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Mistaken for Shyness

Uploaded 8/10/2021, approx. 6 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited, and a professor of psychology. Didn't you miss this introduction? Be honest. Of course you did. Missing something is actually an emotion.

But emotions are composites, and we often confuse emotions with moods, states of mind, cognitions. We often mislabel emotions.

When I say that emotions are composites, it means that you can break them down to more basic emotions, or to emotions plus cognitions, or to other emotions plus states of mind.

Consider, for example, anger. When you are angry, if you dismantle, deconstruct your anger, you are likely to discover that you are angry because you feel helpless, you feel anxious, you are in panic, you feel afraid of something. These are the constituents of anger. When you put all of them together, you call it anger, but actually it's a kaleidoscope. It's a collage of other, more rudimentary, elementary particles of emotion.

Emotional, emotional, elementary particles.

Consider, for example, shyness. Many processes, trades, and behaviors are mistaken for shyness. Paranoid ideation. People who are paranoid about the world, conspiracy-minded, or they are convinced that they are the butt and the target of malevolent attention. People with paranoid behaviors. People with referential ideation.

They believe – or ideas of reference – they believe that other people are mocking them, gossiping about them, targeting them, talking about them behind their backs, etc. These kind of people are reticent. They are introverted. They are schizoid. They are avoidant. And they may appear to be shy, but actually they are paranoid.

Consider, for example, anticipatory anxiety. The anxiety attendant upon catastrophizing. When you catastrophize, when you expect and predict the worst possible scenario, you develop anxiety. And this anxiety leads you to avoid the world, to shut yourself down and out and away, to isolate yourself, to become a hermit.

If an observer were to look at you, if an observer were to monitor your behaviors and so on and so forth when you have anticipatory anxiety, this observer might be misled into the conclusion that you are actually shy when you are not.

Shyness is often mistaken, as I said.

Disregulated emotions, depression, body dysmorphia, strong inhibitions, passive aggression, fear of intimacy – they are all very often confounded and confused and conflated with shyness.

When you have dysregulated emotions, your moods are labile. They go up and down. Your emotions overwhelm you. You drown in them. You are skinless. You are defenseless against the harsh intrusions of the outside world and of other people. Your environment weighs heavily on you.

And so you would tend to minimize action. You would tend to withdraw and avoid.

This process is called constriction. You would tend to constrict your life. And this is very frequently mistaken for sociophobia or social anxiety, aka shyness.

Depression is the same effect exactly. Body dysmorphia – if you are uncomfortable in your own skin, if you think you are too fat or too ugly or too repulsive or too something, body dysmorphia – when you misperceive your body and consider it unattractive or even repellent – can lead to behaviors which are easily mistaken for shyness.

If you have strong inhibitions, if your process of socialization and acculturation led you to inhibiting your behavior – in other words, if you do not display the full panoply and range and spectrum of behaviors, but many, many behaviors are out of bounds and proscribed – so strong inhibitions are often perceived as shyness.

If you are passive aggressive, for example, if you are a covert narcissist, you would tend to act under the radar in a subterranean kind of way. You will engage in subterfuge. You will be surreptitious. You will act in ways which are invisible, hidden, occult.

Passive aggression, the sabotage of other people, their goals, their moods, their emotions, their cognitions, the undermining of social mores, conventions and compacts, the attack on institutions in ways which are imperceptible and invisible. Passive aggression generally includes defiance, to some extent recklessness and so on. Passive aggression is often perceived as shyness.

And of course, fear of intimacy. Fear of intimacy, commitment, phobia, all these behaviors, insecure attachment styles are easily conflated with shyness.

One particular case is hypermazochistic psychosexuality. Hypermazochistic psychosexuality is when your sexuality includes strong elements of exhibitionism and strong elements of arousal by degradation, by sexual degradation. You would tend to place yourself in situations which are socially condemned, situation where you would be objectified, where you would be mistreated, where you would be by others, where you would be sexually trashed. And you would do this in full view of multiple people or in full view of the camera.

So exhibitionism, when it's coupled with arousal by sexual degradation and despoiling, that's hypermazochistic psychosexuality.

Substance abuse is often involved in hypermazochistic psychosexuality as a form of self-trashing in itself and as a disinhibiting agency.

In other words, hypermazochistic psychosexual people, they drink. They drink in order to trash themselves, to get wasted, to lose control. And also they drink in order to disinhibit themselves, to allow themselves to act in ways which they would never act when they are sober.


But looking at it from the outside, hypermazochistic, sexually hypermazochistic people are easily perceived as actually shy, reticent, reluctant, afraid, anxious, depressed. They would tend to approach their own sexuality via the agency of alcohol or drugs, so as to disinhibit themselves, so as to remove these barriers of shyness, these barriers of social anxiety and social phobia.

But the real psychodynamic is that of hypermazochistic psychosexuality, not of shyness. Shyness is a kind of artifact.

Actually, psychopaths can be shy. Psychopaths can be shy. Covert narcissists can be avoidant and self-effacing. They often are false modesty, fake modesty. Both psychopaths and covert narcissists, both pathologies, sometimes present with vulnerabilities, fragility, brittleness, and with a schizoid core.

The etiology of shyness in psychopathy and in covert narcissism has to do, as usual, with early childhood. Some children are rejected and ridiculed by parents, teachers, role models, and especially by peers. For example, children on the autism spectrum, children who suffer from social anxiety and phobia, children who have anxiety disorders, and children who have depressive illnesses, children who are gifted or exceptional in some way, children who are deemed freaks and nerds by the environment, by the human environment. These children are likely to develop narcissistic and psychopathic defenses, traits, behaviors.

Some of them devolve into conduct and oppositional Defiant Disorder. They become reckless, they become defiant, they become aggressive, they become impulsive.

All these children, having been rejected by the human environment, develop a worldview. It's called the theory of mind or an internal working model. It's a worldview which incorporates a hostile, dangerous world.

And so, the psychopathic and narcissistic defenses are perceived as survival strategies by these children. They grow up to become full fledged adult narcissists and psychopaths, but on the surface, they appear to be shy, inordinately shy.

So, you see, anger, shyness, many of these composites emotions, easily mislabeled, easily conflated with other things, other psychodynamics, other internal processes, and consequently, easily misdiagnosed or misinterpreted by observers, however disinterested and even trained they may be.

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