How To Overcome Shyness

Photo: kaibara87

When I was a teenager, I was afflicted with terrible shyness.  Not in every context or with all people—mostly just with girls.  Not unlike millions of other adolescent males, when in the presence of a girl I found attractive, I would become tongue tied, awkward, and lose all self-confidence.

As I grew older, this reaction gradually diminished, until (luckily) by the time I’d met my wife, it had largely vanished.  I’d always explained this to myself as a simple function of maturation, but recently I realized that while growing older does indeed often result in increased self-confidence (we experience more, handle it, and realize we handled it), age wasn’t, in fact, responsible at all.

We are, all of us, fundamentally social creatures, able to function optimally, research and experience prove, when engaged to some degree in a community.  Our community may be small, but having one seems to be what matters.  (All we need do is observe what happens to inmates in solitary confinement for any extended period of time to recognize just how detrimental social isolation is to human beings.)

And yet at some level, interacting with other people makes most, if not all of us uncomfortable.  Even the most gregarious and self-confident people remain aware of and influenced by the opinions of others—and specifically the opinions others have about them.  Even if we tell ourselves such opinions don’t matter to us, if everyone in our community turned suddenly against us at once, even the most hardy of us would have a difficult time remaining unaffected.

When in the company of other people, our minds automatically construct a map of the minds that surround us.  That is, we’re constantly imagining and theorizing what other people are thinking—and making judgments about and having reactions to those imaginings.  If we think someone in the room finds us attractive, we judge them to have good taste and feel a buzz of pleasure (or perhaps, if we suffer from low self-esteem, we judge them to have bad taste and feel an increased sense of self-disgust).  If we think someone in the room finds us overdressed for the occasion, we’ll feel embarrassed.

Shyness, in one sense then, represents a reluctance to engage with others for fear of being embarrassed.  This explains why we can feel shy in one context and not another.  In a room full of family members with whom we’re intimately familiar, it’s harder (though, we should note, not impossible) to feel shy, not because we know them but because they know us:  they’ve already witnessed our typical behavior a hundred or a thousand times over, and we already know their reaction to it.  So typically we’re not afraid to display that behavior, to express our opinions and say the things we want to say, because the risk of embarrassment in such company is low.

In a room full of strangers, however, no such track record exists.  How, we wonder, will we be received?  We don’t know.  How willing are we to risk embarrassment?  That’s what determines how shy we feel.

I’d argue the fundamental cause of shyness, therefore, rests on where we place our attention.  If it’s on the reactions we might produce in others and how they might therefore view us, we risk over-analyzing every thought, word, and deed and may find ourselves, as the terminally shy often do, paralyzed by a painful self-awareness.  If, on the other hand, we place our attention on everyone else, willfully ignoring our concerns about how they may react to us, we might find some room to breathe as ourselves.

How, then, can we shift our focus in this way when in some cases it seems veritably padlocked to our self-image?  Though not by any conscious design, I found my attention gradually being pulled away from myself and toward others as I developed not only a genuine interest in other people (the more interested in a subject we become the more our sense of self seems to vanish), but a genuine interest in their concerns.  In other words, the more compassion I found myself feeling for other people, the less I become concerned about how they saw me—not because I no longer cared how they saw me, but rather because I was paying less attention to it.  It’s actually quite hard, I discovered, when facing even an entire room of strangers about whom you actually feel concerned or even interested, to simultaneously feel concerned about what they think about you.

Compassion, then, may represent the ultimate cure for shyness.  It may seem odd to imagine upon entering a room full of strangers whom we not only don’t know but have no reason to guess are even suffering, that they’re in need not only of compassion in general but of ours specifically (being, as we are, a stranger to them).  But to this I’d respond:  who isn’t struggling with something?  It may not be an enormous or cataclysmic something, but everyone hides, to some degree, a secret inner life in which they struggle on a daily basis (as I wrote about in a previous post, Your Neighbor Is An Alcoholic).

But you don’t need to know what everyone struggles with to come at them assuming they need your compassion.  If compassion—the caring about another’s happiness as if it were your own—becomes the predominant emotion you feel in approaching strangers (or, at the very least, interest in them does), I’d like to suggest shyness will become for you a thing of the past, or at least far less of a problem in the future.  The trick to treating shyness, in other words, isn’t in developing greater self-confidence.  It’s in developing a greater love for your fellow human beings.

Next WeekWhy Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good

11 comments to How To Overcome Shyness

  • Anthony

    Hi Alex—very helpful article. One of my favorite quotes relates to this piece. “At 18 years old, I was worried what everyone thought of me. At 40 years old, I stopped caring what everyone thought of me. At 70 years old, I realized that no one was thinking about me to begin with.” Anxiety is certainly very normal especially in social settings. Looks like you did a good job of handling it!!

  • ramoes gaston

    True indeed a passion for the livelihood of others manifests itself for the total impact of complete happiness. As a race, family associates and friends become a universal outlet for open dialogue. And communication to build an understanding to properly assist those in need to share care and concern. In the end the openness lets the inner being shy from expressing to others. So we can all benefit from the common goodness we sometime forget we possess inside.

  • Mary Dylan

    If you are brought up with the two fundamental anxieties noted by the novelist Mary Gordon that second generation Irish Catholic parents raise their kids with, “What will people think?” and “Who do you think you are?” you can spend a long time overcoming that. In high school, I was thought a snob, but by the time I was twenty-two, I had started working on that. I forced myself, at my first faculty Christmas party, to walk around the room introducing myself as the new Kindergarten teacher. I never forgot the positive reaction people had. At 55, I am almost over those feelings that people are being as critical of you as you imagined when you are younger.

  • Chris

    Elegantly written, especially the first 3/4 of the piece, where you “define” shyness.

    But the last part, where you ask how to shift one’s focus . . .

    Your own focus shifted, you say, unconsciously. You let yourself be pulled, you say, into an interest in others and others’ concerns. This is no roadmap. You ALLOWED yourself—and this implies that you were passive or that it happened in spite of yourself (in spite of your shyness). This is like saying “Oh, give it time.” Or, as when we were children, “You’ll understand when you are older.”

    And actually, I agree that self-consciousness recedes with time. But that is cold comfort to those younger.

    I see at my do jang that shy teens seem to get out of themselves when they are coaching younger children. The teens have more expertise (in Tae Kwon Do) and they are willing and eager to share their expertise. It seems as if they remember when they were beginners and reach out to other beginners . . .

    I also sense more and more narcissism in the air, as if it was a cultural norm becoming stronger and stronger, or a “sign of the times.” Is narcissism a cover for shyness? Ever? If you put on a $6000 gown and get an award on national television, is this recognition and prestige an antidote for shyness in some back-handed way?

    Last, there is some research that shyness is a genetic trait. Will developing compassion work as well for the genetically shy?

    Chris: In my case, overcoming shyness occurred as a side benefit of actively seeking to increase my feelings of concern and compassion for others. Because I’ve had to fight so hard to do that, becoming less shy didn’t feel passive at all. And though shyness may be influenced by heredity, that doesn’t mean at all that we have no ability to determine how or when that shyness will manifest. Happiness also has been shown to have a genetic influence, but that also doesn’t mean we have no ability to increase how much of it we feel.

    Alex

  • juli

    I was very shy as a kid and I still retain that shyness today in my fifties, although not quite as much. My mother would admonish me constantly to look people in the eye and talk to them and while I wasn’t afraid of what they thought of me, I just didn’t see the point of interacting with them. I think she made it quite difficult for me to overcome the shyness.

    But a marketing instructor gave me an assignment one day to bring back 10 business cards from a couple of functions I was attending as a professional. I exclaimed that I could not do that, but she insisted I could and asked me a question that intrigued me so much that I actually did it and still think of her questions today. She asked me “What do you think people are going to do when you stick out your hand and introduce yourself? Are they going to say, ‘Ick, I’m not going to talk to YOU?'”

    It was so absurd, I actually realized that no one was concerned about ME and over the years I was able to overcome my shyness in groups of strangers by doing exactly what you wrote. I thought about them instead of me and my fears.

    I sometimes still don’t see the point, however. That may be something different than shyness…Thank you, Alex, I always enjoy your posts.

  • “…the caring about another’s happiness as if it were your own” could also be said about love, no? Which makes sense because compassion is a huge part of being able to love someone fully.

    Allen: Yes. If you’re interested in my take on love and how it relates to compassion, check out When The Love Of Your Life Doesn’t Love You.

    Alex

  • Reading this, I realized that focusing on other people’s interests was exactly what I did when I was young and very shy. I didn’t do it as a conscious strategy though: in my shyness, I would just start asking the other person questions about his or her life because I didn’t want to talk about myself. You’ve made me realize that this taking the focus of myself was what led me to overcome my shyness, so I love your suggestion that, if people are shy, they turn this into a conscious strategy.

  • Emily

    I suffered from crippling shyness for years. I didn’t really overcome it until I got older, got a car, and had more independence. Strangely enough my shyness was greatly exacerbated by the presence of my parents. I have always been much more concerned with their judgements of me than the opinions of strangers. To this day I don’t really act “‘myself” around them!

  • Lynn

    Wonderful article—thank you!

  • Indeed. I have always said nothing better for a cure of confidence than a bunch of little successes until a critical mass is reached.

  • Charlene

    Shyness has been a paralyzer for me most of my life.

    I have read quite a bit of Eckhart Tolle’s work and he ascribes shyness to ego. To paraphrase Tolle, acknowledging ego when it is in control and remaining present without judgment each time it flares up will over time diminish ego (and I’m assuming as a by product will diminish shyness as well).

    If you are familiar with his work, can you juxtapose his concept of diminished ego to yours of compassion as a cure for shyness?

    Charlene: My understanding of Tolle’s version of the ego is as our sense of self, our attachment to ourselves and things related to us. So focusing compassionately on others, making them the object of your attention, automatically draws your attention away from your “self” and therefore frees you, to some degree, from being overly self-conscious, i.e., shy.

    Alex

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