"As a child, I was very shy. Painfully, excruciatingly shy. I hid a lot in my room. I was so terrified to read out loud in school that I had to have my mother ask my reading teacher not to call on me in class." - Kim Basinger

Many of us were shy as children, and continue to be. In more extreme versions, it may be labeled social phobia or social anxiety disorder, but it is more commonly a personality trait, related to introversion and high sensitivity. A number of psychologists and others argue that shyness can be viewed as an ordinary variation in personality, and should not be pathologized or treated as a medical condition to be overcome.

Many actors in addition to Basinger describe themselves as shy. Chris Cooper approached getting "unblocked" by taking dance classes, and through acting - "Theater, as therapy," he said.

Actor Sigourney Weaver has commented, "Sometimes because I am very shy, when I meet a director and they are shy too, we just sort of sit there. I remember when I met Ang Lee and we were left alone... I was so shy and he was so shy neither of us said anything to each other for about 20 minutes."

Nicole Kidman has said she is "very shy - really shy - I even had a stutter as a kid, which I slowly got over, but I still regress into that shyness. So I don't like walking into a crowded restaurant by myself; I don't like going to a party by myself."

For some people, shyness may be part of a deeper anxiety disorder. Kim Basinger has talked about phobia being something she has lived with her entire life: "the fear of being in public places - which led to anxiety or panic attacks." She says she has been a lifelong victim of agoraphobia.

In her BBC News article, Is being shy an illness?, Anna Buckley wrote, "Most of us are shy to some degree, but acute shyness is one of the most under-recognised mental health problems of the modern age, say some."

Social phobia, she explains, "was first recognised as a mental health condition in 1980 and some professionals believe it's one of the most under-recognised and under-treated mental health problems of the modern age.

"Others are uneasy about such statements, saying shyness is behaviour that falls within the normal part of human experience."

Professor Christopher Lane is featured in a Northwestern University news story which notes that his book "Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness" explores the questions "What's wrong with being shy, and just when and how did bashfulness and other ordinary human behaviors in children and adults become psychiatric disorders treatable with powerful, potentially dangerous drugs?"

The article notes his book "chronicles the 'highly unscientific and often arbitrary way' in which widespread revisions were made to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a publication known as the bible of psychiatry that is consulted daily by insurance companies, courts, prisons and schools as well as by physicians and mental health workers.

"By labeling shyness and other human traits as mental conditions with a biological cause, the doors were opened wide to a pharmaceutical industry ready to provide a pill for every alleged chemical imbalance or biological problem, the author says."

Professor Lane, in his New York Times Op-Ed article "Shy on Drugs," explains further, "Few children relish the start of a new school year. Most yearn for summer to continue and greet the onset of classes with groans or even dread.

"But among those who take the longest to adapt and thrive, psychiatrists say, are children trapped in a pathological condition. They are so acutely shy that they are said to suffer 'social anxiety disorder' — an affliction of children and adolescents that, the clinicians argue, is spreading.

"It may seem baffling, even bizarre, that ordinary shyness could assume the dimension of a mental disease. But if a youngster is reserved, the odds are high that a psychiatrist will diagnose social anxiety disorder and recommend treatment."

Professor Lane asks, "How much credence should we give the diagnosis? Shyness is so common among American children that 42 percent exhibit it. And, according to one major study, the trait increases with age. By the time they reach college, up to 51 percent of men and 43 percent of women describe themselves as shy or introverted. Among graduate students, half of men and 48 percent of women do.

"Psychiatrists say that at least one in eight of these people needs medical attention. But do they? Many parents recognize that shyness varies greatly by situation, and research suggests it can be a benign condition.

He notes that a study sponsored by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council "reported that levels of the stress hormone cortisol are consistently lower in shy children than in their more extroverted peers."

The study author suggests that shyness in children "might not be such a bad thing."

Another aspect is misunderstanding by professionals of personal qualities, including shyness, that may be related to giftedness.

Psychologist James T. Webb, Ph.D. writes that "Some of our most brightest and most creative minds are not only going unrecognized, but they are being given diagnoses that indicate pathology."

Shyness, social anxiety, social phobia, introversion - one of the problems in using these labels about ourselves is they are often too unspecific and relative: shy compared with whom? How anxious, for how long, in what situations?

And just because a sophisticated drug company commercial says a "condition" needs to be treated with prescription medication -- it ain't necessarily so.

Many of us avoid crowds or social contacts that are too anxiety producing for us, and it works. If this kind of anxiety and protective behavior gets to be overly self-limiting, holding us back from expressing our talents and living our lives as fully as we want, there are ways to deal with it, including psychotherapy, strategic changes in activity, self-help programs, and supplements.

But the main thing may be accepting shyness in ourselves and others as just another quality of personality.

Author's Bio: 

Douglas Eby writes about psychological and social aspects of creative expression and personal growth. His site has a wide range of articles, interviews, quotes and other resources to inform and inspire: Talent Development Resources