Somewhere in almost all of us, though it doesn't come out in all situations, lives a timid child. Even the bravest among us can wander into a crowded room or a meeting or merely sit down to tea with an acquaintance and be stricken by self-consciousness. For some this is a fleeting experience, for others a lifelong tendency to panic. Those most afflicted by shyness are at greater risk for depression, substance abuse, underemployment and weak family bonds. Reticent people may also receive poor medical care because they recoil from sharing symptoms with practitioners.
The problem seems to be on the rise. Some experts believe a decrease in face-to-face interaction, a result of the digital age, is weakening social skills and increasing anxiety about interpersonal encounters. Shyness, they say, should now be considered a public health issue.
At the root of both momentary social avoidance and its more entrenched version is the belief that others will judge us as incompetent or unattractive. Rather than paying attention to those we're with, we're seized by our own anxiety, which is why shy people may often come across as awkward, unfriendly or aloof.
While scientists believe that about 15 to 20 per cent of us are genetically predisposed to shyness, it's ultimately a learned behaviour that can arise at any time in life - and can be unlearned. Your best strategy is to start taking just those social risks you usually avoid.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"We find shyness in people who are anxiety-ridden, and it often fits into what we term burnout syndrome. The adrenal glands are exhausted. The person doesn't have the confidence to deal with small situations, like asking someone for the time, that would seem insignificant to others. There are three highly indicated remedies, Baryta Carbonica , Silicea Terra and Pulsatilla . The treatment needs to be individualized to the person. (In homeopathy) shyness is a qualifying symptom - it would never be the crux of the case. Sometimes B-complex vitamins are needed for support of the nervous system. Exercise releases endorphins that help deal with life. Sometimes caffeine pushes the burnout syndrome further along."
BRYCE WYLD , homeopath, nutritional consultant, Toronto
"We tend not to work with labels. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming we focus on how somebody does something rather than why they do it. If someone has the ability to be shy, it's something they can learn not to do. I have clients teach me how I could do the same thing (i.e., act shyly). (To help them) I need to know how they do it. They have to go through the same thought process again and again to have that shyness. I find out how they structure that thought process. Then I help them restructure those thoughts. When you change, people around you cannot not change, because you're putting out a different message."
PETER RHODES, NLP master practitioner, Toronto
"Canadians tend to be more shy than others. I think it's cultural. We're historically a more law-abiding and respectful society. (Shyness is most) widespread in Japan, (where) it's culturally expected. The whole entrepreneurial approach that's happened in North America in the last 15 to 20 years means that there are clearly advantages for people here to break out of shyness. For those individuals who have been traumatized (by bullying, teasing, humiliation), it's mandatory that those traumas be addressed and resolved. Shy individuals are by nature sensitive."
ROSS JOHNSON, psychotherapist, founder, the Shyness Centre, Toronto and Oakville
"People who are shy predict that others will think badly of them. There are some people we describe as shy who are very comfortable performing. A big strategy for overcoming shyness is exposure, practice, getting into the situation over and over till it's less scary. As people do this, their skills improve. People may have beliefs like, 'It's important that everybody likes me. If somebody notices I'm anxious they'll think I'm incompetent.' We help people become aware of these thoughts and (learn to) not take them so seriously."
MARTIN ANTONY, director, Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre, St. Joseph's Health Care, Toronto; associate professor, department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences, McMaster University, Hamilton