Shyness or Social Phobia?

– Posted in: SAD – Social Phobia

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!

If you have enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to this blog, either via RSS or email at the top of your screen. It’s free! I would also appreciate your sharing it using your favorite social media, such as StumbleUpon or Digg. Just click the little green “ShareThis” button at the bottom of this post.

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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16 comments… add one
Jane O. September 17, 2008, 6:22 pm

I want you to know what a comfort it is to find your site. Without going into detail…I can relate to almost everything you mention in regard to shyness and social anxiety. I am now almost 59 years old and have only once mentioned my problems to a physician. He told me I had an overactive autonomic nervous system and I should go home and “relax”. That was almost 30 years ago. I never mentioned anything related to anxiety again. Age has helped some…I just don’t care as much I guess. But, I still beat myself up now and then over how I “should” have been and all the things I “didn’t” do because I just “couldn’t”. So it helps a bit to know many others are like me and it’s really not the end of the world. Although, I have given up on trying to make my uber- extrovert siblings and coworkers understand. They think I am just a grumpy curmudgeon who won’t particpate in their endless “fun”. Oh well. I probably wouldn’t have written this little comment if I hadn’t just finished a glass of wine. I thank you for writing this blog…please continue ….I am listening.

Mike September 17, 2008, 11:23 pm

Jane, thank you for your kind comments!

Age does blunt the force of many habits of mind and mental disorders, including shyness (note, I am not classifying shyness as a mental disorder!). However, rather than simply going away, these sometimes change in their symptoms, reactions, and characteristics as you get older, some for the good, some otherwise. At 61, I find my mental ailments losing some of their cyclonic power as I age, though there are some definite changes that I’m having to come to grips with, as well.

Something I believe may be related to shyness, or at least the public perception of shyness, is introversion. I almost mentioned it in this post, but hadn’t done enough research to back up my thoughts. I intend to do the required research and post about it in the future.

I don’t know what portion of the populace could be classified as introverts, but I count myself among them. And it seems that, by your description, you are an introvert, too. There is a great article I recommend you read, Caring for Your Introvert. It seems that the world is run by extroverts, who don’t have a clue about those that don’t feel exactly the way they do! This article gives great comfort to all of us beleaguered introverts!

Jane O. September 18, 2008, 8:12 am

Thank you for reminding me of this article…I did read it long ago but it was definitely worth revisiting. There does seem to be some crossover between introversion, shyness, and social phobia. I would say that I have some symptoms of each. You are quite right about the characteristics changing with age. When I was younger I had times of high social stress when my hands and feet would go numb and I had to go lie down in a dark room so I wouldn’t faint. I haven’t had that for years, but now I have terrible anxiety riding in the car…not when “I’m” driving, but when someone else ( particularly my husband) is at the wheel. I’ve never been in an accident so I don’t know what has brought this on over the last 5-8 years. I am white knuckled and startled at every turn. I have to develop a coping strategy pretty soon or my husband will start leaving me at home!
Anyway, I look forward to your posting on introversion in the future. Thanks for your help.

Segun January 16, 2009, 5:33 am

I love your write ups.Please i think i am being affected by social phobia what can you do to help me?I find it very difficult to give speech in public and to walk into a large congregation

nonnie October 22, 2010, 5:21 am

Like another has written above I see myself in several of these maladies. I was painfully shy as a child so much so that if someone were to look or say hello to me it would send me into tears. Coming from an extremely abusive household where children were never wanted I wonder if this was the trigger. I recall pulling my hair out until I had a large bald spot for ages and even remember being in my crib. I know I know most people find this hard to believe, but I do remember these and other things I wish could be forgotten. The current problem is fitting in with people in the workplace. It could be that it may be the wrong arena for me> (hoping) I grew up as a preppy girl who never did anything that was considered bad; of course my family only saw bad? The realization that they are the nutjobs has been a blessing, but it doesn’t take the harm or the hurt away. Anyway, I work in warehouse souly for the better pay, but find that there is not a place that I fit in there. 99.9% seem to be smokers, gamblers, and have little outside interests unless you dress as they do and enjoy complaining about the company or gossiping about who they do not like. (sometimes me) Little by little all of my hobbies and interests have diminished such as quilting, sewing, writing, cooking. If anyone tells you there isn’t a difference between the people in the west coast compared to the midwest are crazy or know nothing about midwestern culture. Everything is disposable here…especially marriage. If you have no huge ugly tatoos or body peircings forget about it. The last thing that bothers me is that in the state I live in they are 50th in the US in education which basically means to me that they graduated with what would have been a 7th grade education where I came from. Having worked in the ER outside of Chicago and witnessing how many mistakes that the RN’s make in the local hospitals has caused me PTSD in itself which is several other long stories. How many disorders can one person have? I have severe cfs/fibro/polycythemia besides the anxiety. Being homeless in the desert is my biggest fear….in a land of nothingness with no friends.

Amanda October 20, 2011, 8:55 pm

Iam glad I read this. I see myself especially in the behavior and mental sections. I think I may have mild shyness, but not social phobia yet. I can still face situations that make me uncomfortable such as riding the bus or train. I like to go places insted of staying at home. I just dont like to draw attention to myself too much. I have been quiet all my life, and I think I have went through different stages of shyness. As a child I didnt like drawing too much attention to myself. I would wait for other kids to come play with me insted of going up to them first. Iam 22 now, and I think Iam more of an introvet now. I prefer to do things by myself than hang out in big groups. I have my small circle of friends, and I like hanging out with them, but I dont like when they invite extra people to our outings that I dont know. I dont know what to say to the extra people. At school, I rather do assingments by myself. I dont like group projects. I learn better and do my work better when I work alone. I like to study for a hard test with my close friends, but not with a class of strangers. In class, Iam either the most quiet person or the second or third most quiet person. Iam glad I found this article. I want to continue to be an introvert, but I just hope that I can be more relax in school.

Amit November 28, 2011, 8:56 pm

Hi Mike, Amanda and others,
I am so glad to find that there are others just like me. My story is very simple.

I was shy and still am. I am 24 and still young enough to do wrong things. I am happy in a way that I am shy and introvert. The reason is simple. Many people in my social circle go out and party and drink and do all that fun stuff. But I don’t!! In a way, I think its good because that way I can work towards my personal goals without being distracted. Being an ambitious guy, I can tell you for sure that you need to work your way up and being introvert is helpful as it helps you stay low.

On the other hand, being shy, I am scared to hurt someone’s feelings and I don’t know how I feel about anyone. I truly don’t know if being shy/introvert is a good or bad thing, but I do know that having a balance of a feeling is really important. I can’t say much like Mike did, but I can surely say that you don’t want your work/personal life be affected by your shyness in anyways. Thats the reason I have decided to change that and become more extrovert. Change is good if your intentions are good.

If you are happy being introvert/shy, then don’t change. If you think you are getting hurt by your shyness, its time to change that!!

Paige July 23, 2012, 1:18 pm

This article contains many helpful ideas about shyness and social phobia. I can agree with everything that is said and it is very important that just because you are shy, that does not mean you have social phobia. More people in the world are shyer than we all believe, and even those who seem to be more social or in the popular crowd can have social phobia. It is an odd diagnosis that can vary in situations. Here is another website that might be helpful if you are still looking for information on social phobia and shyness.

Elle August 5, 2012, 9:03 am

I’m extremely shy in group/social situations and this shyness makes me do things like locking myself in a bathroom for an hour because I was too scared to go out and wash my hands with other girls. The worst part was when people started looking for me :-( I almost never make eye contact with anyone not even people i’m used to. Every time I go shopping alone I sweat a lot and I end up just picking up random things because I’m too self-conscious. I avoid going out with big groups of people I don’t know.. if I can because I always end up sitting in a corner and not talking to anyone.
Most of the time i get tongue spasms and I can’t speak properly… so i’d rather not be around people at all if i can help it.
I’m an introvert so most of the time I enjoy being alone but I also like to have a bit of fun with people every now and then. I think my shyness leads to avoidance and therefore not having that minimum amount of fun a young person should be able to experience under normal circumstances.
I’m 24 and after 5 years I only know (that is I say hi to) at most 5 people at my university!! I have always been this way…. Most of my high school classmates only knew my name. Same goes for my salsa classes… no one spoke to me and someone later told me they thought I was a snob :-( even though I used to sweat a lot and shake all the time and I couldn’t learn the dance moves if the teacher was close to me :-( Sometimes people just don’t care to see certain things for them I didn’t talk and that was it. That automatically meant I was a snob.

Danny Gagnon October 4, 2013, 2:25 pm

This is a great article that discusses shyness and social anxiety. Unfortunately, many people think that being shy or introverted is a negative quality when it is not at all. There’s nothing wrong with being introverted and enjoying reading or painting rather than being in big groups. Fortunately, we do have some ways to help people if they want to become less anxious in social situations:

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