Friends and romantic partners might make a significant difference in how shy individuals feel about themselves

Shy emerging adults appear to benefit from having a high-quality relationship with a best friend or romantic partner, according to a new study published in the Journal of Relationships Research.

But the research also indicates that not all socially withdrawn individuals benefit from these types of relationships.

“Much of my interest in this topic stemmed from the question of what conditions best help socially withdrawn individuals avoid difficulties that they frequently experience (i.e., increased anxiety, depression, peer problems, lower self-concept),” said study author Brandon N. Clifford of Arizona State University.

“Peer relationships can be beneficial to individuals generally and some work even suggests that peer relationships may be especially helpful to shy children and adolescents. Thus, we wanted to test this notion with socially withdrawn emerging adults.”

The researchers surveyed 519 college students from four universities across the United States regarding their social withdrawal, relationship quality, and self-worth.

Shyness and avoidance were both related to lower self-worth overall. Shy individuals desire to interact with others but experience fear and anxiety in social situations. Avoidant individuals, on the other hand, do not like to be around other people in general.

Clifford and his colleagues found that having high-quality relationships with friends and romantic partners made a significant difference in how shy individuals felt about themselves. But this was not true for avoidant individuals.

“There are a few takeaways from this study. First, the familiar lyric from Bill Withers’ song ‘Lean on Me’ rings true for shy emerging adults. Indeed, these individuals could use a best-friend or romantic partner as somebody to lean on,” Clifford told PsyPost.

“Specifically, when these individuals have a high-quality relationship with either a best-friend or romantic partner, they tend to report higher feelings of self-worth compared to others who report lower quality relationships.”

“Second, this finding does not ring true for avoidant emerging adults. These contrasting findings reinforce the notion that social withdrawal is a multifaceted construct. For example, the term ‘shyness’ need not apply to all individuals who spend time alone while in the presence of others (i.e., social withdrawal),” Clifford said.

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Additional work is needed before we can infer causal relations amongst these constructs. However, now that these findings are present in child, adolescent, and emerging adult samples, the next step is to examine this question longitudinally. This step would help answer the question of how peer relationships impact shy individual’s feelings of self-worth over time,” Clifford said.

The study, “Somebody to Lean On: The Moderating Effect of Relationships on Links Between Social Withdrawal and Self-Worth“, was authored by Brandon N. Clifford and Larry J. Nelson.