Feeling Shy and Wishing You Were Invisible

Are you shy and withdrawn, and prefer to look at the world from a distance instead of participating in it. Do you know why? Is it because of your upbringing or are there genetic factors?
Feeling Shy and Wishing You Were Invisible
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 20 November, 2023

If you’re shy, you probably became aware of this personality trait early on in your life. You’ll have discovered that the kinds of situations that for other children were normal and fun, for you were threatening. To the point that you needed to hide and seek refuge to save yourself from the social world that caused you such discomfort and anguish.

However, is shyness simply problematic or is it pathological? Firstly, it’s a personality trait with varying degrees. For instance, some people only show a certain shyness in their behavior, while for others it completely restricts their lives. Whatever the case, it’s the kind of profile in which individuals experience social anxiety and suffering.

The relevant term here is suffering. In fact, that’s the element that differentiates an introvert from a shy person. Suffering means you’re afraid of rejection, terrified of making a fool of yourself, and fearful of being exposed to others. These are extremely limiting dimensions. They’re caused by a highly critical and exhausting sense of self-awareness that causes you silent but recurrent discomfort.

If you identify with this profile, you probably won’t always feel good about yourself. Moreover, the world seems to belong to extroverts, to those who know no fear and dare to speak out loud. So, why are some people born to be eternally self-conscious while others conquer every stage of life with sparkling extroversion?

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

-Sylvia Plath

Bored boy on the sofa
Shy people don’t always feel good about themselves because they’re aware that they often lose out on opportunities like meeting people, getting certain jobs, etc.

The shy trees and their roots

The term shyness was first used in the 18th century to refer to horses that were easily startled. There have always also been people who feel choked on shame and insecurity, living their lives from behind windows, away from the crowds, and watching life go by from a safe distance.

Interestingly, in the world of nature, there are so-called shy trees. Indeed, in lush forests, such as tropical ones, no tree branches touch each other. So, when you look up, you find a striking geometric canopy separated by channel-like gaps between ten and 50 cm.

This phenomenon must make some ecological sense, but it’s not yet entirely clear why it occurs. Perhaps it’s to avoid diseases, to allow the passage of light, or to prevent the friction of the wind from causing the branches to hit each other. According to experts, it’s as if there’s a genetic determination to avoid such contact and form this fantastic canopy.

Does the same thing happen in human nature? If you’re dealing with social phobia and fear of rejection on a daily basis, you probably find yourself asking why you’re the way you are. You wonder what made you this way.

Introverts feels good about themselves, like their personalities and, when they want to, socialize without problems. On the other hand, shy people wish they could expose themselves to many social situations, but feel incapable and gripped by shame and insecurity.

1. Environment is more important than genes

Many people believe that shy children come into the world with this inhibited temperament. This isn’t entirely true.

A large number of studies on this personality trait have been conducted with identical twins. For example, the University of Colorado (Canada) conducted a study in 2012 that claimed that, while shyness has a genetic trigger, this variable isn’t 100 percent conclusive or definitive. In fact, according to the researchers, the environment is more important than genes in an individual developing a shy and inhibited personality pattern. As a matter of fact, sometimes, even twins develop different characters.

When a child reaches 18-20 months of life, they begin to understand social standards. It’s at this time that they either cross the line that makes them more self-confident or remain in the realm of shyness. Indeed, the first experiences they have with their social environment from the age of two will sculpt a good part of their character.

2. Caregivers also influence the development of shyness

When someone asks you why you’re shy, you should look back and think about your childhood. In that environment and psychosocial substratum, like a tree, you spread your roots to grow and develop. So, ask yourself what your education was like and what dynamics your parents put into practice.

Often, even if a baby has the gene for shyness and their temperament swings toward that pole, a dynamic, open, supportive, and safe social environment dampens this trait. On the other hand, for children who grow up in an authoritarian, critical, unemotional, and strict family, it’s highly likely that they’ll be shy even in adulthood.

For instance, consider the child who’s approaching adolescence and is dominated by their insecurities and the fear of being rejected when they start high school. If they have parents who know how to help them cultivate the skills of confidence and guide them to rationalize their fears and enhance their strengths, they’ll be less anxious.

Sensitive, safe, stimulating and skillful upbringing and education to foster good self-esteem in the child can cushion the development of shyness and the shyness gene. 

Woman doing psychological therapy wondering why am I shy
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help us overcome shyness and social phobias.

3. Internalization and excessive fear

In addition to genes and family background, there’s a third element that feeds the roots of shyness. It’s excessive fear. Research conducted by Dr. Nansy Eisenberg claims that a shy personality correlates with the internalization of negative emotions. It manifests itself in childhood and, if it isn’t addressed, intensifies.

Shy children want to be involved in social situations, play with their peers, experiment, and open up to the world. They want it with all their might, but they can’t achieve it. That’s because social fear overwhelms them and inhibits any approach and contact with new situations and people.

They’ve intensely internalized the fear of being judged, criticized, making mistakes, exposing themselves, and feeling ashamed. This makes them suffer and they have a really hard time as they lack coping tools in the face of fear. Therefore, if you’re asking yourself, as an adult, why you’re so shy, look inside yourself and make a decision.

If you believe that life is passing you by due to your fears, if you’re losing job opportunities, and would like to meet more people, take action. Rationalize all those negative emotions that are gripping you and clipping your wings. There are certain psychological techniques that’ll allow you to manage your shyness and social anxiety. Don’t hesitate to take this step if you need to.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Van Zalk N, Lamb ME, Jason Rentfrow P. Does Shyness Vary According to Attained Social Roles? Trends Across Age Groups in a Large British Sample. J Pers. 2017 Dec;85(6):830-840. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12291. Epub 2017 Jan 10. PMID: 27861890.
  • V, Akhila & Thomas, Sannet. (2020). A Study on Shyness and Psychological Well-Being among Young Adults. 10.
  • Eisenberg N, Shepard SA, Fabes RA, Murphy BC, Guthrie IK. Shyness and children’s emotionality, regulation, and coping: Contemporaneous, longitudinal, and across-context relations. Child Development. 1998;69:767–790.
  • Smith AK, Rhee SH, Corley RP, Friedman NP, Hewitt JK, Robinson JL. The magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on parental and observational measures of behavioral inhibition and shyness in toddlerhood. Behav Genet. 2012 Sep;42(5):764-77. doi: 10.1007/s10519-012-9551-0. Epub 2012 Jul 18. PMID: 22806186; PMCID: PMC3443291.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.