Shyness Is Not a Cute, Insignificant Thing

I’ve heard many people refer to themselves or others as shy – both in the context of their current life and their childhood. “I am a shy person.” My child is very shy.” “Oh, she’s just shy.”

Basically, “shy” is a more socially acceptable and less direct way of saying that one is scared of, or anxious about, people. It’s a euphemism, if you will. In the dictionary the word “shy” is described as “nervous or timid in the company of other people.” However, when you say, “shy,” people usually don’t feel uncomfortable.

“What’s going on with her?”
“Nothing. She’s just shy.”
“Oh, OK.”

But when you say it how it really is, it makes some people uncomfortable. (Or it may be an uncomfortable thing to say about yourself.)
“He looks kind of meek and avoidant. What’s up with him?”
“He’s scared of people and social situations.”

Well, this raises questions and makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

“Why is he scared of people…? Why does he have low self-esteem…? I wonder, what happened in his past that made him to become automatically scared of people and social situations…? I guess, some really bad things happened…. As a child, he probably was repeatedly hurt in one form or another by people who were close to him…. I just remembered that something similar happened to me, too.... I don’t want to think about hurt and child abuse – it makes me uncomfortable on many levels.” (Of course, not many people think like that consciously, but in many cases that’s what’s going on an unconscious or semi-conscious level.)

Compared all of this to, “He’s just shy.”

This phrasing is particularly common when talking about children. “He is a shy kid.” “She’s a shy girl.” “She’s shy just like mommy.” “When I was his age, I was very shy, too.”

Some people even say that a shy child is cute. “Awww, look at her, her head is down because she’s too shy to look at us – she looks so cute!”
“This is my son. He’s hiding under the table because he’s a little shy.”
“Awww, that’s so adorable – he looks like a cute little puppy on all fours down there!”
“I know, right!?”

Well, why is she distant, silent, and avoiding eye contact? Why doesn’t he want to be seen? Is this his favorite, i.e., the safest place, to hide? Does he hide there when his parents fight? Does he crawl there to hide when his father gets violent or when his mother threatens to tell his father to beat him again if he continues to be “naughty”? Why are they scared of people? Are they scared of me particularly? Do I remind them of someone in specific who have hurt them before? Are they afraid of me because I am a stranger? Why would they be scared of strangers? Are they afraid of a stranger because strangers had somehow abused them before? Are they afraid of others because they feel ashamed of being “bad” or doing something “wrong” and they don’t want for others to see their “wickedness” (because that’s what they were told, and they believe it)? Are they afraid to do something “bad” in the interaction with me and to be punished or humiliated for it – by their caregivers or by me? Do they live in an over-controlling environment? Do they get bullied in school or kindergarten? Are their parents aware of how their child feels and why? Why don’t they help the child to feel safe, protected, and more confident? In what other ways is this child abused in their relationship with their caregivers? Does the child feel ashamed or guilty that he or she has been abused? Do they also feel lonely, betrayed, confused, or helpless?

These are just some of the questions that may come up in such a situation…. Feeling afraid is not cute. Feeling afraid is not adorable. It’s not a small, insignificant thing. It’s terrifying. It’s draining. It can be very confusing and alienating – especially if you’re a child.... Shyness is a complex psychological and emotional state that didn't come out of nowhere. People are not born feeling shy afraid, inferior, ashamed, or guilty.

Yes, sometimes we may feel cautious or a little bit anxious meeting new people or doing something while others are watching. But there’s a difference between being cautious when in contact with an unpleasant or genuinely dangerous person and feeling scared or anxious by default when you’re in a social situation. The latter usually indicates that there is some kind of problem. (In our society, usually only a severe form of “shyness” is recognized, and it is called “social phobia.”)

To my observation, people who have a healthy self-esteem usually are not scared of others; and children who have a strong, constant, and healthy bond with their caregivers are not afraid of social situations. By default they are not afraid of being visible, alive, active, and interactive. They know that they are safe and protected and that they can always count on their caregivers. They also have developed a sharp sense of what are the characteristics of a safe, trustworthy person. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sometimes children randomly smile at me on the street or want to talk and interact with me. Especially compared to a person who, for example, has a stern look on their face, or yell, or reek of cigarettes, or tease them, or neglect them, etc.)

So the next time you label yourself – or hear others refer to someone – as shy, remember that the person in question most likely is feeling chronic fear (probably shame, guilt, and loneliness, too), and that there might be more to it than “oh, it’s just how they are / I am….”

I wish you a fear-free day!

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  1. Are there scientific studies to back up your assertions?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Are there any scientific studies on how excessive fear and anxiety stems from negative early life experiences and one's bond with one's caregivers? Sure, there are hundreds of books, sources, and studies on that.

    Actually, I have gathered a small portion of resources and posted it HERE. I would recommend to start with the works of Alice Miller, Daniel Mackler, and Lloyd deMause -- and most importantly with the examining of your own childhood.

    All the best,

  3. Hi. I am a survivor of childhood like all of us are. Violence was iinflicted upon me and I developed terribly shy, withdrawn and trepidatious social mechanisms due partly to my braIn damage. I had latency in my communication and lacked confidence in all social interactions. My parents were entirely aware and present for these abuses against me and still called me "shy" and continued to complain to me and their friends about my bubbly personality turning into a shy one. "When you were a child, you his behind me but when you were a toddler, you had such life and spark" what ignorance.

  4. I really like this one Darius. That idea is one that I, in a way, I have already had before (but not very clear), and reading this is like "yes, that is it: being shy is not something cute and healthy, is a symptom that the child have emotional issues".

  5. Darius, thanks for your wise commentary on shyness. I was a shy child, and though I have developed a reasonably confident "persona" to present in a wide range of social situations, I am always aware of the fact that I am doing this in spite of being shy, not because I've overcome my shyness. As a result of doing regressive therapy for many years I believe I know the ultimate source of my own particular shyness. For anyone interested, I invite you to watch my video "Therapy Uncovers Circumcision Trauma" on YouTube.

  6. Most people are shy because they have what I call Automatic Rejection Syndrome. They think they're gonna be instantly rejected, even if they have no evidence of this really happening.

  7. Well, I don't think we should jump to the conclusion that children necessarily need to have been abused to suffer social phobia.
    Although abuse can mean a lot of different things.

    But I absolutely agree, "shyness" should be taken very seriously. Especially in young individuals.

  8. My son is 2.5, and he is probably what you'd call shy. However, it's not because he's being abused or neglected or doesn't have a secure attachment to his caregivers. He is like I and his father were: just slightly slower to warm up to a new person, more introverted and sensitive.
    The thing I as a mother could improve on is giving him a better social example and exposure. I try to take him to playgroup and to the park as often as I can, but I don't have a whole lot of friends and family in the area, so he probably isn't getting as much"practice" as he should. I'm thinking I'd like to move closer to my family, as well as an area where there's more going on, for kids and for myself.


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