Shy people can learn to overcome timidity


December 25, 1990|By Alison Bass | Alison Bass,Boston Globe

If you are the parent of a shy, fearful child, don't panic. New research has found that parents can help children, even those who have inherited a tendency toward shyness, overcome their timid approach to life.

The news is equally encouraging for shy adults. A growing body of research indicates that shy people of all ages can learn to

change their deeply ingrained pattern of shrinking from the world.

"Shyness may be an inherited personality trait, but that's just the starting point," says Jonathan Cheek, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College. "What some sociobiologists have failed to talk about is the power of family, culture and self-awareness."

The scientist who discovered that shyness sometimes has a strong genetic component couldn't agree more.

"There is no determinism here," says Jerome Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the researchers who found that between 10 and 20 percent of people inherit a predisposition to being inhibited and fearful in new situations. "Many people born with temperamental shyness don't necessarily develop shyness in adult life."

Kagan and his colleagues call these children "temperamentally shy" because almost from birth, they display a distinct emotional and physiological response to new situations. Not only are they more fearful and timid when meeting strangers, but their heart rate and blood pressure rise and their pupils dilate at a faster rate than less inhibited children. These children are also more likely to be blue-eyed than the less fearful children, reinforcing researchers' conclusion that this predisposition is inherited.

In their latest research, however, Kagan and his colleagues are finding that biology is no match for good parenting. Shy children whose parents gently push them to try new things and to overcome their fears are less likely to be inhibited by age 7 than children whose parents overprotect them, they found.

These findings are the latest in a series Kagan and his colleagues have made in studying a group of 400 shy and non-shy children from infancy on.

"From our preliminary data, it looks like how parents handle these kids does make a difference," Kagan says of his research. "Our data indicate that about half of these children will recover from the temperamental shyness due to their environment."

But environment, sadly, can be an equally powerful force for creating shyness. Other research indicates that as many as 20 percent of people who are not genetically fearful develop shyness later in childhood because of negative life experiences. Those experiences could be anything from having critical, rejecting parents, to moving around a lot in childhood, to being teased or ridiculed by teachers, older siblings or peers.

Researchers are becoming more and more aware that there are a number of pathways to shyness, and many types as well. While some people may feel moderately anxious and tense when meeting strangers at a party, others are paralyzed by terror at the thought of even going to a party. And while some shy people deal with their anxieties by withdrawing from human contact, others become passive and compliant in their desperate attempt to be accepted without fanfare.

Researchers are just beginning to tease apart these different pathways to social withdrawal, and until they do, they caution that what alleviates one person's anxiety in social encounters may not work for another.

While the treatment of chronic shyness is in its infancy, researchers do know that the condition itself can be a troubling, even disabling, experience. One long-term Canadian study indicates that children who are socially anxious and fearful in kindergarten are likely to be rejected by their peers by the time they reach junior high school. Shy boys have more difficulty than shy girls, if only because cultural stereotypes dictate that males take the initiative in social encounters.

As they grow older, many shy people have difficulty making friends, finding lovers and holding jobs, studies show. This is despite the fact that shy individuals are just as likely to be gifted in the arts and sciences as more outgoing people, and do just as well academically.

"In adults, chronic shyness tends to be very correlated with loneliness and difficulties in relationships," says Cheek. "They also tend to be underemployed and relatively unsuccessful in their careers."

At the root of many shy people's problems, Cheek and others are finding, is a compelling sense of inadequacy a fear of being found wanting in the eyes of others. Coupled with this inferiority complex is a deeply ingrained tendency to be self-critical: Shy people are constantly telling themselves they will fail in any social encounter they attempt. They are so sure others will not like them that they go out of their way to avoid meeting new people or drawing attention to themselves.

Other studies have shown that family environment is also crucial to the development of social skills.

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