A year of connection would not be complete without a post on shyness. In my writing group, this week’s prompt was to start with the words “How to” Here it is:
Merriam Webster defines shy as: “1. Being easily frightened, timid. 2. Disposed to avoid a person or thing. 3. Hesitant in committing oneself. 4. Sensitively diffident or retiring. 5. Secluded, hidden. 6. Having less than the full or specified number”. Synonyms include bashful, coy, demure, diffident, introverted, modest, retiring, inhibited, and reserved. Antonyms include adventurous, bold, daring, brash, gutsy, confident, and self-assured.
While true at face value, these black and white definitions fail to capture the broad spectrum, the nuances, or dare I say the gifts of shyness. “Shy” is described as a fixed construct, a state of being. As a person who can well identify with the experience of shyness, I too have succumbed to the social narrative of shyness as a static, limiting character flaw. A painful affliction stemming from innate temperament, a product of early childhood experiences, or some combination of both. Something to be “gotten over” and “grown out of” to fully experience life.
Not true. I believe that viewing shyness as a deficit to be overcome is the wrong approach. I want to shift the dialogue from shyness as a state of being to talking about shyness as a physiologic response. A valid set of visceral sensations and emotions that arise to protect and preserve when a social experience feels unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and/or potentially unsafe. Pushing down shyness and soldiering through inhibits the full action-taking of the response. Taking the time to experience and reflect on what is actually happening when we feel shy can yield powerful insights and a deeper capacity for empathy.
I propose that rather than pondering the question “why am I shy?”, we ask ourselves:
- When do I feel shy?
- What happens in my mind and body when this feeling of shyness appears?
- What parts of my psyche feel shy?
- What parts feel something different than shy? Bold, expressive, brave, neutral….?
- What is this feeling of shyness trying to tell me about what I need in this situation?
- How does this feeling of shyness shift when I give words to it?
The easiest way to illustrate these is a personal example. I tend to feel shy at loud, crowded social events where relative strangers stand around in random groupings and make small talk. Especially when I feel the pressure of a social or work role to “network” with said strangers. (I have not missed those occasions through Covid)
When shyness appears, several things happen in my body and mind. I take longer to make basic decisions such as what to wear and how to get to where I am going. I procrastinate. I experience muscular tension in body locations such as my jaw and upper chest. My hands feel restless, my mouth dry. My senses seem heightened, and the room feels louder and hotter than it is. Usually, these feelings subside once I get acclimatized to the space and feel some sense of genuine connection with, and coherence amongst the group. Occasionally, in situations where there is little such affiliation and a high degree of tension and competitiveness in the room, my nervous system can become quite overloaded. I get through the event in a kind of survival mode, a state of overwhelm that takes a great deal of energy and leaves me exhausted afterwards.
There are parts of me that tend to feel shy in new social situations, and other parts that do not. I have a strong adaptive part that gets confused when there are too many new people to relate to all at once. A perfectionist part that would rather come across as reserved than socially inept. A self-critical part that tells me to just get over it. An avoidant part that dithers and procrastinates while a rebellious part plans a dramatic protest. A deeply hidden vulnerable part that fears social judgment and outcast. A catastrophic part that assumes the butterflies of shyness will escalate into a complete meltdown unless the situation is carefully managed. With all these competing interests and desires, no wonder my nervous system feels overloaded in certain situations. Fortunately, not all my parts are held in the grip of shyness. There is a social part that quite enjoys meeting new people, a curious part that wants to learn and grow, a self-expressive part that shows up to see and be seen, and an enterprising part that embraces the opportunity to explore new possibilities.
So, what are these aspects of shyness trying to tell me about what I need in these situations? How do I work with all the moving parts? The first step is to connect with them, hear what they have to say. I discover that they all exist for a reason, the survivalist parts protecting the more vulnerable ones like a set of nested dolls. The adaptive part asserts that harmony is important. It needs to get the lay of the emotional landscape before speaking up in a new social setting. The perfectionist part needs time to warm up, to shake off the fear of making a dreaded social faux pas. The self- critical part needs to feel accepted. The avoidant part needs to commit to a plan of action. The rebellious part needs to be heard and have a plan B. The vulnerable part needs witnessing. The catastrophic part requires proof that moments of shyness are not symptomatic of some deeper pathology. The hands want to move freely and express themselves. The muscles that are braced want to laugh off the tension and receive the oxygen that comes with a deep, unrestricted breath.
When I give words to the parts that make up my felt experience of shyness, something shifts. Tears of compassion well up. How harshly I have judged myself over a lifetime for simply feeling shy at times. My jaw softens into a small smile. I reflect on beautifully “shy” versions of myself and others whose moments of shyness are part of their charm. My restless hands come together in stillness and solidarity. I breathe in the realization that feeling shy is rarely about not wanting to connect with people or try new things. It is about longing for authentic connection with self and others. Getting past the superficial small talk.
A flash of anger towards well-meaning people who have pushed me to overcome shyness morphs into feeling empowered. Why not rock shyness instead? Embrace and accept its gentle gifts.
I feel lighter, kinder…Bolder.