unwitting parents may then be critical of their son or daughter’s shy, withdrawn behavior without recognizing the role they have played, and continue to play, in their child’s insecurity, low self-esteem, loneliness, and depression.86 

     The overly protective parent may be one of the most potentially harmful to the shy child since this protective behavior may reinforce the child’s natural inhibition and tendency to avoid new people and environments. The child’s fears may elicit overprotection and isolation by the parent, or the parent’s own anxieties may lead to an overprotecting parenting style.87 Other contributors to shyness in children might include modeling by parents who view the opinions of others as more important than their own opinions, parents who use shame as a method of discipline,87 rejection and ostracism by peers,89,97 and being shamed by teachers in front of other students.89 

     Of course, the lack of relationships will only perpetuate the loneliness/shyness cycle. As is so often the case with personality issues, the vicious circles arising from shyness can be hideous. Many shy people have a poor self-image as they focus on the perceived negative reactions of others, which only confirm their negative self-image, sinking their low self-esteem even lower. The shy person may then mentally beat himself up with feelings and thoughts of how awful he is. At subsequent social events, the individual starts out with an even lower self-image, which may result in ever-more-fearful and eccentric behavior resulting in even more negative evaluations from others. In some cases, the shy individual may develop the more severe avoidant personality disorder and withdraw from almost all social contact. 

     Where poor parenting continues, healthy social encounters outside the home with teachers and friends may help mitigate some of the negative effects of inadequate parenting.86 Needless to say, much of this unfortunate family dysfunction could be avoided if parents were more aware of their own personalities and behaviors, and better able to make conscious choices about their behavior toward their children. Without some self-awareness, parents who did not receive affection and appropriate guidance from their own parents, or experienced excess criticism or severe physical punishment during their childhood, may unconsciously raise their own children in a similar fashion, even if they have always told themselves they would never, ever raise a child that way. 

Treatment of Shyness 

     Shyness appears to be one of the more persistent and enduring disorders,87 yet recent research suggests the symptoms of shyness and the accompanying anxiety are very treatable for those who do not grow out of their childhood symptoms.95 Anyone can develop the ability to form relationships with other people if they will just seek the help that is available.80,93 Although shyness is very common in childhood, and frequently becomes a chronic condition, most shy children and adolescents do not receive the treatment they need to effectively deal with the disorder. Less than five percent receive treatment within the first year after the onset of symptoms. Half of those who finally do seek treatment for shyness wait an average of 16 years before doing so. This is especially unfortunate since the treatments available today are highly effective.94 Fortunately, poor social skills do not appear to be a major problem for shy adults. Research has indicated that when shy people do not have a negative appraisal of a social situation, and become less focused on themselves, their behavior may be quite skilled and appear no different from that of people who are not shy.89,91 

     Bernardo J. Carducci suggests that, initially, the shy person should work at becoming “successfully shy.â€80 Successfully shy people arrange their lives to help compensate for their shyness, such as choosing a career that involves groups or teamwork, etc. Most shy people do make some attempt to attend social events and make contact with other people, but they wait for other people to start a conversation rather than taking the initiative themselves. If no one starts a conversation with them (many other people are shy too), they may feel very alone in the middle of a crowd. If a conversation is in process, listening closely to what other people say is critical to having your own conversation come across as focused and coherent. When shy individuals focus on features in the external environment instead of their anxieties and fears, they report having less anxiety and fewer negative beliefs about themselves.165 The tendency to focus on their anxiety and negative thinking may change as they learn to focus on the social situation and the ongoing conversation itself.163 For some, though, the anxiety they experience in social situations may continue despite multiple successful social encounters. 

     Listeners are considered cool, and they are respected, but shy people get caught up in their own thoughts and may appear absentminded and disconnected. The idea is for shy people to get caught up in what other people are saying to the same extent that they have always been caught up in their own thoughts and feelings. The long-term solution lies in focusing less on themselves and more on the people around them and what they are saying. If shy people will learn to stay in listening mode until they have more information about a conversation, this will help them develop the personality they may have so often admired in others. I encourage shy people to become highly educated about shyness, especially their own shyness, as well as learning to recognize and understand any other personality traits and characteristics they may possess. Learning to understand yourself, that is, your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, will help you increase your self-awareness, which will increase your self-control. Therapy with a therapist who understands personalities can be very helpful here. Along with reading about shyness and becoming an expert about themselves, I encourage my shy clients to eventually involve themselves in group counseling while exposing themselves to the situations they fear, which I call “fieldwork.†Fieldwork might include conversations with others while standing in line at a grocery store, talking more to a waitress or hairdresser, going to social events, or giving lectures through a Toastmasters class. These exercises will allow individuals to gain more information about their shyness and lower their tension level by slowly becoming accustomed to situations they have always viewed as threatening. 

     All of these skills can be practiced by organizing a weekly dinner group with friends, classmates, coworkers, etc., with the self-directed goal of keeping the conversation flowing. Of course, to keep the conversation flowing, you must concentrate on what your guests are saying rather than on your own thoughts. If you want to practice meeting strangers in public places, I suggest going to places where you do not usually go or hang out. The fear of rejection may be greatly reduced in locations where no one knows you. Keeping up with current events via TV news, newspapers and news magazines, seeing the best movies and PBS documentaries, etc., will allow the shy person to talk knowledgeably about current topics and events. If you have invited a shy friend to a party, ask your friend to arrive early and help you keep the conversations going by introducing the guests to each other as they arrive. Your shy friend may never realize you have helped him/her reduce their shyness by having them focus on others rather than themselves. Of course, you can practice this same exercise with yourself. 

     When viewed logically, rejection is rarely that disastrous. Since we all experience some rejection, the goal is to not be put off by the rejection, but to accept it as a normal part of the social dance and move on. We can only be rejected at the choice of rejectors, who clearly have their own struggles with life. Although the past is the past, and change must necessarily occur in the present, it may be helpful for shy people to understand the early experiences in their lives that may have led to the pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that have become a major part of their self-concept, and help them change the negative way they think about themselves. They may also come to understand any anger and resentment they may feel toward others. Still, the main goal is to help shy individuals stop focusing on themselves to the point that it interrupts and sabotages their communication and social behavior.17,89 

     Generally, what I have been discussing here is referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and involves gaining relevant knowledge and information, learning new ways of thinking about yourself and other people, and exposing yourself to feared environments. CBT has been shown to result in a higher quality of life for shy people, including improvements in their relationships, having more new experiences, greater creativity, and an increase in general playfulness.97,98 CBT is available in individual and group formats, which appear to be equally effective. Cognitive-behavioral group therapy is the most researched and the most popular approach to treating shyness. In CBGT, group participants will identify their automatic negative thoughts and challenge their validity. They then identify rational alternative thoughts to replace the negative thoughts. The group will also provide social skills training, create simulations of feared situations, and practice more rational responses. The group will then make plans to experience real life situations during the week. Using video feedback can be an effective tool in helping shy people to develop a more objective view of their social interactions. The group participant is asked to state in advance how they believe they will appear in the video and then watch the video with the objectivity of an observer.163 

     Antidepressant medications have also been found effective in treating shyness,17 and in some cases, both CBT and medications may be combined, although some studies have shown quality CBT alone to be about as effective as CBT combined with medications. Medications may be combined with CBT when CBT appears less effective when used alone.98 In some cases, medication may be used to reduce severe anxiety in social situations, which may reduce the fears of being judged negatively. This may allow a severely shy person to more effectively practice coping techniques in social situations. CBT has demonstrated more consistent long-term effects than medication, and symptoms of shyness are more likely to return when medication is discontinued than when CBT is discontinued.98 I have found there to be an unfortunate bias against the use of medications for severe shyness, and I have had severely shy clients refuse to even consider trying medications. In cases of severe shyness, I have seen medications drastically increase the sense of well-being and make it possible for the sufferer to feel less tension, worry less, and be more open to social contact with other people. I have never met a severely shy person who did not also suffer some level of depression, and some of the recommended medications to help with shyness are the very same antidepressant medications that help with depression. But medication without at least some exposure to the feared situations would not allow the shy person to learn that social situations are not that scary, and that rejection is usually the other person’s problem. Gradual exposure to anxiety-producing situations is important whether the treatment is CBT, medication, or both.99 

     With the remarkable antidepressant medications now on the market, I am very optimistic when working with even extreme avoidants and their relationships. Therapy with an avoidant frequently begins with couples therapy, since avoidants may feel extreme anxiety at the thought of seeing a therapist on their own. The avoidant may have never seen a therapist before coming in for couples therapy, since avoidants may be unable to call a therapist on their own or show up for an appointment that was made for them. Ideally the avoidant will embrace individual therapy that eventually evolves into group therapy so the avoidant can experience other nonthreatening relationships. Having the support of other people and knowing you are not alone always helps. It will be easier for the avoidant to transfer into group therapy if the same therapist conducts both the individual and the group therapy sessions. Couples therapy may be continued as a part of this process. I am very optimistic for avoidants who find the right therapist or support group, use medications if needed, and are committed to the process. Their lives and relationships can change dramatically. 

Similarities and Differences 

     It is easy to confuse the avoidant and the dependent personality since either an avoidant or a dependent personality may have feelings of inadequacy, hypersensitivity to criticism, and a constant need for reassurance. The difference is that the avoidant focuses on avoiding humiliation and rejection while the dependent personality emphasizes the need to be taken care of. When these two personalities come together, they tend to reinforce each other. It is no surprise that there is a common co-occurrence with avoidant and dependent personalities.