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No One Is Doomed To Be Shy

By Margaret DiCanio, Ph.D.

Shy people are typically so paralyzed by fear that they show little interest in others. As a consequence, they fail to hold up their end of conversations, leading those with whom they interact to assume they are stuck-up or hostile. This can result in loneliness, misunderstanding, and lost opportunities, socially and in business. How prevalent is shyness? Studies conducted over the last two decades show that it is more prevalent than you might think. An astonishing 40 percent--two out of five respondents--in a 1977 survey of Americans answered "yes" to psychologist Philip Zimbardo's question "Are you shy?" Until Zimbardo raised the issue, few researchers were interested in shyness.

In their quest to unravel the mysteries of shyness, Zimbardo, the director of the Stanford University Shyness Clinic, and his colleagues conducted several studies. In one of these, they asked California grade-school children to rate themselves on personality traits. Children's self-assessments were supported by teachers' observations. Compared with non-shy children, shy children rated themselves as more passive, more introverted, less social, less fond of themselves, and less tolerant of others. The researchers concluded that shy children were not only critical of themselves, they were critical of others.

In a series of studies, beginning in the 1980's, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan and his colleagues followed a group of 400 shy and non-shy children from infancy onward. They found that l0 to 20 percent of the children seem to have been born with a predisposition to be shy. Given parents who gently persuaded them to try new things and helped them cope with their anxieties, about half of the biologically inclined shy children mastered their fears. Biologically inclined children not only exhibit fear of strangers, they have a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Approximately 20 percent of the children in Kagan's study who were not born with a predisposition toward shyness became shy.

Early social successes are important for all children. Zimbardo encourages parents, teachers, and shy adults to help children learn to be friendly, to take appropriate social risks, and to accept failures with grace. Development of social skills enables children to reach their full potential as friendly adults.

Researchers are looking for techniques to interrupt the various pathways by which people withdraw from the company of others. A three-year social-intelligence study was funded in the fall of l990 by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). Scientists at Duke, Vanderbilt, Pennsylvania State, and the University of Washington set out to develop social intelligence in children known to lack social skills.

To find strategies that socially inept children might use to smooth their interactions with others, researchers watched socially skilled children handle awkward interactions, such as entering a play group of strangers. Adept children insert themselves by stages. They first stand and watch. Next, they comment. Finally, they ask permission to join.

Inept children call attention to themselves too soon, thereby increasing their chances for rejection. They don't notice social clues, such as friendly or unfriendly facial expressions. Having overlooked evidence that a new group is not ready to include them, inept children are puzzled when they are rebuffed.

All is not lost for those who don't conquer their shyness in childhood. With Bronwen Cheek and Larry Rothstein, Wellesley College psychologist Jonathan Cheek wrote a self-help blueprint for adults entitled Conquering Shyness, The Battle Anyone Can Win: A Personalized Approach (Putnam, 1989). In their book, Cheek and his colleagues offer a shyness rating scale. Descriptions of symptoms enable the reader to determine to which of three shyness types he or she belongs.

One type suffers physical distress: sweating, trembling, heart-pounding, knotted stomach, blushing, and physical discomfort. A second type's anxious preoccupation with the impression he or she is making blocks out all other incoming information. A third type lacks social skills: fails to make eye contact; makes nervous gestures; and generally avoids social interactions.

The first half of Cheek's book eases the shy reader into anxiety-provoking situations normally avoided. The shy reader who survives the first half is rewarded in the second half with suggestions to improve specific areas of life, such as making friends, finding romance, and developing a career.

The recent rapid rise of interest in social-intelligence research was sparked by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's 1983 book Frames of Mind. Gardner proposed that there are several kinds of intelligence. In his view, social intelligence involves the ability to get help from others and to give help in return.

A group of problem behaviors in which anxiety and avoidance are prominent includes a category known as "social phobia" that resembles shyness. Social phobia is a persistent fear of being watched by others. During the imagined scrutiny, the person with social phobia expects to do something humiliating--to make a fool of himself or herself. Sometimes the fear is specific. The fearful person can't eat in front of others, or perhaps he or she can't use a restroom. Sometimes the fear is generalized to all social situations.

Aron Beck, the director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy in New York City, likens having this phobia to walking though a social minefield. Those with the disorder exaggerate rejection or perceive it when it does not exist. The outcomes of social phobia and shyness are similar: isolation and loneliness. The difference is in degree. Shyness tends toward the mild to moderate end of the behavior scale, and social phobia toward the extreme.

Like shyness, social phobias have probably existed since humans first began socializing, but until Dr. Michael Liebowitz, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, pioneered the study of social phobias in the early 1980's, researchers did little work in this area. Much of what is now known about anxiety disorders in general and social phobia in particular has been learned in the last decade.

Surprisingly few people seek help for either shyness or social phobia because they are ashamed of their behavior, considering it a weakness. Yet no one is doomed to be shy. Effective treatment is available. Many treatment techniques that have been developed for social phobia are similar to those suggested by Jonathan Cheek in his book Conquering Shyness, The Battle Anyone Can Win. Self-helpers can use this guide as a starting point in their quest to become more comfortable socially.

Margaret DiCanio, Ph.D., a medical sociologist and free-lance writer, is the author of The Encyclopedia of Violence: Origins, Attitudes, Consequences

Copyright 1999 The Five O'Clock Club. All rights reserved.