Though some people thrive in large groups, most confident when they're the center of attention, meeting endless numbers of new people, or putting themselves out there, others are far more shy. And while some people truly are shy (or have their introversion mistaken for shyness), it could also be something else. There are some signs your shyness is actually a greater mental health condition, which, if you tend to be shy, you might need to know. But shyness can take many forms, so recognizing what it looks like for you — and what's typical and what might be a bigger deal — is really important.
"Shyness shouldn't be equated with being an introvert," Dr. Sheila Addison, PhD, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper by email. "Confidence is the opposite of shyness. Many people who are shy are also quite extroverted — once they feel comfortable entering into a conversation, they really enjoy some of the interactions they have, they feel energized by having a good rapport with other people. Some shy people are just fine with people they know well, or in very small groups or one-on-one situations. Some are even only situationally shy, and are great public speakers! If they have a role to play, and they feel prepared, no problem. It's when the situation is new or unknown, and they're not sure what the social expectations are or how they'll fit in that they experience shyness. It's very hard to be an extrovert who enjoys other people, but lacks the confidence to make connections and navigate unfamiliar situations."
If you notice certain signs in connection with your shyness, it could be worth your while to talk to a professional who can help you determine if it's shyness or not, once and for all, and help you work through what might be going on.
1. It Holds You Back
"Shyness maybe a more problematic issue if it impacts functioning to a significant degree," Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, MD, a psychiatrist, tells Romper by email. "For example, if one is unable to attend work or school as a result of anxiety, then that may require more assertive treatment such as therapy or evaluation for medication management. Anxiety disorders often run in families, so it is not uncommon to see family members who have dealt with the same symptoms."
If your shyness or anxiety regarding interacting with others is interfering with your ability to live your life, you might need to talk to an expert to determine if it might be social anxiety or a social phobia. Narasimhan says that cognitive behavioral therapy is one technique that can be effective, but that there are other things that can help as well. If it doesn't interfere with your life, it could just be shyness.
2. You Don't Get Less Nervous Or Anxious Even When The Situation Is Familiar
For those who are just shy, situations that are familiar to them can help ease some of their shyness. "We all have a little apprehension in new situations, but if a person is still experiencing inhibition and extreme shyness in the last week of courses in their semester, something else might be going on," Dr. Rachel Oppenheimer, PsyD, a licensed psychologist at Upside Therapy, tells Romper by email. That's not typical and working with a therapist might help.
3. You Stress About Things You Said In The Past
If you said something hurtful or embarrassing, it might not be that surprising that you feel badly about it or are still embarrassed a bit after the fact. However, if you're continually going over it over in your head for days, that's probably something more than typical shyness. "Shy people sometimes look back and worry about what they said (or didn't say) in a conversation, but they're not in agony over it for hours or days afterwards," Addison says. If this is your regular experience, working with a therapist or even trying to work on it a little bit on your own (or both) might help, she adds.
4. You Avoid Social Situations
Social situations shouldn't cause extreme distress just because you're shy, so if you avoid social situations because they're so difficult for you, it might be something more. "They tend to experience severe anxiety for many days or even weeks before a planned social event or performance such as giving a speech," Dr. Misti Nicholson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of Austin Anxiety & OCD Specialists, explains via email. "During the event they tend to be preoccupied by worries about others’ perception or evaluation of them. They might worry that others are judging them or that people can tell they are anxious. Unfortunately, the anxiety often continues even after the event has concluded because people with social anxiety tend to perseverate about the experience."
That definitely doesn't help you feel more comfortable when you're faced with a social situation again in the future.
5. You Know What You Want To Say, But Don't Know How To Say It
"On my end, I can articulate it now as I could hear what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out," Myisha T. Hill, a mental health activist, entrepreneur, author, and more, tells Romper. She explains that everything she wanted to say was there "in my brain," but that she was scared that she'd say the wrong thing. That fear can make it hard for you to speak up or recognize whether you've chosen the right words to express your thoughts.
6. You Breathe Heavily In Public
Hill notes that heavy breathing can be another sort of subtle sign that someone's shyness is something more linked to anxiety than they may have thought. "If you have a friend that’s super quiet and just breathing really heavy in public, that could be a sign that there’s a little bit more to it," she says.
7. You're Distressed By Your Shyness
"Typically any mental health condition or diagnosis includes the symptom of 'causing considerable distress or impairment,' and I think when walking the line between shyness and something more significant, that is a key marker," Oppenheimer says. If you're distressed by your shyness, that in and of itself is a good reason to chat with a mental health professional. They'll have to determine if you meet the criteria for a diagnosis, but even if you don't, they'll be able to help you address your shyness and work to make it a bit more manageable.
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