Strength for shy people; Psychology: Shyness is not a fault or a disease, a professor says, but it can be understood and controlled.


He understands how it feels.

"I was a shy adolescent and had almost no dates in high school," says Bernardo J. Carducci, now a professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. "I couldn't talk to girls."

These days, Carducci, 47, is talking to all kinds of people, especially to those who find shyness a stumbling block in their daily lives.

He's convinced he can help. As director of the Shyness Research Institute at his university, Carducci has interviewed thousands of shy people over the past 25 years. And he has a new book about it, "Shyness: A Bold New Approach" (Harper Perennial, $15).

Carducci is quick to point out that shyness is not a disease and that many of the world's most successful people have identified themselves as shy. Cases in point: David Letterman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Di, Sting and Barbara Walters.

He's studied every aspect of the topic: shyness on the Internet, shyness in various cultures, the strategies shy people use to deal with their fears. Some folks, he says, carry on a normal life at work, at home and with friends, but have social anxiety -- difficulty making small talk at a cocktail party.

Carducci says about 95 percent of the population reports feeling shy at one time or another.

"There's nothing wrong with being shy," insists Carducci. "What you have to do is be able to control your shyness, rather than having shyness control you."

His goal is to help others become "successfully shy" by understanding the nature and dynamics of their shyness and then making decisions based on what they know.

"For example, shy people need more time to adjust to social situations," he begins. "We call it the slow-to-warm-up tendency.

"A mistake lots of shy people make is to go to a social function late because they think it's easier for them to blend in, or else they show up and give up and leave after 10 minutes if they're not in the mix."

A successfully shy person would go to the party early so he or she can meet people one-on-one before it gets crowded, he says.

Or they might stay at the party for at least a half-hour so there's time to warm up.

"What you do during that time is what I call social reconnaissance," he says. "Rather than stand around and feel self-conscious, you circulate around the room noting information that you can use later when you're ready to start approaching people."

Carducci says shy people incorrectly believe everyone else is watching and judging them.

"In fact, that's totally false," he says. "Most people don't care about you, they care about themselves."

Carducci knows that those who attend his shyness workshops are unlikely to shout out questions from the get-go.

Instead, he'll speak for a while, allowing his audience members time to warm up and get to know him.

Years of conversations with shy folks have convinced him that shy people have a hard time making small talk.

"They don't feel that their opening line is witty enough or brilliant enough, when in fact, all you have to do is be nice."

Carducci often consults with the parents of shy children.

"I tell them never to ask their child to do something they aren't willing to do themselves," he says. "Parents will force their child to play with other children at the park because they want him to be more outgoing.

"But are they willing to go to a social function where they don't know anybody and step forward to initiate conversation?"

He suggests that parents provide dress rehearsals for their child's school work.

"Let's say the class will be discussing the presidency or an upcoming holiday at school," he says. "You can talk about that subject around the dinner table or while you're going on errands. It helps them rehearse -- they've already heard themselves discuss it."

Carducci says shyness boils down to comfort zones.

"You can expand your comfort zone," he insists. "Rather than going to the same place again and again, try to go someplace new.

"If it's your child who is shy, begin by inviting other children to your house, then take them all to the park."

Carducci loves talking to shy people.

"The more I study shyness, the more complex and interesting I find it," he says. "Shy people have a lot to say. People just don't take the time to listen."

Facts about shyness

* Shy children are not destined to be shy adults.

* Shyness does not equal low self-esteem.

* Shyness is not a disease, personality deficit or character flaw.

* Humans aren't the only ones to experience shyness; scientists have been studying shy cats, shy fish and shy dogs.

* Some of the world's most famous, richest, smartest and bravest people are shy.

Tips for parents

Here are some things to keep in mind if your child is shy.

* Be mindful of the slow warm-up period. Don't force shy children into noisy or chaotic environments. Ease them into situations that you believe they may reject, and take it one step at a time. Be patient.

* Set an example. If you back away from social commitments, your child will sense your anxiety. By your actions, show him that others are friendly and can be trusted. Entertain in your home, and maintain friendships with extended family and friends. Involve your child in your errands, socializing and community events.

* Don't overprotect your child. Don't let her feel that she can't do something because she is "shy." Make sure that she has opportunities to interact with other children.

* Communicate with your child. Tell him about your own experiences and let him learn from your mistakes. Explain the benefits of friendship, help him understand his feelings, prepare him for coming events and together choose appropriate activities for his temperament.

* Prepare your child. Give her advance notice if your family routines are about to change. Help her anticipate what to expect. Talk about coming events -- from car pools to birthday parties -- so she won't feel surprised.

* Prepare others. If it takes a few extra minutes for your child to get used to other adults, explain to them that he is sensitive and requires a little more time to warm up. Ask for their patience in gaining his trust.

* Don't label your child or assume she has a serious emotional or developmental problem.

Help children understand how to get over their fears and doubts. Labeling creates self-fulfilling prophecies.

* Love your child for who he is, not who you want him to be. Children don't fail, they only fail to meet their parents' unrealistic expectations. Try to understand your child's experiences from his point of view and talk through his troubles.

* Rather than isolating and protecting children, love and encourage them. Overall, temperamentally inhibited children need to expand their comfort zones by slowly developing trust in themselves, their playmates and the widening world.

From "Shyness: A Bold New Approach" by Bernardo Carducci.

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