Going onto 34 very soon. I have suffered for the most part of my life from severe shyness and generalised social anxiety. My conditions are chronic, intractable and have proven to be life-debilitating.
Because I know there are a lot of different opinions as to how shyness/social anxiety comes about therefore I want to talk about (1) the biological and (2) social reasons behind life-destroying generalised social anxiety and severe shyness of other people. This is by no means a complete explaination but it does offer some interesting information for people who are interested and looking for some possible explaination for their shyness and social anxiety problems.
(1) BIOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF SEVERE SOCIAL ANXIETY AND SEVERE SHYNESS.
Most people think that learning accounts for all: that social anxiety and shyness are the result of years of negative learning and of a poor self-image. It is true that learning is VERY important in the development of social anxiety and shyness. But I believe that biology/genes (temperament) play a MORE important role in the development of severe and life-debilitating forms of social anxiety and severe shyness than does social learning.
There are two important biological factors that are crucial for one to be aware of in order to understand how severe, chronic and stubborn forms of social anxiety and shyness come about. The first is something known as INTROVERSION, and the second is known as INHIBITION (emotionality). Being born with BOTH of these things sets the stage, I believe, for a particularly vulnerable or possible lifetime of chronic, intractable, and life-debilitating social anxiety and shyness. I say "possible" because one does not need to develop these conditions even if they are born with such biological substrates (see "social reasons for social anxiety and severe shyness").
I was born with high levels of introversion and high levels of inhibition; the genes which would place me in the first quadrant of the "Eysenck cross of inborn temperament". In other words I was born with a shy, anxious and introverted temperament.
Being someone born with a high level of INTROVERSION I am much more easily aroused when I am exposed to socially threatening stimuli, due to higher levels of activity and arousal in my nervous system (basic explaination). Therefore I am able to condition (learn) inappropriate emotional and anxiety responses all too easily; and have a greater difficulty in curing such anxiety responses compared to ambiverts and extroverts. If I was highly extroverted I would have much less activity and arousal going on in my nervous system. I would usually want to and feel like I need to be around others in order to stimulate my under-aroused nervous system (basic explaination).
So as an introvert it takes a MUCH LESS amount of subjectively perceived socially threatening stimuli in order to arouse my autonomic nervous system to a state of anxiety. If I was an ambivert or an extroverted I would need a larger amount of threatening social stimuli in order to arouse me to a state of anxiety.
Interestingly as an introvert I have been found to have low amplitude and high frequency alpha waves (brain waves) which is typical of high arousal. If I was an extrovert I would have high amplitude and lower frequency waves which would indicate lower levels of arousal.
Now on top of being born with a high level of introversion I was also born with a high level of "inhibition".
Emotionality is the physiological component of anxiety such as elevated heart-rate, rapid breathing, etc. As a person born with a high level of inhibition (AKA, high emotionality/low anxiety threshold/low autonomic arousal thresold), these reactions of my body tend to be significantly more unstable, more easily aroused and less easily stopped than if I was born with a low level of inhibition (low emotionality).
This INBORN low anxiety threshold makes me experience anxiety more frequently, more intensely, and more painfully than if I had a medium or high anxiety threshold. Also I experience anxiety more quickly upon initial presentation of whatever stimulus I have LEARNED to associate with anxiety.
Before I became severely shy and developed severe generalised social anxiety (which is life-debilitating, and life-style restricting) I must have first LEARNED to associate the thought of informal, unstructred social interaction (my most feared kind of social interaction) with intense and painful feelings of anxiety. The low autonomic arousal threshold MUST have been there existing inside of me before such a thing could have been accomplished to any pathological extent like it has become.
Now the most important thing that readers of this post must understand is that I could have learnt to associate intense and painful anxiety with ANY stimuli. I could have become extremely fearful of ANY kind of object or social experience. My biology DOES NOT determine and cannot determine, specifically what will arouse the anxiety feelings and lead to avoidance behaviour. Such a thing MUST ALWAYS be LEARNED.
In the case of social anxiety and shyness, I have learned over time to associate the thought of informal social interaction and social assertiveness with intense and painful feelings of anxiety. The social anxiety/shyness is itself learned; the anxiety threshold is INBORN. Since my threshold is very low I condition anxiety patterns altogether too rapidly. If I had a high threshold it would take more time to learn chronic anxiety/avoidance behaviour patterns.
In addition to these temperamental traits playing a major role in the development of severe and pathological degrees of SA/shyness there is little doubt in my mind that those problems are rooted first and foremost in biochemical imbalances. Take bipolar, severe depression and schizophrenia for example. They are all caused by such imbalances as far as we know. So who is not to say that life-debilitating shyness/SA may also be caused by too little or too much of certain brain chemicals. This may certainly be true when one's past social experiences fail to explain one's current emotional problems (ie, shyness/SA).
For example, extroverts have been found to have very low levels of a chemical known as monoamine oxidase. Shy, inhibited people tend to have very high levels of this chemical in their brains. Monoamine oxidase inhibitor drugs have been used for the treatment of social anxiety. So there is further evidence that these problems are likely rooted in chemical imbalances. There is also evidence that emotionally sensitive introverts have an excess of dopamine activity in their brains.
To summarize, though shyness appears to indicate underactivity, it seems to be the result of overstimulation. Shy, timid and introverted people simnply cannot cope with the amount of information and so withdraw as a self-protective measure. This inability to cope is possibly a result from a low anxiety arousal threshold.
There are 2 main components of shyness and social anxiety which are inborn and genetically rooted. As an inhibited introvert I LEARN chronic anxiety behaviour pattens more easily, quickly, thoroughly, and for a much longer time than ambiverts and extroverted people who have higher anxiety thresholds. When a person has BOTH of these biological traits (introversion and a low autonomic arousal threshold) existing in them the biological foundation for the emergence of social anxiety/shyness is set BUT the full development of these problems is due to significant negative environmental influences.
(2) SOCIAL FACTORS IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF SEVERE SOCIAL ANXIETY AND SEVERE SHYNESS
There is little doubt that severe and pathological degrees of shyness and social anxiety is the result of years of negative learning and a negative self-image. A person receives virtually all of their social experiences from only 2 sources, (1) parents, and (2) the peer group. Therefore we can logically conclude that it is the negative social experiences during one's formative years with either the parents and/or the peer group which result in severe forms of shyness and social anxiety developing.
Everyone has what is known as a "social stimulus value". And it plays an highly important role in the development of chronic and severe forms of social anxiety and shyness during informal social interaction with others. The social stimulus value simply represents the extent to which a person is viewed by others as being attractive, desirable, and worthwhile.
The overall social stimulus value given off by a person (a child) is mainly determined by 5 factors, (1) the gender of the person being evaluated, (2) the internalized values and normative expectations, feelings, etc, of the father, mother and other significant family members, (3) the normative values, expectations, and the feelings of the same-sexed peer group, (4) norms and values of school officials and policy makers, and (5) norms and values of the community and nation.
A person's developing self-image and the likelihood of developing a case of pathological and severe social anxiety and shyness is a direct function of the goodness of fit of these 5 factors with a person's inborn social stimulus value of (1) native temperament, (2) physical attractiveness, (3) native talents and intelligence, and (4) inborn health characteristics and limitations. The most important of these values is temperament.
When there is a poorness of fit between those factors that person will likely grow into a pathologically shy and socially anxious person who has poor interpersonal skills and will be emotionally incapable of social assertiveness and taking social risks.
Just for an example, a person (let's say a young boy-child) with a very positive social stimulus value will typically be a very popular person at school. He is popular with many of his classmates. He has many friends and is well respected by others. He is never left out of any activities. He is not physically bullied by other children or verbally abused by others.
On the other hand, a young boy with a negative social stimulus value is not particularly popular with or respected by many of his classmates. He has a small group of friends but is not particularly well-respected by them either. Other boys sometimes pick on him and tease him. He is often left out of activites because other do not want to choose him. And there are other children who do not prefer to be seen with him as it may incure a negative perception of them from others.
Now all of this attention, whether it be negative or positive has a cumulative impact. The child who receives almost constantly positive attention from significant others will come to feel good about themselves and they experience little anxiety in asserting themselves with their peers and adults. Their interpersonal skills and social self-confidence increases significantly with each passing year as they mature in their socio-emotional development.
The child who receives a significant level of negative attention from his peers will likely not come to feel particularly good about himself. If this negtive attention (such as anxiety-provoking physical bullying, ignoring, negative evaluations, criticism, and rejection) continues, with each passing year his socioemotional growth is stunted or is slowed significantly and he is not given the chance to fully develop the interpersonal skills and social self-confidence that is absolutely required for well-adjusted and happy adult living.
So by the time the two boys reach the end of their school career they will each stand out in terms of interpersonal skills and social self-confidence. The boy who had recieved a lot of positive attention will have likely developed a positive self-image, he will feel good about himself and about others, he will possess good interpersonal skills and a level of social self-confidence which will lead to a happy and productive adult life. On the other hand, the boy who received very little positive attention will have likely developed a rather poor self-image, he will find it difficult to be assertive with others since he will not have developed the required social self-confidence, his interpersonal skills will be less than average, and he will likely be less well-adjusted and less happy as an adult.
Children have impressionable minds. They very easily internalize the labels which significant others give them. The labels a child receives from others will be recorded by the subconscious mind - whether it be good or bad. That child then becomes more and more like those labels that is given to him/her. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, what people tell us we are we begin behaving and thinking in accordance with what they tell us regardless if it is true or false.
Think of a child's mind like a fresh glob of clay. Each social experience shapes and moulds the clay (mind). Each experience adds up and slowly shapes the clay (mind). It is far easier to shape the clay while it is soft and pliable (when one is a child) As the clay dries out (the child grows) it becomes more difficult to shape the clay (mind). If there is a large amount of negative social experiences while the clay is still soft and pliable those experiences will add up and set permanently in shape a rather unpleasant mould (self-image) which cannot be very easily reshaped.
So it is when significant others react to and label a particular inborn biological trait as "undesirable", and is internalized, that attribute tends to stand out even more and becomes reinforced by those labels. In other words, the naturally shy, inhibited child (high introversion, low anxiety threshold child) tends to become even more shy and inhibited as he/she grows and that shyness becomes deeply and stubbornly ingrained and becomes a permanent way of life (a permanent mould in the clay).
Inborn temperament represents a kind of limit, just as one's innate intelligence represents a kind of limit within which a person must function throughout life. The philosophy that if you set your mind to something you can achieve it is to a large extent true but lets look at it from a different angle. Consider the following:
Virtually anyone could learn to play the piano. Some people pick it up rather quickly, some pick it up rather slowly and can't seem to go beyond a certin level. Most people however, are not at those two extremes. The point is the amount of time and effort that will be required by an individual into learning the piano. And so it is the same with temperament. These are "elastic limits". Everyone has a limit to which they can do something.
If a shy, introverted child is left to the ravages of an anxiety-provoking peer-group full of high energy, aggressive extroverts - which he/she is at polar-opposites from - that child's temperamental elastic limits will be made to be stretched beyond it's limits. In other words, shy and inhibited introverts should never mix with aggressive extroverts, in addition they are likely to end up being bullied and hazed. If such a child continues mixing with others whose temperaments are much different from their's that child will likely come to associate informal peer interaction with pain and fear because they are would often be exposed to anxiety-provoking situations and experiences.
This is by no means a complete list but these are some of the major social factors leading to a lifetime of shyness and social anxiety: (1) physical bullying and verbal hazing, (2) lack of warm, and caring emotional support from parents, (3) lack of emotional support from a peer group, (4) lack of a significant amount of social interaction with peers as a child, (5) lack of respect for one's emotions and feelings from others, (6) being exposed to painful rejection, criticism, negative evaluations, or ego-deflating comments from parents and/or peers or significant others, (7) exposed to corporal punishment and physical and verbal force to control behaviour from the parents, (
not being accepted as one is.
Given the highly negative social experiences that many people with severe shyness/SA likely have gone through, it would be easy to conclude that genetic factors are in no way responsible for much. That conclusion would be quite false. Severe, pathological shyness/SA is a direct byproduct of a synergistic interaction between social learning AND genetic factors (and possibly one's karma from a previous incarnation). When a person's social stimulus value is at odds with the norms of the family and community, that person will typically not be accepted as they are. That person is far more likely to be rejected, criticised, negatively labeled, etc.
As I pointed out before, people who are highly introverted with very low anxiety thresholds condition much faster and more deeply than do ambiverts and extroverts with mid-to-high anxiety threshold levels. And it is for this reason that such past negative social learning experiences would have a much more adverse impact upon them than such experiences would have upon ambiverts/extroverts with higher anxiety thresholds. The introverted, inhibited person retains negative social experiences while the ambiverts/extroverts and uninhibited person is more easily able to "shake off" negative learning experiences.
To summarize, to understanding why some people lose their shyness traits while some retain their shy, timid and socially fearful behavioural traits throughout their whole life is likely due to the social experiences BEFORE the self-image fully crystalizes. If one develops a poor self-image that person will likely be shy and fearful throughout their whole life.
An important part of this post was to show that societal reactions can and do change the brain's biochemistry. An inborn attribute which is labeled as undesirable or desirable and is internalized will become strengthened and reinforced. The phrase "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer" is a good analogy. The self-confident get more self-confident while the shy and withdrawn become more shy and withdrawn.
Highly introverted, inhibited people can become well-adjusted adults if and ONLY if they (1) their feelings are respected, (2) they FEEL loved by parents, (3) they are accepted by others as they are, (4) they are accorded the needed emotional support from parents/peers and significant others.