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Shyness or Social Phobia?

by Mike on September 16, 2008 · 15 comments

There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes shyness and at what point it turns into Social Phobia (also known as Social Anxiety Disorder).

Some, such as Christopher Lane, in his “Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness” say that normal shyness has been medicalized by an over-enthusiastic drug industry and the psychiatrists who wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). He holds that what used to be considered a virtue and the sign of modesty and a contemplative mind, has become a diagnosable mental illness.

Others believe that extreme shyness is a scourge on the American population, and that it is the third largest of the mental disorders, after only depression and alcoholism. They hold that undiagnosed Social Phobia causes untold suffering and millions of lives in self-imposed chains — all treatable with a short course of therapy.

This post investigates shyness, Social Phobia, and the difference between the two. It lists the triggers and reactions of shyness, then makes clear the distinction between shyness and Social Phobia.

What is shyness?

Shyness: being reserved or having, showing nervousness

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines shyness as, “being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.” Other sources say it is “the feeling of apprehension or lack of confidence experienced in regard to social association with others, e.g. being in proximity to, approaching and being approached by others.”

These dry definitions do not capture the actuality of shyness. Like pornography, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Shy people have a discomfort and/or inhibition in the presence of other people, especially people they don’t know. They are self-conscious in social situations. They may fear being watched or judged by others. They may fear being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions. 

Shyness is a form of excessive self-focus, a preoccupation with one’s thoughts, feelings and physical reactions. A person can be shy in only some situations, such as speaking before others, or can be shy in all situations involving other people.

How many people are shy?

Shyness is natural and universal

Shyness is a natural reaction, and almost universal. It is estimated that 90 percent of the population will experience some sort of shyness in their lives. Only 40 percent of Americans have shyness that presents some problems in their lives. 

Here are many well-known people who are known to be shy (“Shy Celebrities” has a bigger list):


  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Albert Einstein
  • Thomas Edison
  • Thomas Jefferson


  • David Letterman
  • Bob Dylan
  • Brad Pitt
  • Cher Bono
  • Harrison Ford
  • Jim Carrey
  • Julia Roberts
  • Kevin Costner
  • Nicole Kidman
  • Robert De Niro
  • Tom Cruise
  • Tom Hanks

What are some of the situations that trigger shyness?

Shy people all have different triggers

Shy people are all different, and each one has instances when they are not shy, and other situations where they are shy. Following are some typical situations that trigger shy behaviors:

  • Eating or drinking in front of others
  • Writing or working in front of others
  • Being the center of attention
  • Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties
  • Asking questions or giving reports in groups
  • Using public toilets
  • Being introduced to other people
  • Being teased or criticized
  • Being watched or observed while doing something
  • Having to say something in a formal, public situation
  • Meeting people in authority
  • Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations
  • Meeting other people’s eyes
  • Most social encounters, particularly with strangers
  • Making “small talk” at parties

Reactions of shy people in difficult situations

Shy reactions: mental, emotional, physical, behavioral

Shyness reactions can occur at any or all of the following levels: mental, emotional, physical, or behavioral. That means that you could experience one or two of the behavioral reactions and none of the others. These are some of the reactions shy people may have:


  • Inhibition and passivity
  • Gaze aversion
  • Avoidance of feared situations
  • Low speaking voice
  • Little body movement
  • Excessive nodding or smiling
  • Excessive sweating not due to the temperature
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Nervous behaviors, such as touching one’s face or hair


  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, nauseated, butterflies in stomach
  • Experiencing the situation or oneself as unreal or removed
  • Fear of losing control


  • Negative thoughts about the self, the situation, and others
  • Fear of negative evaluation, judging, and looking foolish to others
  • Worry and rumination, perfectionism
  • Self-blaming, particularly after social interactions
  • Negative beliefs about the self (weak), and others (powerful)
  • Negative biases in the self-concept, such as “I am socially inadequate, unlovable, and unattractive”
  • A belief that there is a “correct” protocol that the shy person must guess, rather than mutual definitions in social situations


  • Embarrassment and painful self-consciousness
  • Shame
  • Low self-esteem
  • Dejection and sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

What is Social Phobia?

Social Phobia: overwhelming, excessive, persistent, intense, chronic

Social Phobia is an Anxiety Disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. People with Social Phobia have a persistent, intense, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by their own actions. 

Shyness is diagnosable as Social Phobia only if it is severe enough to adversely affect social or occupational functioning.  Although it is common for many people to experience some anxiety before or during a public appearance, anxiety levels in people with Social Phobia can become so high that they begin to avoid all social situations. They may have reactions resembling a panic attack.

This fear may become so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities, and can make it hard to make and keep friends. People with Social Phobia often suffer “anticipatory” anxiety — the fear of a situation before it even happens — for days or weeks before the event.

What is the difference between Social Phobia and shyness?

Note the words that have been italicized above: overwhelming, excessive, persistent, intense, chronic, adversely, and avoid all social situations. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between people with simple shyness and Social Phobia.

The situations and reactions listed above are all common to both shy people and people with Social Phobia — in fact, one of the lists comes from my reference article on Social Phobia (see Reference and Information in the side bar or click on the title of the previous section). The difference is that people with Social Phobia find the situations overwhelming, they have excessive reactions to them, and they avoid them at all costs. Shy people may not be comfortable in the same situations, but they do not avoid them.

Continuum between shyness and Social Phobia

Like many mental illnesses that have things in common with natural reactions (e.g. anxiety), there is a continuum, a long line from being slightly shy and retiring through a totally non-functioning Social Phobia. At some point along that line — and that point varies by the individual — simple shyness turns into Social Phobia. So a person can be severely shy, and as long as it is not impairing their life, they likely would not be diagnosable as having Social Phobia. Yet another person may be less shy but diagnosable because their life has become greatly impacted by their shyness.

The severe effects of Social Phobia

Shy people may be uncomfortable, but can still function

The difference between Social Phobia and shyness lies in the severe effects Social Phobia can have on everyday functioning. People with Social Phobia are not just a little nervous. Their lives are dictated by the need to either avoid certain situations or endure them with extreme anxiety.

Shy people can be very uneasy around others, but they don’t experience the extreme anxiety in anticipating a social situation, and they usually don’t avoid circumstances that make them feel self-conscious. 

People with Social Phobia aren’t necessarily shy at all. They can be completely at ease with people most of the time, but particular situations, such as walking down an aisle in public or making a speech, can give them intense anxiety. Social Phobia disrupts normal life, interfering with career or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job promotion because he can’t give public presentations. The dread of a social event can begin weeks in advance, and symptoms can be quite debilitating.

In summary: If I am shy, do I have Social Phobia?

Social Phobia: the degree of reaction

Probably not. You may recognize yourself among all the lists presented above, but that does not mean you have Social Phobia. Remember that the situations and triggers are the same; it’s the degree of reaction to them and the adverse effects on your life that determines whether you have Social Phobia or not.

If you find that your shyness is beginning to present problems in your life, you may want to seek some help for it. For example, if you have a rotten job that doesn’t earn enough money, but you don’t try to get a better one because you’re too afraid and anxious to face a job interview. Or if you refused to be a bridesmaid at your best friend’s wedding because you didn’t want to walk up the aisle and stand before so many people. 

Even if you do need to see a mental health professional about your excessive shyness in certain situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have Social Phobia. Many people seek counseling for their problems without being diagnosable as having a particular mental illness. 

Look at it as being the same as taking a self-improvement course at your local college, or going to a self-help seminar. Help for your shyness can often be done in only a few sessions and will last for a lifetime, so don’t deny yourself something that can make a big improvement in your quality of life!

What do you think?

Being shy does not equal having Social Phobia

Did you recognize yourself in any of the lists above? I certainly did, and according to the estimates, 90 percent of all Americans would, too! Although you know I am all for getting psychiatric help when you need it, I am also opposed to the over-medicalization of certain natural human traits such as shyness or melancholy. Being shy does not equal having Social Phobia!

  • How many of the items in the lists did you respond to? Do you think you’re just shy?
  • What do you think about the over-medicalization of certain human traits?

As always, your comments are welcome!

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Resources used in this post:

Cox, BJ; MacPherson, PS; Enns, MW. (2005, August). Psychiatric correlates of childhood shyness in a nationally representative sample. Retrieved July 16, 2008 from PubMed Web site:

Dean, Jeremy. (2007, November 10). Are You Just Shy or do You Have Social Phobia? Retrieved July 16, 2008 from PsyBlog Web site:

Gilbert, Renée. (2001). Shy Celebrities. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from ShakeYourShyness Web site:

Hauser, John. (2006, February 17). Problems Related to Social Phobia. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from Psych Central Web site:

Henderson, Lynne; Zimbardo, Philip. (1996). Shyness. Retrieved August 16, 2008 from Shyness Web site:

Isaacs, Deanna. (2008, February 4). How Shy Became Sick. Retrieved July 16, 2008 from Chicago Reader Web site:

Leopold, Wendy. (2008, July 14). How Shyness Became a Mental Illness. Retrieved July 16, 2008 from Northwestern University Web site:

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