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Shyness. How to Take Control of Social Anxiety Using Your Compassionate Mind

Lynne Henderson

Having a bashful or timid personality is natural. It’s a normal part of life that everyone goes through at some point. It is a natural emotion that everyone can experience. However, there are instances when social anxiety becomes debilitating and starts to hinder one’s ability to navigate life. 

Various situations in life can bring up feelings of uncertainty. Moments such as being placed in a new, unfamiliar social environment where you are surrounded by new people. Or, during moments of intense focus, like suddenly being put in a spotlight in front of an audience. People attribute feeling physical pains and sensations like goosebumps or sweating following situations similar to these. One would suddenly feel as if they are not in control of one’s body. These problems don’t even include the mental anguish that people with timid personalities go through. For some, whose social anxieties border on uncontrollable and damaging, they opt to forego situations that necessitate them being challenged, limiting themselves to situations that they feel they are comfortable with, or feel that they have control over.

Human experience over thousands of years has necessitated shyness for survival. Humans, as a whole, are “social beings.” When it interferes with life goals, progresses to social anxiety disorder, or causes “learned pessimism,” “mild depression,” or even “learned helplessness,” it can become a problem. In this sense, shyness and shame frequently prevent us from achieving our potential and from fully interacting with others.

This is not to say that having a shy personality is a wholly negative trait. Those who are shy are not particularly motivated to be forceful with others. They simply don’t feel an immediate need to dictate the actions of the people around them, instead perhaps preferring to be listeners within the social circles they take part in. 

These people typically adopt a “pause to check” strategy in social situations and may be just as well-adjusted as extroverts. They are perceptive to other people’s feelings and thoughts. They exhibit caution, thoughtfulness, diligence, agreeableness, and a propensity for cooperative action.

We are not to blame for our social anxiety. In order to safeguard us, the brain states that cause these emotions have developed over time. To live the lives we wish to live, we are all trying our best.

The good news is that shy people can develop coping mechanisms for their emotions and refute unsettling notions. They can try new, self-assured behaviors and grow in their capacity for self-compassion. This entails developing the soothing and calming alternative brain state and learning to use our innate kindness and compassion toward both ourselves and others.

The Compassionate Mind Approach (created by Paul Gilbert) combines knowledge about how our minds can cause us problems with a potent remedy in the form of mindfulness and compassion. It provides techniques for energizing the area of the brain associated with kindness, warmth, compassion, and safety while calming the area that causes us to feel tense, irritated, unhappy, or depressed.

Lynne Henderson is a licensed clinical psychologist with over forty years of experience. She founded the Social Fitness Center, and is founder and Co-Director, with Philip Zimbardo of the Shyness Institute. She was a visiting scholar in the Psychology Department at Stanford University for thirteen years, a lecturer for five years, and a faculty member in Continuing Studies. Dr. Henderson also served as a Consulting Associate Professor in Counseling Psychology for ten years. She directed the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto for twenty-five years and conducted research and shyness groups at the Stanford Counseling Center. Her research interests include translating the results of social psychology and personality theory into clinical work, specifically, the negative stereotyping of shyness, the influence of personality variables and cultural influences on interpersonal perception and motivation, the leadership styles of shy leaders, and compassionate social fitness. She is the author of The Shyness Workbook: Take Control of Social Anxiety Using Your Compassionate Mind. For more information, visit

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