by Diane Sussman
Every weekend for nine years, John K. would get on his 750 BMW and ride up and down the California coastline. Some days the solitary biker might watch 1,000 miles of pavement slide by under his wheels. "That was a great, reliable road bike," he said. "Not flashy at all. Just completely reliable and well-made." Just another biker guy rhapsodizing about the joys of road and wind and sea?
The motorcycle, now replaced by a bicycle, was an escape from social interaction, the one guaranteed comfort of a man too shy to have finished college, too shy to speak in public and too shy to talk to a woman. "My life was pretty narrow," he said. "I just worked and came home. That bike was my only outlet."
Similarly, Rick Bright, a supervisor at a TCI warehouse in Sunnyvale, recalls a long period in his life when he might have spoken three words in that many days. "If I went through the checkout line, I wouldn't say anything. If I went to the bank, I wouldn't say anything. If I got on the bus, I wouldn't say anything. Most of my life I only said three things: 'yes,' 'no' and 'I don't know.'"
The 43-year-old built his whole working life around minimizing contact with people. "I only worked graveyard or swing shift or hours when no one was around. Every time I was in line for a promotion to a day job, I would quit and find something else. I would do anything I could to be alone."
Suzanne H., a Menlo Park resident, sits in a cafe wearing a turquoise ring and red sweater. Not a particularly eye-catching red sweater--no beads, sequins or fringe--and not a particularly eye-catching ring, either. Just one small stone set in silver.
Yet the sweater and ring are significant. "This was hard for me," she said, with the same intensity one might expect from someone who had bungee-jumped off a cliff. "I've never worn anything except navy blue and brown. And I always put on lots of layers. I didn't want anyone to notice me. I just wanted to make myself invisible."
All three of these people are on the triumphant side of a six-month treatment program at the Shyness Clinic in Portola Valley. The clinic, founded first at Stanford University by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, is one of the nation's top centers for the treatment of shyness. The Portola Valley center also houses the Shyness Institute, the research branch of the program.
It's hard to say which Zimbardo is better known for: his research on shyness and his subsequent book "Shyness: What It Is and What to Do About It," or his landmark prison simulation experiments conducted with Stanford students in 1971. Zimbardo, whom clinic director Lynne Henderson describes as "not at all shy," brought shyness into public view in 1975 when he published the results of an extensive study on the disorder in Psychology Today.
The study was conducted on 800 people over a 10-year period. But rather than finding that Americans are gregarious glad-handers whose favorite two words are "let's party," Zimbardo found that a whopping 40 percent of respondents considered themselves shy.
The Psychology Today article, titled "The Social Disease Called Shyness," articulated shyness in a way it hadn't been addressed before. Besides offering a head count, it described the agitated, destructive states of mind experienced by shy people.
A shock wave of recognition followed the article's publication. Suddenly, shyness, like agoraphobia and erotomania, became a distinct field of psychological study.
The timing, it appears, couldn't have been more propitious.
According to the latest study on the subject, conducted by Indiana University Southeast psychologist Bernardo Carducci and published last year, Americans are even shier now than before. Forty-eight percent of Americans now count themselves among the shy, the study found--an 8 percent rise in the past 20 years.
Even those who don't classify themselves as shy admit feeling shy on occasion. Indeed, the phenomenon is so pervasive only 5 percent of those who responded to the study claim never to have experienced shyness at all. "It is," says clinic therapist Marsha Hardaway-Burke, "a basic human experience."
Blame computers, blame voice mail, blame ATMs, blame the blue channel, blame mail-order shopping, blame fax machines, blame answering machines, blame phone sex--blame any and all of these things for the rising incidence of shyness in America.
"It's no wonder shyness is increasing," says clinic psychologist Christopher Harkness. "You can live your whole life without seeing or touching anyone. Your biggest interaction might be with the cathode ray tube."
That is particularly true here in Silicon Valley, adds clinic director Henderson, "where computers are king and people are heroes if they work all the time.
"We have people who come in after 20 years of going to work and the gym and home who come in and say, 'I need a life,'" she added.
To really understand the rising incidence of shyness, she suggests looking at larger social phenomena than computers and ATMs: to the decline of cities; placing individual desires above communal obligations; economic insecurity; extreme emphasis on the physical; and changing expectations in the roles of men and women. "You have people moving to the suburbs; you have the growth of industrial space and the decline of communal space; you have families living far away from each other. You have all the ingredients for social isolation."
"The world is not a nice place for a shy person," agrees Suzanne. "I think people are not as polite. If someone grumps at you, you take it personally. There's more violence. It's more threatening. It's feels safer to retreat."
In thinking about shyness, the question inevitably arises: So what if a few people prefer the company of horses, motorcycles or their TV sets to that of other people? What harm does it do?
"The problem," explains clinic therapist Marsha Hardaway-Burke, employing a tautology that makes sense, "is only a problem when it becomes a problem."
And the problems, when they become problems, are considerable. The classic symptoms of shyness include extreme self-consciousness, social and emotional withdrawal, loneliness and overwhelming feelings of worthlessness.
Furthermore, shyness generally doesn't travel alone: the disorder is often accompanied by other psychological disorders such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and substance abuse. "It's very tempting to reach for an anesthetic," confirms Harkness.
Since he was 17, that's exactly what Bright did. For nearly 30 years, he drained three or four beers a day then punctuated the habit with the occasional binge. "Drinking lowered my inhibitions. It helped me to talk to people. It made things easier, but it wasn't enough. You can stop the drinking, but the shyness will still be there."
By far the most dangerous side effect is depression, which can leave shy people feeling hopeless and suicidal. "Depression can have pretty serious consequences," said John. "I was at a point where I didn't think I was ever going to feel better."
Nationwide, an estimated 17 million adult Americans suffer from depressive illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression costs the nation $30 billion to $44 billion per year in disease expenses, absenteeism from work and lost opportunity.
But the billions of dollars hardly account for the psychological costs measured in lost time and opportunity. "It certainly narrows your life," said Suzanne. "I always wanted to have my life a little fuller. I'm 50 years old and the thing I do best is solitude."
"I could have been an engineer," laments John, the motorcyclist. "That's something I would love to do. But I couldn't finish college. I tried twice. I even tried technical college. But I couldn't face being around other people."
John has been shy since childhood. "I have a depressed sternum," he said. "I always felt deformed. I have always had a negative body image." Now 47, he has never had a girlfriend or a date. "I can't bring myself to talk to a woman," he said.
His feelings were reinforced by experience--one experience. "I asked a woman out once and she stood me up," he recalled. "It completely set me back. I couldn't even bring myself to try after that."
At 50, Suzanne considers herself past dating. "At my age, I don't think about that anymore," she said. "That's for the other people." But she would have liked to have had a few carefree moments. "I always wanted to be someone else," she said. "I always wanted to be that person who could flirt."
No one at the clinic claims to be able to turn a woman like Suzanne into a flirt. "We teach them to challenge their thinking," said Henderson. "We teach them to talk back to their self-talk."
Their "self-talk" is more like a nagging monologue. "Whenever I talked to anyone, what would be going through my mind was that I was completely, socially inept," said Bright.
"If I was in a conversation, what would be going through my head is that I'm dumb, that I sound stupid, that I have nothing to say," said Suzanne. "I'd spend whole nights lying awake thinking about what I did say, or what I should have said, or what some other clever person would have said."
Not that an outsider could tell. In the majority of cases, shyness is imperceptible. According to University of Pittsburgh psychologist Paul Pilkonis, only 15 to 20 percent of shy people exhibit stereotypical behaviors such as speaking into their hands, staring at their shoes and avoiding eye contact. For the remaining 80 to 85 percent, shyness is a intensely private experience.
"These are the people on the periphery of social situations," said Hardaway-Burke, who has struggled with shyness herself. "They seem OK on the surface, but the whole time they are interacting their minds are in turmoil."
It is this inner turmoil that clinic therapists target in treatment.
The clinic uses a "social fitness," not a disease model, said Henderson. "We don't label this an illness. We don't tell people we can 'cure' them. We are working toward fitness and the 'workout' is getting people into social situations."
The customary course of treatment is six months of group therapy. Therapy costs $60 per week and consists of a sequence of tests, role playing and "homework" assignments. Homework assignments are tailored to conquering the person's worst fear. For John, that meant talking to a woman. "It could just be saying 'hi,'" he said. "Or it could be something having to do with work."
For Suzanne, it meant talking to a man "one on one" and agreeing to disagree with someone. "I never felt I could express my opinion or disagree with anyone, but I did it. I told a woman I thought we should do something a certain way. And I told the therapists at the clinic that I was sick of taking all these tests."
As the group shows, there are gradations of shyness. Harkness remembers a man who shielded his eyes while talking. "He was the shiest person I've seen," said Harkness. In the hierarchy of the shy, Suzanne was considered "not all that shy" while John was definitely shy. "Even shy people tell me, 'Wow, you're really shy,'" he said.
As expected, gains are modest--measured in words and colors and minutes outside of the house. "One of the first things Lynne said to me was, 'I don't think other people will see changes in you, but you will feel better,'" recalls Suzanne. "The inner dialogue can come on, but I can resist it."
She may even, she says, go Rollerblading in a group.
Ah, but will she wear pink satin shorts and lime green knee guards?
"Not on your life," she vows.
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