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SELF-ARCHEOLOGY
Blog by DARIUS CIKANAVICIUS on Childhood Trauma, Narcissism, and Mental Health

Shyness Is Not a Cute, Insignificant Thing

By Darius Cikanavicius
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Iโ€™ve heard many people refer to themselves or others as shy โ€“ both in the context of their current life and their childhood. โ€œI am a shy person.โ€ My child is very shy.โ€ โ€œOh, sheโ€™s just shy.โ€

Basically, โ€œshyโ€ is a more socially acceptable and less direct way of saying that one is scared of, or anxious about, people. Itโ€™s a euphemism, if you will. In the dictionary the word โ€œshyโ€ is described as โ€œnervous or timid in the company of other people.โ€ However, when you say, โ€œshy,โ€ people usually donโ€™t feel uncomfortable.

โ€œWhatโ€™s going on with her?โ€
โ€œNothing. Sheโ€™s just shy.โ€
โ€œOh, OK.โ€

But when you say it how it really is, it makes some people uncomfortable. (Or it may be an uncomfortable thing to say about yourself.)
โ€œHe looks kind of meek and avoidant. Whatโ€™s up with him?โ€
โ€œHeโ€™s scared of people and social situations.โ€

Well, this raises questions and makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

โ€œWhy is he scared of peopleโ€ฆ? Why does he have low self-esteemโ€ฆ? I wonder, what happened in his past that made him to become automatically scared of people and social situationsโ€ฆ? I guess, some really bad things happenedโ€ฆ. As a child, he probably was repeatedly hurt in one form or another by people who were close to himโ€ฆ. I just remembered that something similar happened to me, too.... I donโ€™t want to think about hurt and child abuse โ€“ it makes me uncomfortable on many levels.โ€ (Of course, not many people think like that consciously, but in many cases thatโ€™s whatโ€™s going on an unconscious or semi-conscious level.)

Compared all of this to, โ€œHeโ€™s just shy.โ€

This phrasing is particularly common when talking about children. โ€œHe is a shy kid.โ€ โ€œSheโ€™s a shy girl.โ€ โ€œSheโ€™s shy just like mommy.โ€ โ€œWhen I was his age, I was very shy, too.โ€

Some people even say that a shy child is cute. โ€œAwww, look at her, her head is down because sheโ€™s too shy to look at us โ€“ she looks so cute!โ€
โ€œThis is my son. Heโ€™s hiding under the table because heโ€™s a little shy.โ€
โ€œAwww, thatโ€™s so adorable โ€“ he looks like a cute little puppy on all fours down there!โ€
โ€œI know, right!?โ€

Well, why is she distant, silent, and avoiding eye contact? Why doesnโ€™t he want to be seen? Is this his favorite, i.e., the safest place, to hide? Does he hide there when his parents fight? Does he crawl there to hide when his father gets violent or when his mother threatens to tell his father to beat him again if he continues to be โ€œnaughtyโ€? Why are they scared of people? Are they scared of me particularly? Do I remind them of someone in specific who have hurt them before? Are they afraid of me because I am a stranger? Why would they be scared of strangers? Are they afraid of a stranger because strangers had somehow abused them before? Are they afraid of others because they feel ashamed of being โ€œbadโ€ or doing something โ€œwrongโ€ and they donโ€™t want for others to see their โ€œwickednessโ€ (because thatโ€™s what they were told, and they believe it)? Are they afraid to do something โ€œbadโ€ in the interaction with me and to be punished or humiliated for it โ€“ by their caregivers or by me? Do they live in an over-controlling environment? Do they get bullied in school or kindergarten? Are their parents aware of how their child feels and why? Why donโ€™t they help the child to feel safe, protected, and more confident? In what other ways is this child abused in their relationship with their caregivers? Does the child feel ashamed or guilty that he or she has been abused? Do they also feel lonely, betrayed, confused, or helpless?

These are just some of the questions that may come up in such a situationโ€ฆ. Feeling afraid is not cute. Feeling afraid is not adorable. Itโ€™s not a small, insignificant thing. Itโ€™s terrifying. Itโ€™s draining. It can be very confusing and alienating โ€“ especially if youโ€™re a child.... Shyness is a complex psychological and emotional state that didn't come out of nowhere. People are not born feeling shy afraid, inferior, ashamed, or guilty.

Yes, sometimes we may feel cautious or a little bit anxious meeting new people or doing something while others are watching. But thereโ€™s a difference between being cautious when in contact with an unpleasant or genuinely dangerous person and feeling scared or anxious by default when youโ€™re in a social situation. The latter usually indicates that there is some kind of problem. (In our society, usually only a severe form of โ€œshynessโ€ is recognized, and it is called โ€œsocial phobia.โ€)

To my observation, people who have a healthy self-esteem usually are not scared of others; and children who have a strong, constant, and healthy bond with their caregivers are not afraid of social situations. By default they are not afraid of being visible, alive, active, and interactive. They know that they are safe and protected and that they can always count on their caregivers. They also have developed a sharp sense of what are the characteristics of a safe, trustworthy person. (I donโ€™t think itโ€™s a coincidence that sometimes children randomly smile at me on the street or want to talk and interact with me. Especially compared to a person who, for example, has a stern look on their face, or yell, or reek of cigarettes, or tease them, or neglect them, etc.)

So the next time you label yourself โ€“ or hear others refer to someone โ€“ as shy, remember that the person in question most likely is feeling chronic fear (probably shame, guilt, and loneliness, too), and that there might be more to it than โ€œoh, itโ€™s just how they are / I amโ€ฆ.โ€

I wish you a fear-free day!
Darius

Support my work by becoming a Patreon subscriber for $5/mo or more and get access to bonus articles. And check out my book Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults. Thanks!

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child abuse child rearing emotions empathy fear self-esteem shyness trauma
Comments

  1. AnonymousApril 18, 2014 at 3:42 PM
    Are there scientific studies to back up your assertions?
    REPLY



  2. Darius CikanaviciusApril 18, 2014 at 5:11 PM
    Hi Anonymous,

    Are there any scientific studies on how excessive fear and anxiety stems from negative early life experiences and one's bond with one's caregivers? Sure, there are hundreds of books, sources, and studies on that.

    Actually, I have gathered a small portion of resources and posted it HERE. I would recommend to start with the works of Alice Miller, Daniel Mackler, and Lloyd deMause -- and most importantly with the examining of your own childhood.

    All the best,
    Darius
    REPLY



  3. AsheApril 19, 2014 at 4:19 AM
    Hi. I am a survivor of childhood like all of us are. Violence was iinflicted upon me and I developed terribly shy, withdrawn and trepidatious social mechanisms due partly to my braIn damage. I had latency in my communication and lacked confidence in all social interactions. My parents were entirely aware and present for these abuses against me and still called me "shy" and continued to complain to me and their friends about my bubbly personality turning into a shy one. "When you were a child, you his behind me but when you were a toddler, you had such life and spark" what ignorance.
    REPLY



  4. paseosinperroApril 25, 2014 at 1:06 AM
    I really like this one Darius. That idea is one that I, in a way, I have already had before (but not very clear), and reading this is like "yes, that is it: being shy is not something cute and healthy, is a symptom that the child have emotional issues".
    REPLY



  5. AnonymousMay 8, 2014 at 2:27 AM
    Darius, thanks for your wise commentary on shyness. I was a shy child, and though I have developed a reasonably confident "persona" to present in a wide range of social situations, I am always aware of the fact that I am doing this in spite of being shy, not because I've overcome my shyness. As a result of doing regressive therapy for many years I believe I know the ultimate source of my own particular shyness. For anyone interested, I invite you to watch my video "Therapy Uncovers Circumcision Trauma" on YouTube.
    REPLY



  6. get rid of shynessJuly 21, 2014 at 5:08 AM
    Most people are shy because they have what I call Automatic Rejection Syndrome. They think they're gonna be instantly rejected, even if they have no evidence of this really happening.
    REPLY



  7. AnonymousOctober 6, 2016 at 9:53 PM
    Well, I don't think we should jump to the conclusion that children necessarily need to have been abused to suffer social phobia.
    Although abuse can mean a lot of different things.

    But I absolutely agree, "shyness" should be taken very seriously. Especially in young individuals.
    REPLY



  8. Amy CJuly 22, 2017 at 6:06 AM
    My son is 2.5, and he is probably what you'd call shy. However, it's not because he's being abused or neglected or doesn't have a secure attachment to his caregivers. He is like I and his father were: just slightly slower to warm up to a new person, more introverted and sensitive.
    The thing I as a mother could improve on is giving him a better social example and exposure. I try to take him to playgroup and to the park as often as I can, but I don't have a whole lot of friends and family in the area, so he probably isn't getting as much"practice" as he should. I'm thinking I'd like to move closer to my family, as well as an area where there's more going on, for kids and for myself.
    REPLY



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Sure--I will pat your head pat pat ^

I was gonna say though, as someone who worked with children a lot (this is directed at OP), I can see why people want to say that about kids.

Because adults don't respect kids boundaries well, on average. They think "oh it's a cute kid...I'll just pick it up and throw it in the air" like wtf dude...the kid is a human being...do you even know anything about kids?

But adults often just ignore that children are people, and instead treat them like cute little dolls. And I get it--but, it's hard to really get any of them to change their view.

Like even being a woman, it's more normal for me (or would be socially acceptable) to start pinching some baby I don't know on the cheeks and being like "goo goo goo goo" even if it makes the baby cry, because if I don't do it then I look like I hate babies.

(I don't do it, and it comes off as cold and stand-off-ish, but the reason I don't do it is because most children don't actually want strangers grabbing them...even babies. Sometimes they just want to be free to explore and so I generally observe more, respect their process and focus, and try to keep them safe...engaging is important but one doesnt ALWAYS need to engage with a child because children need time to explore the world on their own terms).

But yes--it is true that a shy child is often afraid, or they just don't want to get close to an adult.

And what is half of adults reactions? OH JUST COME HERE AND HUG ME

No...so when you say "they are just shy" it can sometimes get these adults to back off a little.

If you say "she's just scared" then they'll probably try to fix it or maybe even take it personally, because really what you could also say is "she's scared of YOU."

And then the adult will be all upset because a child is scared of them, and try to prove they are some friendly person by getting even more in the child's face.

So personally, as a child, I was fine with being called shy because people just left me the f**** alone more often that way, they didn't take it personally or try to remedy it. They just were respectful and kept a distance, and perhaps even let the shy child come out on their own, which I actually think is probably the best.

That being said--traumatized is not the same as shy and traumatized children should have intervention. But many children probably just need adults to respect their boundaries a bit better, and to give them space, and to respect that the child's brain, thinking, psychology and process they are going through is unique and valuable in its own right.

They don't need to be directed all the time or to have people constantly engaging with them, especially if the child is showing signs of wanting to disengage (looking away, moving back, falling asleep, crying) etc. There's nothing wrong with trying to make a child smile, but I really do think people should be mindful that children are humans and they have boundaries.
 

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So that was probably tldr but one point I'd like to argue against the topic is that:

Shyness and trauma are not the same thing.

A child could also be shy because they don't want you in their face, because adults tend to cross children's boundaries without respecting them (picking them up, getting very close, ignoring their feelings and wants and instead telling the child how they should feel or what they should do).

And some children simply don't want that, and act shy. It's not always because they are traumatized.

Children's boundaries should be respected. Adults should be mindful that children are complex beings.

And that yes it can also be trauma sometimes, and that is very serious and does need intervention.
 

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I always got labeled shy because Iโ€™m quiet and observant, especially in larger groups or where I donโ€™t know people. But, Iโ€™m not afraid to talk to people or introduce myself. It can draining but it doesnโ€™t really give me anxiety. So sometimes the label is misgiven.

and @WickerDeer has a point about respecting childrenโ€™s boundaries that I absolutely agree with. Iโ€™ll have to think about that before I can fully reply.
 

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I always got labeled shy because Iโ€™m quiet and observant, especially in larger groups or where I donโ€™t know people. But, Iโ€™m not afraid to talk to people or introduce myself. It can draining but it doesnโ€™t really give me anxiety. So sometimes the label is misgiven.

and @WickerDeer has a point about respecting childrenโ€™s boundaries that I absolutely agree with. Iโ€™ll have to think about that before I can fully reply.
It reminds me of the concept of the Four Types of Introverts--because I know I relate to other types than just the Anxious.

But I think most introverts were probably sort of shy at times as children (or seen that way), so good point that it's not always anxiety or trauma.

 

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It's also completely healthy and normal for young children to avoid strangers--it's normal and natural, and it's a sign of healthy attachment to caregivers (especially for younger children aged maybe 18 months to 5ish).

And it could be called "shyness" to a stranger you don't want to hurt the feelings of (or a distant family etc.)

I would be more worried when I see a young child that doesn't act shy at all. And I have seen this--it looks like being overly trusting and friendly to strangers...it's sad to observe when you know what healthy children tend to act like.

I had this happen once, when I was at the animal shelter...and a little girl wandered up to me and asked me to pick her up. And I've also seen other foster-care children, and children who've been taken from abusive homes exhibit this behavior:

It's called Disninhibited Social Engagement Disorder.


This is far more heartbreaking to me to see than most shy children.

Though of course sometimes shy behavior can also be a sign of trauma, but it's also normal for young children to be cautious around strangers and attached to only one or two primary caregivers during some developmental stages.
 

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Sounds like an oppressive thing for an extrovert to say to an introvert. Shyness as a child is just fine and is in fact a cute trait of introverts.

I'd say NJs are usually labeled as shy when young but that's due to trouble with being able to relate with other children. Being superficially extroverted and engaging in small talk is draining and thus not something that's appealing just to appease some Fe heavy adult.
 
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It's the parents fault, no? The parents represent society and are responsible for understanding and helping the child grow safe and healthy. Worst cases I can think of are abuse, abandonment, not showing love, making the child the butt of the family and generational trauma.
 

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It's the parents fault, no? The parents represent society and are responsible for understanding and helping the child grow safe and healthy. Worst cases I can think of are abuse, abandonment, not showing love, making the child the butt of the family and generational trauma.
Aversion to strangers and shyness can be perfectly healthy and natural for young children.

I've seen narcissist parents who train their children rigorously to always smile, always say hello, always act like the perfect shirley temple imitation. It's a lot worse for a child to be expected to go against their nature just to make some adults think they are cute and friendly (and just to make their parents look good).

Some children are bubbly and extremely extroverted, but for most children (even extroverts) it's perfectly normal to be shy, initially, around strangers or even family members they don't see often (adults).

This is because of child development and how attachments form in young children.

 

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Aversion to strangers and shyness can be perfectly healthy and natural for young children.

I've seen narcissist parents who train their children rigorously to always smile, always say hello, always act like the perfect shirley temple imitation. It's a lot worse for a child to be expected to go against their nature just to make some adults think they are cute and friendly (and just to make their parents look good).

Some children are bubbly and extremely extroverted, but for most children (even extroverts) it's perfectly normal to be shy, initially, around strangers or even family members they don't see often (adults).

This is because of child development and how attachments form in young children.

Sure, being shy can be normal. I also don't think shy = traumatized. Some parents are neglectful to the child's emotional needs, and the child feels weird when put in the world, like school. The child might not consider the school as their second home and may not form connections with other kids. Parents like in the article you sent me, should do many things themselves to help their shy child.
 

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Sure--I will pat your head pat pat ^

I was gonna say though, as someone who worked with children a lot (this is directed at OP), I can see why people want to say that about kids.

Because adults don't respect kids boundaries well, on average. They think "oh it's a cute kid...I'll just pick it up and throw it in the air" like wtf dude...the kid is a human being...do you even know anything about kids?

But adults often just ignore that children are people, and instead treat them like cute little dolls. And I get it--but, it's hard to really get any of them to change their view.

Like even being a woman, it's more normal for me (or would be socially acceptable) to start pinching some baby I don't know on the cheeks and being like "goo goo goo goo" even if it makes the baby cry, because if I don't do it then I look like I hate babies.

(I don't do it, and it comes off as cold and stand-off-ish, but the reason I don't do it is because most children don't actually want strangers grabbing them...even babies. Sometimes they just want to be free to explore and so I generally observe more, respect their process and focus, and try to keep them safe...engaging is important but one doesnt ALWAYS need to engage with a child because children need time to explore the world on their own terms).

But yes--it is true that a shy child is often afraid, or they just don't want to get close to an adult.

And what is half of adults reactions? OH JUST COME HERE AND HUG ME

No...so when you say "they are just shy" it can sometimes get these adults to back off a little.

If you say "she's just scared" then they'll probably try to fix it or maybe even take it personally, because really what you could also say is "she's scared of YOU."

And then the adult will be all upset because a child is scared of them, and try to prove they are some friendly person by getting even more in the child's face.

So personally, as a child, I was fine with being called shy because people just left me the f**** alone more often that way, they didn't take it personally or try to remedy it. They just were respectful and kept a distance, and perhaps even let the shy child come out on their own, which I actually think is probably the best.

That being said--traumatized is not the same as shy and traumatized children should have intervention. But many children probably just need adults to respect their boundaries a bit better, and to give them space, and to respect that the child's brain, thinking, psychology and process they are going through is unique and valuable in its own right.

They don't need to be directed all the time or to have people constantly engaging with them, especially if the child is showing signs of wanting to disengage (looking away, moving back, falling asleep, crying) etc. There's nothing wrong with trying to make a child smile, but I really do think people should be mindful that children are humans and they have boundaries.
Oh my god. Thank you.

I had full on selective mutism as a kid and grown ass adults thought it was okay to hug me against my will and such. I literally couldn't tell them to stop and was forced to. I know those people, and none of them actually meant harm or realized what they were doing, but telling a child that their boundaries and personal autonomy don't matter is absolutely not okay.

I ask my kid before hugging now which some people think is weird, but no, kid is allowed to not want a hug right now and have that respected. I remember what it was like to experience the opposite and there's no way in hell I'd do it or let someone else do it on my watch.

Also, I've noticed that adults seem to want kids to not experience emotions as adults do?! Like a kid can't be mad or bored or whatever, or have a bad day but adults can? It's ridiculous to expect someone who doesn't have a developed frontal lobe yet to be more emotionally regulated than adults who do. I don't understand that but those ideas need to change as well.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 · (Edited)
Fabulous posts by the way, I read them all! ๐Ÿ’œ
 
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