Shyness is easy to observe, but hard to define. It is sometimes described as being self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations, especially with new people. Those who are shy are often self-critical of their behaviors in social settings; shy people tend to focus on what they feel they do wrong, and project negative past experiences onto current and future ones.
There are various theories about how shyness develops: parent modeling, the relationship with the same sex parent who may have been anxious, critical, rejecting, or restrictive, difficulty attaching to a parent securely in early childhood, and a negative attributional style where individuals expect negative outcomes and feel they have very little control over outcomes.
Most shy people engage in negative self-talk. This is the equivalent of a pessimistic radio channel that's always on in your head, telling you to be anxious about new situations, because they are likely to go poorly. Socially anxious people tend to reject positive feedback about their social behaviors, and accept only negative feedback. Shy individuals often attribute social failures as having to do with something inside the self.
Genetic and neurological factors have also been linked to shyness. Studies have shown physiological and neurological differences between shy and non-shy preschoolers in how they process emotion. There was significantly more brain activity in the right anterior part of the brain (as measured by EEG) when shy children were exposed to video clips that elicit fear and sadness, as compared to non-shy peers.
When does shyness peak? Usually right around age 18, correlating with the end of high-school and launching into college, adult life, and leaving the social comfort of home. Some young adults really benefit to having some counseling support at this pivotal time, as a young adult engages in the task of creating a new social support system beyond parents and high school. It can be a time where young adults often feel especially lonely and/or vulnerable. There are shy college students for whom acclimating into the second semester or second year will naturally help in overcoming shyness, resolving their “situational shyness.” There are others who are likely to become consistently shy and lonely in what is known as “dispositional shyness.”
There are also gender differences in shyness. Studies show that shyness in young men is more likely to delay romantic relationships and increase their physical aggressiveness. In young women, shyness can inhibit same-sex interactions, or interactions between women, more than it does for shy men in relating to other guys. Shy men tend to avoid eye contact and not initiate social interaction with others. Women are more likely to experience difficulty concentrating due to socially triggered anxiety.
Shy individuals can benefit from intervention and support from a therapist. The most common approaches that a therapist can use to decrease shyness are cognitive-behavioral therapy (addressing negative automatic thoughts that restrict social behaviors), systematic desensitization (helping a shy client take gradual steps to increase their exposure to social situations while using coping skills to reduce anxiety), and skills training (which includes assertion and the use of positive self-talk).
While shyness sounds simple, it really isn't. There can be multiple causes, including one's relationship with their parents, extroversion/introversion, role modeling, insecure attachments in early childhood, genetic/biological predisposition, situational/stage of life factors, as well as the way we talk with ourselves about our ability to change other people's perceptions of us through challenging our own shy behaviors. Shyness, if not dealt with, can persist and impact an individual's quality of life and level of happiness.