Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. Image Credit: Camera Press

Up until a year ago, Sophia Pavlou feared work meetings. Whenever a reminder for one popped up on Outlook, she would start to experience a familiar feeling of dread, and in the meeting itself, she avoided making eye contact with her colleagues. Whenever she was asked a question, her heart would start to race, she would feel the blood rush to her cheeks, and she'd find it difficult to speak. She also avoided getting involved in any work projects that required preparing presentations, as she feared having to stand up in front of a large group of people. Away from work, and within her social group, however, Sophia is far from shy; she is known as ‘the loud one.' She therefore couldn't understand why meetings seemed to induce these intense feelings of shyness, which stopped her from doing her job properly.

The majority of us will have felt shyness at some point in our lives, but for others, extreme shyness is an emotional obstacle that interferes with daily life. The American Psychological Association defines shyness as "the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people," and goes on to explain how severely shy people may experience symptoms such as blushing, sweating and a pounding heart. Aside from the physical symptoms, individuals may worry about what others think of them and seek to withdraw from social situations.

In an age when society seems to value personality attributes such as confidence and extraversion, shyness can be seen as a hindrance - both for those who suffer from severe cases of it, and those who find it only manifests itself in very specific situations. So, what causes shyness and what can we do to alleviate the symptoms? 

Nurture vs nature

Much of personality-psychology focuses on the question of nature versus nurture in the development of certain traits; are our personalities the result of our upbringing, or are they genetically predetermined? Researchers who have looked into the area of shyness and social anxiety seem to agree that both factors come into play.

"As is the case for all personality traits, shyness is influenced both by genetics and by our upbringing and environment," explains Dr Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook (New Harbinger Publications).

"Infants can be temperamentally shy or anxious, which increases the chances of being shy later in life. However, our experiences can also shape how we turn out. For example, negative experiences in social situations (such as being teased frequently) may increase shyness, while being repeatedly exposed to feared social situations can decrease shyness over time." 

Work or play?

Just as Sophia found her ability to perform well in work meetings was hindered by shyness, a lot of individuals who experience shyness find that it holds them back from developing in certain areas of their lives. "Shyness becomes a problem when it limits individuals in doing things that they want to be doing, so in other words, when it impacts their social, occupational or academic functioning," says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia. "Shy individuals may not go out to parties, go on play dates, or take part in extracurricular activities because they are anxious about meeting new people. Some shy people are still able to go to new places and try new things, and are not limited by their anxiety about new situations - they may be ‘slow to warm up' rather than socially anxious," she says.

If you experience shyness, you may notice that it only manifests itself in certain situations, like Sophia and her work meetings. Dr Afridi explains how this is common, and is known as specific anxiety, which only arises in certain social scenarios. "A person might not be socially anxious but may be anxious in talking at work where they are being judged or evaluated. It may also be that this person lacks assertiveness skills. So it's not that they are shy, but that they do not know how to assert themselves in a work environment," she explains.

Likewise, some individuals may feel shy when they have to speak up in bigger groups versus smaller ones. "These individuals may be slow to warm up versus anxious," says Dr Afridi. "They may be shy around new people, versus familiar people. They may be more shy when they don't know anyone at the party, versus walking in with someone they know. Also there are some people who may be more shy in social situations versus work situations, only because in social situations they stand alone and are judged alone, while at work they can ‘hide' behind a role, or a company." 

Is it introversion?

A common misconception is that shyness and introversion are the same - that is, all shy people are introverted and vice versa. But, introverts aren't necessarily shy; rather, an introvert is an individual with an inward focus who takes pleasure in activities they can do alone. Shyness however, is a negative physiological and psychological response to certain social situations. In fact, extroverts can actually be just as shy as introverts.

"Shyness is characterised by being nervous and having anxiety when around other people. There may be some physiological responses, such as sweaty palms and feelings of panic, when the shy person has to talk to others," explains Dr Jon Bailey, professor of psychology at Florida State University and specialist in behaviour analysis. "People who are introverted may have the social skills for interacting with others that shy people don't have, but they prefer being alone." 

Coming out of your shell

According to Dr Antony, a number of techniques are being used by therapists to help their clients through shyness, and include repeatedly exposing the client to feared social situations (for example, practising public speaking); challenging the unrealistic beliefs and predictions that contribute to the anxiety (for example, examining the evidence for anxiety-provoking beliefs rather than assuming they are true); and learning to improve social and communication skills. "Collectively, these strategies are taught in the form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)," he explains. "Certain medications, especially antidepressants, can also help, as well as a combination of CBT and medication."

Another common method is known as systematic desensitisation. This popular behavioural therapy technique, which is also used to treat phobias, reintroduces the client to her anxiety-inducing stimulus in a controlled and step-by-step manner, starting out with something she fears the least and making her way up to the feared activity itself.

So in the instance of fearing socialising at parties, for example, the client would be asked to make an ‘anxiety hierarchy' of approximately 10 scenarios, starting with items that induce the least anxiety such as, ‘getting dressed and ready to go to the party,' and ending with the item that induces the most fear, like ‘being left on my own with no-one to talk to.' During sessions, the therapist would first help the client perform various relaxation techniques, and then ask them to imagine themselves in the situations listed in the hierarchy, starting with the least stressful one. The idea is that over time the individual becomes desensitised to the shyness-inducing stimulus.

Systematic desensitisation can also be practised at home, and Sophia is one of the many people who has successfully used this technique to overcome shyness. "My inability to speak up in meetings was harming both my self-esteem and chances of promotion, so I decided to do something. I gave systematic desensitisation a try. First I compiled a list of social situations at work that caused me varying degrees of anxiety, starting from making conversation in the kitchen right through to presenting in front of the company's directors. I aimed to do at least one per week. Over the course of three months I made myself speak about three items in a meeting, led a meeting, and presented a major presentation. I also saw a therapist, who helped me see each task through. By taking it in bite-sized steps, I was able to face my worst fear. Now I still get slightly anxious before meetings, but they don't overwhelm me like they did before." A

Don't be shy 

Want to take control of your shyness? Dr Saliha Afridi offers the following tips to help you make a start on coming out of your shell.

1. Understand your shyness

"I think that, regardless of the situation, people need to seek professional help and know the origins and implications of their shyness. This will separate the anxious people from the introverts, as well as those who are shy."

2. Systematically desensitise

"It is important to systematically expose yourself to situations that make you feel more and more nervous. In other words, if you shy away from going to parties, then you should first invite a small group of people, some familiar and others who are less familiar, to a place where you feel most comfortable, such as your house. Then meet those same people outside of your home. After that you should go to a party with a group of friends, then one friend, and then finally go alone. So you systematically expose yourself to situations that start off as less anxiety-provoking and become more and more uncomfortable." 

3. Confront cognitive distortions

"There are some anxiety-provoking thoughts that may be resulting in you feeling shy or anxious around others. Your thoughts result in feelings." 

4. Surround yourself with others' confident energy

"Surround yourself with people who are socially confident - this way you can replicate the kind of behaviours that you desire." 

5. Practice makes confident

"Social skills are just that: skills. You can learn ways to have conversations, make more eye contact, and understand how to assert yourself by learning the skills and then practising them with friends and family. Even if you have been ‘hard wired' to be shy and anxious since your childhood, you can change the wiring through practice."

Treating shyness in Dubai

Whether via systematic desensitisation, cognitive behavioural therapy or neuro-linguistic programming, shyness can be overcome. All systems are available in Dubai. 

The Lighthouse Arabia

Both cognitive behavioural therapy and systematic desensitisation are services available at The Lighthouse Arabia. For more information, visit or call 04-3809298. 

Life Effective Coaching

Certified Master NLP life coach at Life Effective Coaching, Shana Kad, uses techniques based on neuro-linguistic programming and timeline therapy, working with the subconscious mind to help rid you of your limiting beliefs, which can contribute to shyness and other social anxiety conditions. For more information visit or call Shana on 050-6744793.