Good to Know

8 Common Misconceptions About Shy People You Should Understand

Shyness is often not what many make it out to be.

by Aaron Stern
Getty/PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa

There are no shy people. Or rather, just about everyone experiences shyness to varying degrees throughout their lives.

The American Psychological Association defines shyness as “the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.” Shyness is something 98 percent of people experience, some with more frequency and to greater degrees than others. And while we tend to think of shyness as a limitation, those who frequently experience it often embody personal traits that we, as a society, tend to consider admirable.

So, whether it's your partner who dreads the annual holiday party or your child who clams up at friends’ birthdays, it’s important to understand shyness a bit more. Here are eight common misconceptions about shy people to recognize.

1. Shyness Is a Negative Trait

Anyone who’s ever bristled with fear at their child telling them they can’t do something because they’re too shy will realize how ingrained this belief is. Shyness stems from a fear of negative evaluation by other people, says Dr. Lynne Henderson, a psychiatrist who has studied shyness throughout her career, and who was the director of the Stanford Shyness Clinic for 25 years. Only two percent of people say they never experience shyness, Henderson says, underscoring the universality of the experience. “Shyness is a normal, universal human emotion. It only becomes problematic shyness when you don’t do what you want to do.”

2. Shy People Have Low Self-Esteem

The fear of negative evaluation does not inherently indicate low self-esteem, notes Henderson. “It depends on how avoidant they are,” she says. “You can be shy and not be terribly hard on yourself, but if you’re problematically shy and avoidant, then it’s harder. You might have low self-esteem then because there are things you’re not doing that you’d really like to do because you’re afraid to do them.”

3. Shy People Are Bad at Public Speaking

Often the opposite is true, says Joe Moran, a social historian and the author of Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness. That’s because one of the things that makes shy people uncomfortable in social settings is the ambiguity and unscripted nature of spontaneous human interaction. When it comes to public speaking, Moran says, there is a script, the ambiguity is removed, and everyone involved has clear roles: speaker and listeners. In her research, Henderson found that shy leaders, in particular, tend to over-prepare for pubic engagements and then perform very well.

4. Shy People Don’t Like Others

Shy people can come across as aloof or indifferent when the opposite is usually true. “Even shy people are inescapably social,” Moran says. “That’s one of the reasons you’re shy, in a way, [because] you do want to be sociable, and you do care what other people think about you.” Of course, if you’re shy in a public gathering, you may not emote much, which can create the exact negative reaction that you’re hoping to avoid. “That’s always the fear I have,” says Moran, who says he is often shy. “Or you can go the other way and smile all the time but that’s a problem too.” In her studies, Henderson found that shy people who were physically attractive tended to fare worse because their reticence was often perceived as arrogance.

5. Shy People Are Boring

Of course, the exact opposite can be true, because the desire to remove social ambiguity leads some shy people try to be funny in social settings, Moran says. In doing so they create a script and present clear roles: joke teller and audience. Of course, this is a method of compensation that can prevent genuine connection for shy people who can’t break out of the funny-person rut, but if it’s an inroad to that connection, then that’s a good start.

6. Shy People Are Introverted

People tend to conflate shyness and introversion; some people can be both, but the two are not synonymous. Introverts, says Moran, are hard-wired such that they get exhausted by human interaction, especially with groups of people. Shyness is more about our social awareness. In fact, shy people can be extroverts, Henderson says, and you might never know they were shy to watch them interact. But they could be having negative thoughts about themselves even as they are socializing without any apparent hangups.

7. Shy People Are Born Shy

To the extent that nearly all people experience shyness at various times, this is correct. But to say all people are problematically shy is not. “I think there are some people who are born more sensitive and more perceptive, which are basic strengths when you think about it,” Henderson says. “But at the same time, if you are more that way, you’re more aware of other peoples’ opinions.”

Henderson’s research found the average age where people became problematically shy was around 11, when they are finishing elementary school and entering middle school — a time of major upheaval with new friendship groups, and when kids often experience being made fun of or embarrassed.

“That’s what would often happen, there would usually be a trigger that was painful and problematic that they didn’t have help getting past.” Of course, people can learn to overcome problematic shyness and to live with shyness, Moran says, even if it remains something that they experience throughout their lives.

8. Shy People Have Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a designated condition classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Moran says shyness and social anxiety may run on the same spectrum from extreme social phobia to just the shyness that everyone feels, but that classifying shyness as a disability or problem ignores the huge range of human experience. “Shyness just is, it doesn’t make you a better person or a more sensitive person, there’s nothing romantic, it’s not some great story you tell about yourself, but it’s also not something to be ashamed of, it’s not a bad thing,” Moran says. “I think it’s quite important with shyness neither to romanticize it nor to pathologize it.”

While there are many misconceptions about shyness, there are also overlooked qualities that shy people tend to have, which we’ve alluded to above. Moran says that shy people are often creative and determined, while Henderson says they are often perceptive, sensitive, and collaborative, in addition to possessing other admirable traits.

“They tend to listen well, and they tend to be very observant,” Henderson says. “And in my experience, they often have strong and good values.”