Invisible people

Invisible people

Mental health issues surrounding acute shyness can involve serious consequences

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 10/04/2012

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Dear Patti,
I’m 14 and am very close to my 17-year-old cousin, Claire. Our mothers are sisters totally devoted to each other’s family, and we were practically raised together.
 
Claire is wonderful and talented but often overlooked due to extreme crippling shyness. She has always been very self-conscious, afraid to speak up in social situations and preoccupied that others think negatively of her. It makes me sad whenever she grabs a book and pretends to read so she won’t have to talk to anybody, all the while craving to be involved and accepted. 
 
My mom and aunt are as concerned for Claire as I am, but here’s my problem: I feel like they’re both labeling me as “shy like Claire,” and I’m not. I don’t feel nervous or withdrawn in social situations, nor do I worry about what other people think of me. I just don’t like to go to parties or be in big groups, preferring instead the company of a few friends. 
 
What my mother doesn’t understand is that just because I’m quiet and don’t want to be a social butterfly doesn’t mean I’m shy or in the same emotional turmoil as Claire. I’m intelligent and thoughtful for my age and don’t want to be pigeonholed as a person with a social problem I don’t have. Sometimes I just want to be left alone to do what I want and don’t want my family to push me to be more sociable. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, but I feel inside it’s going to be something special. I wish my family could see that and not automatically label me as being flawed. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, right?
— Danielle

Dear Danielle,
First of all, I love your ability to have compassion for your cousin and, at the same time, a desire to be true to yourself and stick up for who you truly believe you are. It’s encouraging to see a young woman at your age willing to be self-reflective and self-supportive.
 
Shyness is an over-generalized response to fear, specifically, a fear of negative judgment. Introversion is a preference for quiet and less social and stimulating environments. Shyness and introversion are not the same but often get confused because they both relate to socializing. Lack of interest in socializing is very clearly not the same as fearing it. Just because you’re shy doesn’t mean you have an aversion to people, and just because you’re an introvert low on social approach doesn’t mean you’re necessarily socially avoidant. I think you believe that while Claire is acutely shy, you see yourself as more introverted. 
 
The social personality can be looked at as having four types: calm extroverts (extroverted and not shy); anxious or impulsive extroverts (extroverted and shy); calm introverts (introverted and not shy); and anxious introverts (introverted and shy).
 
These distinctions help explain the range of behaviors and emotions concerning shyness and introversion. Shyness and introversion can overlap, though not necessarily. Sometimes, for instance, a non-anxious, introverted patient of mine will express frustration that she has been scolded by others for being too quiet, depressed or antisocial when, in fact, was simply being thoughtful or mentally engaged. It’s not uncommon for introverted people to choose passive or less social interests like studying or reading.
 
You and your family’s concerns about Claire are valid. Acute shyness is not only considered one of the most under-recognized mental health problems, but it can lead to painful consequences as well. Shyness is characterized by three major features — excessive self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation and excessive negative self-preoccupation. Due to the difficulty of meeting and making friends, the shy person can often end up lonely and depressed without intervention. There are cognitive problems too, including an inability to think clearly in the presence of others, stumbling in conversations or appearing snobbish, disinterested or unintelligent when, in truth, they’re just anxious. The extremely shy can end up becoming too preoccupied with their appearance and behavior or afraid of being invisible and insignificant or being visible but considered not good enough. 
 
Fortunately, there are well-documented ways to overcome the crippling effects of shyness. It can be treated relatively easily, and I highly recommend counseling for Claire with a professional trained in treating shyness. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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