Helping to socialize is a common reason for drinking and certainly many social occasions use alcohol to provide a social lubricant. So using alcohol to help us talk and interact with others is common, not only in problem drinkers but also in non-problematic drinkers. It brings confidence, sometimes too much and banishes shyness, the subject of this page.

Shyness is very common and it can be very handicapping, but it does not gain you much sympathy. People often think you should "just get over it." Getting over it isn't easy. If you try to avoid being embarrassed and nervous by not interacting, you run the risk of being seen as snobbish, bored, unfriendly, or weak. How many of us are shy? Research in the 70s found that 40% of college students considered themselves shy (by 2000 it is up to 48%). Another 40% had been shy in the past, bringing the total to 80%. Among young teenagers, 50-60% were shy. Most researchers agree that half or more of American adults are a little shy. Only 5% of us are not-at-all-shy. So, it is one of the most common human problems.

Shy people find it hard to start a relationship. Sometimes others reject us or avoid us because we are quiet and withdrawn...that rejection hurts. Occasionally, if the withdrawal or rejection seems unnecessarily cruel to us, we may get angry and start to feel superior and want revenge. Most of the time we just believe we are not very interesting and stay by ourselves. It is important to note, however, if we can break through the shyness barrier and develop a friendship, becoming close and intimate is usually not a problem. We often long for intimacy and if we gain it with one or two people, we feel and do just fine.

There is an important difference to note between shyness and introversion. Shyness involves a social nervousness, a lack of social skills, a harsh internal critic, and acute self-consciousness. An introvert may have social skills but simply prefers to be alone or with a few friends. It isn't always easy to tell from the outside if a person is shy or introverted. From the inside, there is a big difference.

Another important distinction is that almost all of us are a little "shy" in certain social situations, but that is different from serious chronic shyness in almost all situations. The 15%-25% who are chronically shy feel lonely, misunderstood, self-critical, and uncomfortable while interacting. They look nervous. They can't maintain eye contact. They are unassertive, have trouble thinking clearly and expressing themselves, are concerned about their "image," and, in fact, often give others bad impressions. It can, of course, be a serious problem--too bad we don't take it more seriously. One of the barriers to getting help is our shame about social nervousness--on average, it is 8 years before the person suffering shyness can tell a family member or a friend. Maybe because people respond with "get over it." The average delay in seeking treatment for shyness is 14 years!

One more distinction needs to be made. At the high end of the shyness continuum there is a diagnosis of "social anxiety." At times this label may include some of the chronically shy, but the diagnosis is usually reserved for the most distressed 3% or so (that is still 10 million Americans!). These people suffer grave consequences in life. They may find it impossible to go to work or to school. Interacting with others results in panic, racing heart, sweating arm pits, faces, and hands, "freezing" so that working together seems impossible, and so on, much like panic reactions and agoraphobia.

Jerome Kagan, researching child development for over 30 years, found only one trait that was fairly consistent from age 2 to 20; that was shyness. Other traits--aggression, dependency, competitiveness--change as we develop. But social inhibition remains so constant and is so similar from parent to child or in identical twins that Kagan concluded that shyness was, in part, genetically determined--a part of our inheritance, a part of our hardware. Shy (15% are "inhibited") children can apparently be identified as early as 2 to 4-months-old--and 50% of shy 2-year-olds are still extremely shy at 7 or 8. Placed in a strange situation, the extremely shy child of 2 or 3 is hyperactive, irritable, nervous, cries a lot, has a fast heart rate, etc. When forced to interact with strangers, he/she is inhibited, unresponsive to strangers, unwilling to take risks, and tense doing motor tasks. These shy children were also more likely to be colicky, allergy-prone infants, and by age 7 or 8 had more fears about speaking in class, going to camp, being in the dark, etc. Even 30 years later, shy children are different: shy boys marry later, are more apt to get divorced, enter careers later and do less well. Shy girls are less likely to have careers when they grow up. Non-shy children (15% are "uninhibited") were sociable, fearless, and spontaneous with strangers. Shyness is likely to limit and reduce our joy of living; it may be with us a lifetime. Yet, we are not slaves to our genes.

Two thirds of us, including the shy, continue to think that shyness is caused by family experiences, overprotective or critical parents, abuse by peers, etc., i.e. by experience. Research assigns more blame to innate factors, which can be modified by experience. Hopefully, knowing that genes partly determine shyness will not discourage shy people or parents, teachers, and other helpers of shy kids. Clearly shyness can be changed because it does change over the years. It has been said "genes only set the stage, you get to write your life script." Sensitive, nurturing parents helped 40% of Kagan's inhibited children overcome their handicap by age 5 or 6. He advises parents to face the problem, protect the children from trauma, such as family fights, pushy older siblings, criticism or demands for excellence, etc., help them with social skills, and gently nudge them into social contacts. It is important that children know they are loved unconditionally, not just if they are "good." Seeing painfully shy children and adults as victims of their genes may help us be more sympathetic and spur the schools and helping professions to find better ways to cope with shyness. Shyness doesn't "just go away," explicit efforts are needed.

No one likes to be shy, so in their secret struggle with this problem almost all shy people try to "get over" the condition, often unsuccessfully (remember it is in our genes). To do this, they force themselves to interact, to think positively, and to relax while interacting by using drugs and alcohol. Some of these efforts are on the right track but aren't enough; the drinking/drugging may even harm. What will help?
Some of the mildly shy see the problem of nervousness very differently from the chronically shy. Excessively shy people have a hapless view, "I look terrible, I say such dumb things, my nervousness is an obvious, awful, unavoidable problem," whereas the non-shy person, who is actually having similar and equal physiological stress reactions, is more hopeful and apt to say, "Some people or some situations make me uncomfortable, but that's OK, it's normal, I'll start a conversation anyway." That is a better way to look at your nervousness. So, if you get stressed out, stop putting yourself down, stop imagining everyone is scrutinizing just you and deftly finding from 30 feet all your faults. Keep on interacting. To further reduce these negative self-evaluations, some therapists simply provide shy people with successful experiences talking to people. It works. Likewise, most of us have had the experience of becoming temporarily more outgoing and self-confident during or after certain experiences, such as a love relationship, being an athletic star, or doing very well in school. What we think and feel about ourselves, our self-esteem, influences our shyness and may come from observing our own behavior. In any case, adopting a hopeful, I-can-change-my-social-behavior way of thinking is important, then DO SOMETHING, like smiling and greeting people, making small talk, give a compliment, etc.

What are some other things you can do about shyness? Learn social interaction skills, especially self-disclosure, assertiveness, and empathy responses. Some psychologists advocate teaching shy students practical speech communication skills, like in speech class, and forget about "therapy" for anxiety. Many other psychologists would do the opposite, namely, focus on relaxation and desensitizing the nervousness, and forget speech skills. Others would use cognitive methods (correcting negative thoughts, giving self-instructions, planning) and improve their self-concept by building self-confidence and self-esteem.

Almost all therapists would recommend lots of practice interacting by first imagining successful conversations with different people. Maybe you can role play with a friend. Then try out your new skills, talking to people at work, on the Internet, going out with friends, etc. Prepare things to say and ask in advance. Learn and think about current social/political issues, listen to the news, see movies, polish your opinions. Improve your listening skills.

Some studies have suggested that shyness is increasing in America. A few psychologists have speculated that our increasing affluence and the increasing popularity of the Internet are responsible for the growth in shyness. What is the basis for these beliefs? Well, some think more wealth enables us to become self-sufficient and live alone with well furnished entertainment centers and expensive computers, i.e. live in isolation from others. But the same wealth enables us to have the time for friends and the means of going places and doing things with friends. Some with money choose to be alone, others want to be with their favorite people.

What about online communication does it help or increase shyness. One eminent psychologist wrote "Technology further isolates within an illusion of interpersonal communication. We make acquaintances and lose friends by spending so many hours on email and in chat rooms, substituting emotional face-to-face contacts with information-based virtual contacts." A couple of the early studies supported this opinion that going online increases social distance or isolation and replaces deep, meaningful friendships with (what is assumed to be) shallow, fleeting, cyberspace interactions. However, about 55% of Internet users report that being online increases interpersonal connections and actually improves interactions with friends and family. Certainly being online makes it easier and cheaper to stay in touch with old friends who are now far away. Good relationships can develop online; note the support groups and the marriages that start online.

It is obvious that humans have very different social needs--and some of us meet those needs within a close family or group of friends, perhaps face-to-face, perhaps by using new technology, perhaps by phone, perhaps for a few by writing each other. There are others of us who are content, even happy being alone (even though that is hard for the gregarious to realize, there is nothing wrong with that). What is concerning are the painfully shy who silently long for close relationships. For some of these people, the online chats, forums, lists, threaded discussions, etc. are an ideal way to start interacting more comfortably and, hopefully, learn to converse more easily with people face-to-face too. Indeed, a recent research paper recommended that the seriously shy (Social Phobia and Avoidant Personality Disorder) consider joining one of the thousands of virtual communities as well as perhaps seeking online therapy by a professional.

Shyness, extreme or mild, can be an enormous social problem. Some countries, such as China, do not raise nearly as many shy children as the US. It must be remembered that in addition to genes, shyness is partly a result of societal pressure to be successful, to be beautiful, to be competitive and to impress others. These pressures don't have to be there. Our shyness or passivity may also be subtly encouraged by parents, schools, and society to insure that children are "manageable," obedient, submissive--kept in "their place." As a result, however, we--as children and adults--come to feel unimportant, powerless, ineffective, passive-dependent, and even defective, which increases our isolation from family, friends, neighbours, and perhaps from all humanity. Shyness reduces our sharing, caring, and loving one another. It increases our loneliness, being picked on, losses due to hesitation, and other social problems.

Fortunately, exposure to social situations, social skills training, and cognitive techniques have all been shown to help social phobias. Actually a combination of cognitive group therapy followed by exposure to social situations seems to work best. Continuing to use alcohol to overcome shyness only creates a vicious circle where shyness never improves without alcohol.