The defining characteristic of shyness is
• Social ineptitude
However, as the meanings that are ascribed to words are usually ascribed by extroverts, and extroverts conclude that anyone who does not behave as they do is inept, a careful definition of social ineptitude might be “a disinclination to behave in the same manner as those possessed of an extroverted disposition”. When cast in this light you may see at least some of your “social ineptitude” as a virtue, at least in principle, however disabling you may find it to be in practice.
Those of a gregarious disposition readily conclude that the reason people are shy is due to
• Social anxiety
timidity, or a lack of confidence. In doing so they fail to appreciate that a significant portion of the general population are introverted to varying degrees, and that the introvert’s distaste for “bubbly, hearts-on-sleeves exhuberance” simply reflects his personailty type, and is not indicative of social anxiety. That said, social anxiety is quite common among introverts. It can often be the source of the most profound unhappiness. And all too often social ineptitude and social anxiety reinforce each other in a vicious cycle.
Almost all shy individuals are introverted (though on rare occasions I have come across a shy extrovert). Introverted individuals are particularly perceptive, sensitive, and aware.
There are four characteristics that are often found in those who are shy, but which are also common among introverts who are not shy:
• Risk avoidance
Shy individuals like to stick to familiar routines, ensuring that those social situations that they must endure are those that they already know how to cope with. When they must venture into unfamiliar territory, shy individuals like to plan well ahead, minimizing the risk that they will end up in an unwelcome social situation. Because shy individuals are reluctant to ask others for help they often become very knowledgeable about how the world works, and then use this knowledge to do most things for themselves. And because shy individuals are very aware of what it feels like to be a victim they readily identify with other victims, and are ready to offer unto others—shyness permitting—the succour that others so rarely offer unto them.
In the moderately and severely shy other characteristics may be present in varying degrees, characteristics that are much more difficult to manage, and that can have a severe effect on both physical and mental wellbeing:
• Suicidal ideation
• Existential angst
Shy individuals are very aware of their own powerlessness and inability to achieve what they want in life. This can lead to anger in the form of a suppressed rage that never breaks the surface, or it can lead to depression, with a feeling of worthlessness and, on occasion, to suicidal tendencies. In some individuals only the depression is present, in others it alternates with the anger.
The shy often suffer from trauma. There is a constant background fearfulness of what may happen next, which is augmented at intervals by the greater fear attendant on particular social occasions. Shy individuals are easily coerced and frequently the subject of abuse. The abuse is usually verbal in the form of teasing, but it can sometimes be physical in the form of bullying. Shy individuals can also be the target of sexual abuse as they tend to be compliant and to tell no tales. But because shy individuals do not readily display their feelings this trauma is not always evident.
The shy are frequently lonely, a natural consequence of being shy. While often this loneliness is purely personal, it can take on a broader, existential dimension—a feeling of emptiness and the pointlessness of all human endeavour.
The shy often possess
• Personal characteristics
that make them different from others in their peer group. Anything that makes people stick out from the crowd can be a source of shyness or can make existing shyness far worse—how you look, or behave, or what your interests happen to be, or not be. Sometimes these attributes can be changed, sometimes not. And sometimes too much would be lost if the changes were to be effected to make the effort worthwhile.
To make life more bearable, the shy often engage in activities aimed at:
• Anxiety reduction
• Relationship substitution
Anxiety reduction is used to reduce high levels of anxiety by distracting the mind or by changing the way in which the mind works, and may manifest as:
• Obsession and compulsion
• Alcohol and drug abuse
• Anorexia and bulimia
Sometimes a low level, persistent anxiety can be reduced by ordering and organizing the inanimate environment. But if the energy to be displaced becomes too high, then it can lead to obsessive, compulsive, and repetitive behaviours, such as excessive hand washing or door checking. Alternatively, high levels of anxiety can be relieved temporarily by inducing pain through cutting or otherwise damaging the body. Anxiety can also be mitigated by engaging in activities that chemically alter brain function, be they the time honoured activities of drinking alcohol and taking drugs, or by fasting so as to push the body well into starvation mode.
While not everyone who is shy has an interest in interacting with other people, most shy individuals do. Relationship substitution is about finding alternatives for those missing relationships. The shy encounter two stumbling blocks when it comes to obtaining a satisfactory relationship:
• Social anxiety, when present—which is usually the case—makes it very
difficult to form relationships; and
• Shy individuals are usually much more particular about the people they
form relationships with than those who are not.
Many shy individuals focus on the presence of social anxiety and imagine that if only they could get rid of it then everything would be fine. Unfortunately, individuals who are shy are often looking for something special in a relationship, and that something special can be very, very hard to find even if the social anxiety can be ameliorated.
Whatever the reason, in the absence of a satisfactory relationship or, indeed, any kind or relationship at all, shy individuals may engage in compensatory activities or behaviours that divert the energy that would normally be spent on relationships into other channels. While compensatory activities may seem like second best, they can sometimes prove far more satisfying than the missing relationships that they serve to replace:
A well developed fantasy life is almost universal among the shy and allows a desired relationship to be lived vicariously. Fetishism and masochism, either in fantasy or when acted out in private, are also common and serve more specific needs. Fetishism, as an adjunct to masturbation, can be used to obtain and enhance sexual pleasure without the need to interact with a partner, while masochism can be used to relive an anxiety-free past existence, to temporarily transport the mind into another realm of being, or to engage by metaphor in a relationship characterized by understanding and acceptance.
Assessing your shyness
The sections that follow cover all the characteristics listed above in more depth. If you’re severely shy then you may find that some of the quotes in these sections hit a raw nerve, and stir up strong emotions, feelings that you have kept hidden for quite some time. So it might be best if you read them in a private setting. In some ways you can best judge the depth of your shyness and the particular issues that arise from it by monitoring your reactions as you read this material.