Feature Archive

Holiday Survival for the Ultra Shy

Just because you're shy doesn't mean you have to dodge the mistletoe this holiday season.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

From surviving small talk with Aunt Mary on Thanksgiving to sidestepping the mistletoe at the office Christmas party, shy people may view the holiday season as a daunting obstacle course. If you're one of them, you're in good company. According to surveys by the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, about 40% of people consider themselves shy.

The institute's director, psychology professor Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, tells WebMD, "Shy people are not alone. They feel nobody else is shy, because shy people don't talk to each other. They fail to realize that there are lots of other people just like them." He suggests keeping that in mind when you make the rounds this holiday season. "Look to your left, look to your right ? Chances are one of those people is shy."

What Is Shyness?

According to Jonathan Cheek, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, shyness is "the tendency to feel tense, worried, or awkward during social interactions, especially with unfamiliar people." Shy people may have trouble maintaining eye contact or relaxed body language at social events and often agonize over what to say in conversation. "Shy people are their own worst critics," Cheek tells WebMD. "They have a perfectionist vision of what they ought to be doing."

Unlike introverts, who prefer spending time alone, many shy people want to enjoy the company of others. "They force themselves to go to social functions, parties, bars, concerts," says Carducci, who is also the author of Shyness: A Bold New Approach. "The problem is they don't know what to do once they're there."

Jeremy Ruggles, a network administrator in Davie, Fla., says he tends to get nervous and lose his train of thought whenever he talks with someone new. "It has been seen as rude or odd."

So what makes a person shy? According to the American Psychological Association, genetics and natural temperament play a small role. Other factors include:

  • Stressful life events, such as moving often during childhood
  • Negative family interactions, including overly critical parents
  • Stressful work or school environments

Ruggles tells WebMD he has been shy for as long as he can recall. "I remember my mom dropping me off at kindergarten, and I wrapped myself to her leg and wouldn't let go."

Evaluate Your Shyness

Carducci says the first step toward enjoying the holiday social scene is recognizing that there is nothing wrong with being shy. "The world would be better off with more shy people. Shy people are generally good listeners. They are highly motivated and they yield to others. Imagine if everyone acted like Dennis Rodman or Howard Stern."

But shyness can become a problem if it holds you back. Cheek says to ask yourself if shyness is a barrier to your career or relationship goals. "When people feel blocked, they should seek professional help."

People who are so overwhelmed with anxiety that they go to extremes to avoid socializing may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. This intense and persistent fear of being judged or humiliated can interfere with work and other everyday activities. "For awhile I didn't even want to go out to lunch with people at work," says Nan, a 30-year-old educator who asked that we use only her first name. She developed symptoms of social phobia in her teens, and the problem became worse as she got older. "I'll accept the faults and imperfections in other people, but I don't want anyone to see mine."

During the stress of the holidays, even people with ordinary shyness may show signs of social phobia or another potential pitfall, the holiday blues. "Shyness is a risk factor for depression when a person feels lonely or lacks social support," Cheek tells WebMD. "What shy people need to do is stop drifting passively and instead make some concrete plans, no matter how modest."

Respect Your Shyness Comfort Zone

Carducci says the key is to make plans that suit you. "Don't feel you have to go to everything. Pick and choose where and how you want to socialize." For Ruggles, that means "intimate gatherings among friends." Like many shy people, he is most comfortable sticking with familiar places and faces.

For those who want to expand their comfort zone, Carducci recommends changing one factor at a time. If you want to meet new people, try to do it on familiar turf. If you want to check out a new club, bring along familiar people.



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