How to Keep It From Ruining Your Career

Shy businessman
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Most people experience shyness from time to time. They may feel it when walking into a business meeting or cocktail party and can't find a friendly face, or when they have to call a stranger because a friend suggested they network with him or her. While they may feel inhibited only in certain situations, you may be among those individuals for whom shyness is a personality trait—a significant part of who you are—and it may be a severe impediment to your career.

What Is Shyness

According to the "Encyclopedia of Mental Health," "shyness may be defined experientially as discomfort and/or inhibition in interpersonal situations that interferes with pursuing one's interpersonal or professional goals" (Henderson, Lynn and Phillip Zimbardo. Shyness. "The Encyclopedia of Mental Health." San Diego: Academic Press.). "[Shyness] may vary from mild social awkwardness to totally inhibiting social phobia," also from this source.

Many scientists believe individuals are shy because they are genetically predisposed to being that way. In layman's terms, if your parents are shy, your brain may be wired to be so as well. Others cite technology as a cause of this personality trait. 

Psychologists Bernardo Carducci and Phillip Zimbardo believe technological advances that allow for fewer interpersonal interactions have caused shyness to increase in recent years. Because of automatic teller machines, voice mail, and the internet, we don't have to talk to other people as much. Other shyness experts don't blame technology but instead think these changes in how we communicate can be helpful to individuals with this trait. They feel using the Internet helps socially inhibited people improve their interpersonal skills (Hendricks, Melissa. "Why So Shy?" USAWEEKEND.COM).

How Can Shyness Affect Your Career?

Your career may suffer if you are shy. Some of the reasons are obvious. It may keep you from presenting yourself well on job interviews. You may struggle to answer questions or look the interviewer in the eye. Networking could be extremely difficult for individuals who find it hard to communicate. You will also be hesitant to pursue opportunities that can help advance your career.

Shyness may have less predictable effects on your career. Researchers have found that people who are shy tend to begin their careers later and are more likely to refuse promotions than their counterparts who are not as inhibited. They choose occupations that don't require interpersonal skills and are more undecided about which field to pursue (Azar, Beth. "When Self Awareness Works Overtime." APA Monitor. November 1995). "Shy people have a harder time developing a career identity—an image of themselves as competent or successful within a career track." So, while you may worry about how others perceive you, it is the way you view yourself that can be your biggest problem. It is likely to keep you from advancing.

Overcoming Shyness

Richard Heimberg, Ph.D., an expert in social phobia at Temple University, believes the origins of shyness are similar to those of this more severe disorder. He described social phobia, currently called social anxiety disorder, as "shyness gone wild," and stated that it "cuts people off from the good things of life—social interaction, love, family" (Azar, Beth. "Social-Phobia Treatments May Also Work for Problem Shyness." APA Monitor. 1995). 

Dr. Heimberg has done research into effective treatments for social phobia that may eventually be used to cure shyness. Heimberg and psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz, M.D. conducted a study that looked at the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or an antidepressant drug to treat people who have social phobia. Many participants who received either treatment showed significant improvement, but those who were treated with CBT had longer lasting effects. Of those who received the drug, many relapsed, but only a small percentage of participants who received CBT did ("Stemming Social Phobia." APA Monitor. July/August 2005). If you think your shyness is impacting your career advancement, consider seeking treatment. Several sessions with a therapist who specializes in using CBT may remove a significant impediment to your career and allow you to move forward.

Your shyness may not be debilitating enough to warrant therapy or medication, but still may be keeping you from reaching your potential. Some shy people find that it is helpful to expose themselves to social situations. They even take jobs that force them to interact with other people despite their reservations. The following resources can help you understand shyness and can also help you find ways to overcome it.


Take a look at these resources to learn more about shyness and what you can do to keep it from affecting your career.