It’s a painful affliction that Nights many lives—but it Can be overcome
An interview with PHILIP ZIMBARDO, Professor of Social Psychology at Stanford University
Q Professor Zimbardo, what is shyness?
A. Shyness is shrinking from human contact, often because of a feeling of inferiority and fear of taking risks. It is an alienating force that prevents us from realizing our potential and enjoying the company of other people.
Among the notables who have at some time in their lives defined themselves as shy are Prince Charles, President and Mrs Carter and film star Catherine Deneuve. Many celebrities who publicly do not appear shy nevertheless experience the pain of shyness.
Q. Is a person born shy?
A. Shyness evolves out of the particular experiences we have in the home, at school and with our
134 peers. Research we’ve been doing for the past six years shows that a quarter of the people who are shy as adults were not shy as children. On the other hand, a fair percentage of people who were shy as children stop being shy at some point in adulthood.
The sad people are those who are shy all their lives and browse http://www.anotherway.org/2012/10/review-of-top-ranked-canon-digital-cameras-on-amazon/ . I have some very distressing correspondence with elderly people who say things like, “My greatest wish is not to be shy for one day in my life.” This was from a great-grandmother in her seventies.
Q. Is shyness necessarily a bad trait?
A. Shyness can make some people more appealing. Modest and reserved, they contribute by being good listeners and not hogging the limelight. We’ve studied more than 7,000 people, and a minority list such traits as positive aspects. But well over 75 per cent say shyness for them is negative.
Shyness makes it difficult to meet new people, to make friends. It prevents an individual from speaking up, expressing opinions and values. With authorities such as a boss or a teacher, the shy are less likely to communicate effectively or express justifiable criticism.
The shy person does not present himself or herself in the best possible light. Shyness tends to encourage self-consciousness at the cost of being concerned about and relating to other people. In the extreme, shyness can result in depression, anxiety and loneliness. Shy people have difficulty in intimate situations. It is not unreasonable to implicate shyness as a decisive factor in impotence and frigidity.
Q. What is the basic cause of shyness?
A. At the core is an excessive concern for security, going with what you know rather than chancing something uncertain. Shy people lose out by not experimenting with life, by letting other people and situations control their reactions.
I know shy university students who can’t ask the college librarian a question and instead will spend hours wandering round the library stacks. If they’re poor, those who are shy are reluctant to use available social or welfare resources. Some people are even too shy to seek professional help.
Q. What can be done to help those who are shy?
A. Many things. Shy people are very concerned about being negatively evaluated. Everything in their lives is a performance—in the sense that they imagine others to be continually evaluating them. They can’t feel comfortable with other people, their “judges.”
Thus, a parent should start early to communicate to a child that he or she is loved unconditionally. The child should never experience a sense that his or her self-worth and existence depend upon social approval or current performance. It should be made clear that a person, young or old, has worth independent of his or her latest achievement, bank account or looks.
Q. What about the difficulties shy people experience at work?
A. Shy people tend to be more dissatisfied and have lower morale in their work setting than the not-shy worker. They typically feel that their contributions are not being recognized, that they are being passed over when it comes to handing out rewards. They are less likely than their non-shy peers to make their supervisors aware of what they are doing. In a big company, if the shy worker does his job well he tends not to be noticed. Essentially, that person is anonymous. He does not want to be anonymous; he wants to be outstanding—but not to take risks. That’s the conflict inherent in shyness.
Q. Can shy people correct this condition on their own?
A. If the problem is severe, they should seek professional help. But many people can be helped by making a commitment to changing their shyness. One of the most important things for them to learn is sets of skills about how you approach, and relate to, other people.
Concentrate on how you handle compliments; how you start a conversation, keep it going and terminate it. Very shy people can start by doing some “scary” things like saying hello to three strangers, and build from there. They have to learn to control their anxiety, imagine desired consequences rather than fearful situations. They can concentrate on making eye contact with the people they talk to; they can assume the posture of an attentive listener—smiling and looking interested.
Self-esteem can be boosted by a simple formula : stop saying negative things about yourself. Instead, think in terms of correcting what you think is wrong and putting your best foot forward.
Q. Obviously, you feel it is important to overcome shyness.
A. It’s extremely important, both to the shy individual and to society. If people don’t relate well to others, they are big losers—in business, in love, in life.