Understanding Shyness

You are not alone in feeling shy — but it probably feels that way. Shyness is considered a social disease. Millions suffer from it and there is no miracle cure. This traumatic, painful and even debilitating condition forces people into isolation and loneliness. According to Philip Zimbardo, foremost researcher on the subject of shyness and originator of the revolutionary Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, California, “shyness is an insidious personal problem that is reaching epidemic proportions.” Further, he believes that trends in our society will only make the problem worse. Zimbardo studied 5,000 American college students in an attempt to determine what shyness is and what can be done about it.

Shyness, as a concept and as an experience, is difficult to define. It seems to be a form of social anxiety where the individual may experience a range of feelings from mild anxiety in the presence of others to actual fear to a pronounced anxiety disorder. For a person experiencing shyness, it is often anxiety-producing to have to interact with others and, at the same time, the loneliness of limited relationships is profoundly painful.

Shyness seems to be an all-encompassing phenomena in that the person experiences definite feelings, exhibits certain behaviors and, physiologically, manifests certain symptoms. If you are one of the 84 million adults in the U.S. who experience shyness, you will be more than familiar with the behaviors and feelings that accompany this condition.


~ Reluctance to talk
~ Difficulty in making eye contact
~ Failure to take the initiative to act
~ Speaks in low, almost inaudible voice
~ Inability to make speeches
~ Difficulty in volunteering


~ Self-conscious
~ Feelings of embarrassment
~ Feelings of insecurity
~ Attempts to keep a low profile
~ Feelings of inferiority

Physical Symptoms

~ Blushing
~ Butterflies in the stomach
~ Sweaty hands
~ Increased pulse
~ Pounding heart
~ Dry mouth
~ Trembling

Shyness relates to one’s exaggerated sense of self — it implies that a self-conscious person is conscious about self; this, in fact, seems to be true. Shy individuals are absorbed in the self and constantly focused on how they affect others and how others feel about them. They worry about themselves and become so absorbed in their own discomfort and inadequacies that they cannot focus on or feel toward others. This cycle serves to further isolate shy people from the mainstream of warm, giving relationships.

Imagine yourself as a shy person, (if you have never experienced extreme shyness), having to approach a new group of people. What would it feel like? Would you do anything rather than place yourself here? Are you feeling extreme embarrassment and self-consciousness? Are you blushing, feeling butterflies in your stomach; is your heart pounding? Just imagining this experience is bad enough — think if you really had to live it. Now, you may begin to have an idea of what true shyness is all about and to have compassion for anyone who suffers from this condition.

Since shyness is now being recognized as a major social problem in our society, social scientists are devoting considerable resources towards identifying ways to help shy people. New shyness clinics incorporate methods of treatment that range from building social and cognitive skills to assertiveness training, techniques to reduce anxiety and systematic desensitization.

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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