The downsides of shyness - even the mild forms - are widely known. Shy people tend to be lonelier and have fewer friends, and they are sometimes mistaken as cold and aloof. Avoiding social situations and failing to take risks can also limit employment opportunities: at work, shy people may be less likely to ask for a promotion or pursue a leadership role. In relationships, shyness can prevent people from approaching a romantic interest or disclosing their feelings. There is even some evidence that shyness can impair health. Shyness seems to be especially problematic when people are making the transition to college or to a new job, since the ability to reach out and establish new contacts is critical at these times. (For a more exhaustive review of the perils of shyness, see Philip Zimbardo's book or his Psychology Today article co-authored with Bernardo Carducci.)
Most of what you'll read about shyness is almost exclusively negative, and yet research suggests that at least 40% of Americans are chronically shy. A much higher number experience more temporary or situational shyness, making shyness "nearly universal", according to prominent psychologists. If shyness is so bad, why is it so common? Recent research suggests that shyness may have benefits not only for individuals, but for groups and societies as well.
Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book QUIET: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking, recently wrote a fascinating article for the New York Times making the case for shyness as a virtue. Here are some of the highlights:
Although there are also many cases where shyness hurts rather than helps, certain forms of shyness - when properly nurtured - may in fact be valuable attributes. Cain offers some great suggestions on her website for embracing shyness. For example:
#9 "Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it's a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk."
#10 "Rule of thumb for networking events: One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards."
#15 "Love is essential, gregariousness is optional"
#16 "In a gentle way, you can shake the world" - Gandhi
3. Do push through your fears when there is something you really want to accomplish (or someone you really want to ask out!). Embracing shyness doesn't mean never putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. But it also doesn't require forcing yourself to be someone you're not, and for a lot of people that's a huge relief.
Baumeister, R., & Scher, S. (1988). Self-defeating behavior patterns among normal individuals: Review and analysis of common self-destructive tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104 (1), 3-22 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.104.1.3
Jamieson JP, Mendes WB, Blackstock E, & Schmader T (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46 (1), 208-212 PMID: 20161454
Schmitt, D. (2004). The Big Five related to risky sexual behaviour across 10 world regions: differential personality associations of sexual promiscuity and relationship infidelity European Journal of Personality, 18 (4), 301-319 DOI: 10.1002/per.520