Shyness or Social Anxiety

Shyness or Social Anxiety Disorder

There are many articles that talk about shyness in children. However, there are few articles about shyness amongst adults.  Yet many adults deal with this issue, and find that it can create difficulties within the workplace.

You will find in this article a brief description of shyness, factors that contribute to the development of shyness, and what you can do about it.  You will also find the difference between shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder. This is an important difference to understand.

What is Shyness?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines shyness as “a tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people”. 

Shyness can be seen as a pattern of feeling uncomfortable in social situations, and feeling nervous, self-conscious, and perhaps apprehensive when approaching or being approached by other people. These feelings are often accompanied by physical sensations. Severely shy people may have physiological symptoms like sweating, blushing, racing heart, upset stomach, headache, and dry mouth. An important point to note here is that these are also the symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder.  Shyness could also be a response to fear, one that drives the individual to withdraw from social interactions when possible. 

Shyness and Introversion

Shyness is different from introversion. While introverts feel recharged by time alone, shy people often desire connection with others. However, they might not know how to connect with people or how to overcome their social anxiety and fear of rejection. Some people might experience anxiety so intensely that it can lead to problems in relationships and at work. This experience is where shyness is actually Social Anxiety Disorder.

Shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder

As we can see, shyness is different from introversion, but what is the difference between shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder? The symptoms of shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder are very similar. However, the intensity of the fear and anxiety is much greater in Social Anxiety Disorder. Similarly the impairment of functioning and level of avoidance are significantly greater in Social Anxiety Disorder. For example, someone with Social Anxiety Disorder may spend days and weeks thinking about and feeling anxious about an upcoming event such as attending a wedding. Someone with shyness probably won’t. Overall most of those people who are shy don’t experience any disruptions to their daily life compared to people with Social Anxiety Disorder.  Shy people generally don’t avoid social activities. Those with Social Anxiety Disorder generally do avoid social activities.

Social Anxiety Disorder

If you have ever thought of your shyness as “crippling” then you may have Social Anxiety Disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder is often minimised as just extreme shyness. The reason many people don’t seek help for Social Anxiety Disorder is that they don’t realize that they have a recognized problem. Some studies show that only about half of adults with the disorder ever seek treatment. Similarly, this is generally only after 15 to 20 years of symptoms

The NICE Clinical Guidelines, (No. 159.) report that “several studies have followed-up adults with social anxiety disorder for extended periods of time. These studies have generally found that it is a naturally unremitting condition in the absence of treatment.”

Studies show that 68% of individuals suffering from SAD may be successfully treated with cognitive therapy.

If you are unsure about your experience of shyness you may benefit from a consultation with a clinical psychologist. It can be difficult to understand the difference between shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder. No one wants to pathologize a normal experience. On the other hand, minimizing something that potentially limits someones’ life is not good either.

What causes shyness?

  • Research shows that genetics plays a large role in shyness, and that this is stronger for shyness than for other personality traits which might be present in early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Plomin & Daniels, 1986). More specifically, about 15-30 percent of infants are born with a tendency toward shyness (Rubin & Coplan, 2010).
  • Shyness can also arise over time as a result of varied parental practices, environmental influence, and the individual’s social experiences. 
  • For example, if you grew up with parents who did not encourage you to socialise with new people or try out new things, you would lack the necessary practice in this area. Your social skills might be underdeveloped as a result of inadequate behavioural modelling and practice. This experience may also be one that leads to social anxiety disorder.

As mentioned above, sometimes the reason for shyness is really fear.

  • For some people, if they live in neighbourhoods that are deemed as dangerous or not very safe, they are naturally less willing to talk to strangers. In contrast, those who live most of their lives in safe and comfortable areas would tend to trust others and thus feel less nervous when they interact with unfamiliar people.
  • In addition, if you have been bullied by your peers, or you have had other negative social experiences in your life, these experiences can hurt your self-esteem and negatively shape your views about others and the world. Good, positive interactions help to balance your views. However, people tend to remember their bad experiences more, which contributes to the development of shyness and social avoidance.
  • In these cases of “shyness” a discussion with a therapist about trauma focussed therapy could be helpful.

What about being shy at work?

Shyness in itself is quite common and normal. Shyness at work may be transient.  It doesn’t necessarily impact your life. If it is impacting on your life then it may be Social Anxiety Disorder, 

If you often shy away from talking to people at work, there are a few things to consider:

Social interest. Are you interested in making friends at work, or not really? Are you interested in social interactions in general? Do you find yourself avoiding people only at work, outside of work, or both? 

If your answer goes something along the line “I don’t see the point in talking to people at work unless they approach me, because I’m there to work, not to chat”, then it’s your work style, and that’s okay! 

If you don’t feel confident talking to people but you would like to, that is something you can learn over time. No one is born with people skills. Good communication comes with lots of practice. This might be shyness or Social Anxiety Disorder.

If you have no to little social interest with people in general, and your mood is pretty low most of the time, you might be suffering from depression (two of the warning signs of depression are loss of interest and social withdrawal). You might want to seek professional help if you feel depressed and have lost all your social interest.

Work environment. How do you feel about your work environment? Is your workplace safe and supportive? Or is it a bit toxic?

A supportive work environment is important for both employees and managers to feel safe to talk and discuss issues when they arise. If you feel shy because you feel unsafe in an unsupportive environment, no wonder you don’t want to talk to people at work. If that’s the case, you could reach out to an external mentor or services, such as the Fair Work Ombudsman, your Union, EAP services, or legal aid for further advice.

There is a difference between being shy and being mistreated at work. The former can be improved by having supportive co-workers who might help you get out of your shell and feel comfortable over time. Whereas the latter is an external challenge which requires a different approach.

Self-esteem. Are you afraid to speak up at work because you believe that you have nothing to contribute? Do you often think people would not enjoy talking to you? 

It matters how you see yourself and regard yourself as a person. Not every shy person has self-esteem issues, but many shy people think they are “uninteresting”, “insecure”, and “unconfident”. They take not knowing what to say or their lack of social skills to be major flaws and berate themselves for it. For some this is an expression of social anxiety disorder.

If this resonates with you, it means your self-esteem can use some positive self-talk. Instead of criticizing and internalising your shyness, you can shift your focus to the desire to form connections with others. Say to yourself “well, it’s good that I want to connect with that person” and “I can try to do that”. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. It’s not my fault”. If this is difficult for you, perhaps you are experiencing social anxiety, and professional help could be of benefit.

Assertiveness. Do you have difficulty asserting your needs and wants? For example, have you been thinking about asking for a pay raise or a promotion but not sure how to start? Or does someone at work often get on your nerves but you don’t know how to draw your boundary with them?

If drawing boundaries and speaking up is what you need, assertiveness training can help. A  psychologist can work with you to clarify your needs, then use them to guide your actions. You can also learn ways to communicate your needs effectively, that is, in a way that is not very confrontational, but you still get your points across. Assertiveness difficulties are often associated with problems such as depression and social anxiety disorder.


Shyness is an emotion that resembles social anxiety disorder, both of which are different from introversion. There are reasons why some people are shy, while others are not. Genetics, parental practice, environment, and personal experience all play a part in the development of shyness. However many people with long term or severe shyness actually have social anxiety disorder. This does change with therapy, and very often it does not change without it.

If you believe that your shyness may actually be a Social Anxiety Disorder, the psychologists at the Centre for Clinical Psychology can work with you to tackle shyness, as well as other problems that you may have. Call 03 9077 0122 for further information. Leaving symptoms untreated over a long period can worsen your anxiety and could lead to other problems such as depression or substance abuse to cope with social situations. At the Centre for Clinical Psychology our team are trained in  effective, evidence based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which have been shown to help with Social Anxiety Disorder.


American Psychological Association. Shyness.

British Broadcasting Corporation. The Science Behind Why Some Of Us Are Shy.

Coplan, R. J., & Rubin, K. H. (2010). Social withdrawal and shyness in childhood. The development of shyness and social withdrawal, 3-20.

Plomin, R., & Daniels, D. (1986). Genetics and shyness. Shyness: Perspectives on research and treatment, 63-80.

National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Social Anxiety Disorder: Recognition, Assessment and Treatment. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society (UK); 2013. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 159.) 2, SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER. Available from:

Nordahl, H. M., Vogel, P. A., Morken, G., Stiles, T. C., Sandvik, P., & Wells, A. (2016). Paroxetine, Cognitive Therapy or Their Combination in the Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder with and without Avoidant Personality Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 85(6), 346–356.