Have people told you that you’re shy? Growing up, did you hear admonitions such as, “You’re so shy! Don’t be bashful. Why are you so shy?” If so, you’re not alone.
In our extraverted society, being assertive, if not aggressive, is valued. Being introverted, reflective, or shy tends to be denigrated. But is shyness a bad thing or something to value about ourselves?
Shyness or Social Anxiety?
Terms such as “social phobia” and “social anxiety disorder” refer to situations where a person experiences significant fear and distress in social situations. Physical symptoms might include excessive blushing, sweating, or trembling. There may be an avoidance of situations that trigger emotional distress or humiliation.
Although there may be an overlap for some people, being shy doesn’t equate with social anxiety. Shyness is a quality of being that is simply a part of being human. Judging ourselves for being shy adds a layer of shame upon a very tender and even desirable aspect of ourselves.
Shyness and Vulnerability
Most of us feel shy sometimes; some of us are adept at covering it up with a defensive structure. Perhaps the overly talkative, charming storytellers at social gatherings are hiding a deeper vulnerability. They want to look good so that they’ll be liked. It may be difficult for us to feel a connection with people who conceal the shy, tender part of themselves.
Being shy implies that we’re sensitively attuned to our environment. As our antenna senses for safety, we shy away from those who seem critical or judgmental. There may be an intelligence that informs such shyness — steering us away from unsafe people and situations.
When someone offers a compliment or affection, do you notice a surge of shyness? When you meet someone you’re attracted to, do you feel a little shy? Rather than seeing shyness as a weakness, can you embrace it?
From an attachment theory perspective, shyness might be seen as part of our longing for connection and acceptance. Offering gentleness and protection toward our vulnerability, we can honor shyness as a doorway to a sweet moment of connection.
As expressed in my book, The Authentic Heart:
If you experience shyness, consider it a blessing. Shyness is an entrance into a tender fold within your authentic heart … If you can allow yourself to experience shyness when it arises — if you can gently turn your attention toward the place in your body that feels this shyness — then it becomes a friend, not a threat. Embraced shyness transforms into sweetness … As your tolerance for shyness grows, there are greater possibilities for breakthroughs into the exhilarating pleasure of connecting.
The Shadow-Side of Shyness
The shadow side of shyness is that we might distance from people who seem emotionally unsafe before giving them a chance. If we’ve had a steady diet of being shamed or rejected, we might view the world through the distorted lens of old hurts.
At the first hint of being criticized, we might succumb to the knee-jerk reaction of diverting our eyes, shutting down, or fleeing. We may judge others as being unsafe before even interacting with them.
A path forward might be to give people a chance. This would require that we stay gently present with our shyness without reacting automatically. Developing a stronger sense of self, we’re not as negatively affected if we’re criticized or rejected. We recognize that it’s OK to be shy and sensitive and if others are harsh or shaming, this says more about them than us. Rather than allow others to define us, we hold on to our self-worth and dignity. We protect ourselves not by withdrawing, but by meeting what comes our way with a more sturdy sense self.
Social anxiety might keep us clinging to the comfort of staying home, which might keep us painfully isolated. It’s a condition that might improve with psychotherapy. Shyness, on the other hand, is something we can pack with us and stroll out into the world with self-respect and dignity. Honoring ourselves as we are, we’re not so stricken with anxiety or shame if we’re met with unkindness. Embracing our shyness as a sweet and tender part of who we are, we can connect more deeply and easily with people who appreciate us.
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Shy girl photo available from Shutterstock