No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Overcoming Shyness

Psychiatry Professor Borwin Bandelow has written a fine book about social anxiety.

In social phobia, there is a complex interplay between innate and learned fears. Linking social phobia to early traumatic experiences is challenging due to potential confounding factors. Findings suggest that longer separations from parents during childhood significantly increase the risk of developing social anxiety disorder. A family history of social phobia or other neurotic disorders also plays a substantial role; a study found a higher prevalence of social phobias in individuals whose parents also suffered from similar issues.

Mental health issues are historically often attributed to parenting styles; particularly mothers were blamed. But this oversimplifies the impact of parenting; a lot of factors contribute to social phobia. Blaming parents for inadequate upbringing is probably both exaggerated and harmful.

Contrary to the animal kingdom, the macho model is outdated for humans. In the future, intelligence and sophistication, rather than strength and dominance, will be key to survival. A balanced and democratic social system is needed for both humans and animals. Social restraint can be a survival strategy; e.g. animals display submissive behaviors to avoid conflict. Social behaviors, to some extent, are innate in humans, shaped by both genetics and early experiences.

Social phobia may arise from a misregulation of the sensitivity to social cues, leading to distorted perceptions of social interactions. Socially anxious individuals constantly view themselves from the perspective of being observed and judged by others. Individuals with social phobia tend to exaggerate the frequency and intensity of negative outcomes in social situations and have a biased memory that focuses on negative experiences. Self-doubt and negative interpretations of social situations can create a self-reinforcing cycle, where fear of negative judgment leads to behaviors that may, in turn, elicit negative responses. "Fake it 'til you make it" has been sold as a potential strategy for overcoming social anxiety; presenting a confident exterior even if one does not feel that way internally.

There is no shyness gene; the inheritance of social anxiety is likely influenced by multiple genes rather than a single one. On top of this, genes are not determinative of one's fate: environmental factors also play a significant role. The brain also plays a role in shyness; rewards (dopamine release), fear (amygdala alerts the body to potential threats), and thinking (higher-level anxieties learned through upbringing and moral beliefs). Thinking is a counterbalance to impulsive emotions, and it moderates reward-driven demands for sex and aggression. Thoughts may lead to warnings (fear).

Reward and fear are of an unconscious nature; they need a balanced relationship for healthy social communication. An overactive fear system can lead to social phobia, inhibiting individuals from initiating social interactions.

Bandelow advises readers not to accept shyness as an excuse for inactivity and suggests creating a list of areas where shyness poses challenges. Distorted self-perception, self-criticism, and challenges in expressing opinions can be tackled by realistic self-assessment, positive self-talk, and setting personal goals.

Good looks are not as crucial to happiness as some might believe. Physical appearance is not the sole determinant of likability, social competence, kindness, helping, and humor are others. Likewise, beauty does not necessarily protect against shyness either; an example is given of “a stunning woman with astral beauty” who fears of letting men get too close and worries about being perceived as dumb or immature.

First impressions are important; a smile helps in the initial moments of an encounter, though casual and frequent smiling is practiced more in California than in Germany. Smiles can be contagious and contribute to a positive social atmosphere.

Individuals adopt certain habits or behaviors to avoid embarrassment or social mishaps, like wearing sunglasses to hide insecurity or excessive grooming before social events. Bandelow advises against relying on such safety behaviors and suggests overcoming them for more genuine social interactions.

Bandelow also has some tips for public speaking, which can be a means to overcome shyness. Preparation and a well-thought-out presentation can help to overcome fears of being judged, making mistakes, or facing embarrassing questions. He suggests to avoid excessive text on slides, keeping presentations concise, making them engaging and entertaining, and incorporating images related to animals, crime, music, or sports. He encourages embracing emotions, sharing stories, and ending presentations with a memorable message and a touch of humor.

Source: Bandelow, B. (2007), Das Buch für Schüchterne, Reinbek: Rowohlt.