The Bold & the Bashful

                     “Shy Guy”
            by Kennedy Musekiwa

Two separate discussions this week got me to thinking about the nature of shyness. Shyness is a fuzzy concept. Is it a psychological disorder like a phobia? Is it physiological? Is it just an excuse not to do stuff?

Apparently, about 50% of our population is shy in one way or another.

The word “shyness” is often associated with words like, “painful, “debilitating,” “crippling,” or “paralyzing”.  Yet, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, shyness is not a mental disorder, but rather, a behavior pattern characterized by inhibition in some situations.

That seems like a bit of a tame definition when I think of some of the people I’ve known who really are crippled, paralyzed and in pain over their shyness. People in their 20s and 30s for instance, who’ve never had a real relationship. Who long for intimacy, but are held back by their own excruciating shyness. 

I try hard to understand when people say they’re too shy to do something, but it’s such a foreign idea to me. How can you hold yourself back from doing something you really want to do or really need to do because of some undefined timidity?

  • Speaking to strangers
  • Public speaking
  • Giving presentations
  • Chairing meetings
  • Performing on stage
  • Doing live radio interviews
  • Being on TV
  • Being interviewed for jobs
  • Conducting interviews
  • Being in large groups of people
  • Being naked or partially naked in front of people you don’t know well (doctor, beach, 1st time with a new partner)
  • Asserting yourself in restaurants or shops or other public places (e.g.: sending a meal back, returning an item, asking for help)
  • Dating
  • Talking to authority figures

It’s difficult to imagine going through life trying to avoid most of these things. I’ve done them all and will probably do them again – some because I need to and some just because they’re fun. Sure, there is often nervousness associated with these things, but that’s sometimes part of the challenge or excitement of going through with it.

I don’t consider myself an extrovert.  I don’t go out looking for confrontation or voraciously seek the limelight and I don’t dance naked with lampshades on my head at parties, but I can’t think of anything that any notion of shyness would prevent me doing.

If you’ve ever not done something because of shyness, it would be interesting to hear how the whole shyness process prevents a person from fulfilling a desire or task. On the other side of the coin, it would also be interesting to hear about really bold things you’ve done despite anxiety.

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28 responses to “The Bold & the Bashful

  1. I think shyness starts out as genetic:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shyness#Genetics_and_heredity

    There are those kids that hide behind their mom’s leg, and those that go right up to strangers and say “can we be friends”. I can see benefits evolutionarily to both strategies.

    I think you’re talking about anxiety, which can be debilitating for some people, as the pharmaceutical companies like to point out. But most people can overcome it on their own, when necessary to get a job, ask someone out on a date, post a blog comment, etc.

  2. I’m very shy, though as I get older I’m able to get over it more easily.

    I spent my teenage years as the resident dork and hid behind books all the time.

    Even today, my worst case scenario is arriving at a party where I don’t know at least 50% of the people.

  3. I was so shy as a kid. Like Jazz, I hid behind books. It felt safe to me. I hated to put my hand up in class, I hated to talk to adults unless I had known them for a while. I worked in a grocery store through high school and it was so hard for me to talk to people. It took me a while to look strangers in the eyes and hold a conversation.

    Fortunately, that started to change in college. But it still rears its ugly head on occasion. I joke that my husband can hold a scintillating conversation with a phone book because he can talk to anyone about anything. And the nice thing about him is that it doesn’t come off as insincere. I just don’t have that gene. I can’t walk into a room full of people I don’t know and walk up and start a conversation.

    I’ve realized, at least in my situation, some of it comes from a lack of confidence. But I’ve found that when I’m forced to put myself out there, it gets better every time. But it’s work.

  4. Dave – You may have something there, although my mother is the only shy one in our family for as far back, sideways and forwards as I can see. Maybe a recessive gene of some sort.

    Jazz – Does this mean you won’t be meeting us for breakfast either when we come to Montreal? (see your email)

    Mo – I, too, would rather sit with a book that gladhand at a raucous party, but I have no problem doing it. Interesting how a lot of shy people end up with a very outgoing partner.

  5. I’m shy a bit, less so as I age though. I stuttered throughout my life, started when I was about 6 or 7 and there are times when I won’t say anything because I know it won’t come out right. Now of course, sometimes it won’t stop me from volunteering to do stuff, or get involved or as has been for the last 4 yrs, president of the condo corporation which means I have to chair our AGM. What I have found is that by forcing myself to do it, knowing I can do it and to hell if they can’t understand a word I say (when I’m nervous my accent gets more pronounced).

    I’m such a contradiction… my parents never really encouraged us to do anything so my social skills didn’t really get developed until about 20 yrs ago. I don’t appear shy because I force myself to approach people and I truly enjoy getting to know others. I think it’s really neat when you can go home and know a new person. But it may take me a while to approach. Of course, if I know rejection would be hard to take, I don’t approach.

    I understand how someone can feel crippled because they, no matter how hard they want it, can’t do it. I’ve been there. It know it’s hard to comprehend for someone who is not like that. It takes a long time to get over it, trust me.

  6. Bloggers are notoriously shy! I think this is a big part of the reason CBC Radio was having a hard time getting bloggers to join them for a live radio interview this morning. As you know, I declined the interview largely because public speaking rattles me right down to my bones – and not just for the duration of the event either, but for days ahead of time.

    As for bold things I’ve done despite my shyness? Oddly enough, it was a live radio interview on CBC Radio. It was about a letter to the editor I wrote about poverty. The CBC interview led to a job. (And I still have the job, years later, partly because my fear of public speaking makes me dread the idea of job interviews.)

  7. But job interview are all about being judged, so it’s amplified. Besides a lot of places – including where I work – now conduct group interviews. Practically the whole organization crams into a little room and peppers the poor applicant with tough questions. It’s brutal.

  8. Umm, hi, umm, I uhhh…. ::turns and stumbles out the door::

    I was painfully shy all through childhood, high school, and college, although I still participated in things like school plays, dance teams, academic clubs (was even president of our spanish club and captain of my college dance team…the spanish club tanked under my leadership and i wasn’t re-elected captain of the dance squad the next year…i didn’t do a whole lot of talking in either of those positions).

    I’m even shy around my own family if it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. My oldest brother, P, is the same way. But, our parents are talking machines. So, I don’t know what happened to P and me.

    I broke out of my shell in graduate school and was much more social. The Myers-Briggs personality doohicky placed me as an ENFP then. E=extrovert. I think it helped that was I running with people of my own kind and very comfortable in my own skin and my ‘single’ life.

    Now, I feel myself slipping back in that shy turtle shell. But, I’m recognizing it and making mental notes of ways to pull myself out of the rut.

    Damn, are you charging for this therapy session?

  9. Hi, my name is the Urban Panther, and I grew up painfully shy. And yes, it stopped me from doing a lot.
    * I would not dial 411 to get a phone number
    * I would not phone the theatre to find out about movie times
    * I would not ask a salesclerk to find my size for me
    * I would never question a professional (doctor, lawyer, accountant)
    * I would not participate in team sports
    * I would not participate in chidren’s party games

    You get the idea. And why wouldn’t I do any of those things? An extreme fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in public and making a fool of myself. It took my entire adult life to force myself to do things, and I still feel sick to my stomach having to anything outside of the known. Last year it took me 3 weeks to psyche myself up to phone a garage to have my oil changed. However, I refuse to live defined by fears anymore. And once I do jump in, I find it wasn’t so bad after all, and I often end up having one heck of a lot of fun.

  10. Hi, my name is the Urbane Lion. I live with the Urban Panther.
    I happen to be of a fairly outgoing character. I do a lot of public speaking in my line of work. I am not any more nervous in front of 500 people than I am in front of 5 but, I am incredibly shy with women! When I was single it would take up all my courage to strike up a conversation with a woman I found interesting. Luckily for me those days are over! 😉

  11. UA – Wow – congratulations! You’ve come a long, long way. I can see that shyness is extremely difficult to overcome and I applaud you for freeing yourself from it to such an extent.

    Zoom – So you’re saying being shy doesn’t pay? I think you must be right about bloggers being shy judging from the responses so far — and yet here they all are interacting with total strangers in relative ease, discussing all sorts of personal things. Maybe they’re introverted extroverts and I’m and extroverted introvert. Is that possible?

    OTC – Well, that must be unpleasant – putting yourself out there to help overcome your shyness and then not being terribly successful. But you know now anyway that you are quite capable of being comfortabley social — maybe you ought to try re-creating as many of the elements of grad school as possible in your life to help find your way back to the light. (for you it’s all free, baby)

    UP – Jeepers – that certainly doesn’t come across in your blog life. My mum’s the same way. Back in the Eaton’s Catalogue days she used to make me call and do the ordering because she just couldn’t bring herself to — and I was only like 8 or something. In those days I don’t think she would have even called 911 to save our lives, nevermind 411 for a phone number.

    UL -Well, now you’re both happy — she has you to make phone calls and yell at salesclerks for her and she never has to worry about you chatting up interesting women and you have… HER!!

  12. XUP: You say you don’t dance naked with a lampshade on your head at parties, but you don’t say you wouldn’t.

    Now, about that blogger party: I’l bring the lamp shade…

  13. I grew up with everyone telling me I was shy, so for a long time I believed that. I have since learned that I am not shy, I am introverted. I have no problems talking to strangers, asking directions, speaking in front of crowds, going to a party alone, etc. … but I really need to just be alone a lot of the time. I don’t feel like my batteries get recharged if I don’t get enough space and time on my own.

    Unfortunately, my parents saw me reading alone in my room a lot of the time and just assumed I was shy. I subsequently got ‘left out’ of a lot of things because they thought they were protecting me from a ‘scary’ situation.

    The things I do in my job now just amaze them. They can’t believe ‘their little girl’ can handle it.

  14. I’m thinking along the same lines as Debra: I believe when I was young, I often confused my own introverted tendencies with being shy. Because I was introverted…but everyone – my family, close friends – would talk instead about my being shy. It wasn’t until maybe even the past few years that I really came to understand the difference in myself.

    I still am quite the introvert, needing time to myself and with myself. And I do always prefer an intimate gathering to a big, crowded party. But it’s less about being shy and more about the kinds of interactions the truly fulfill my soul.

    This post made me think…thanks for stretching my brain! (Sorry this comment is only vaguely on point. But this is where my brain stretched to after reading!)

    And as a side note, I’m disappointed to read you don’t dance naked at parties. That would’ve made for a very lovely blog post.

  15. Zoom -Okay then — your place? Name the date. We’ll all bring wine.

    Bob – Very true. I also said I’d do anything if there was a good enough reason to.

    UP – Yes, please. That’s food and entertainment taken care of.

    Debra – That’s how I feel, too. There’s a lot of stuff I’d rather be doing than schmoozing at a big gathering (like reading), but I don’t have a problem doing it if I have to. On the other hand, nobody ever called me shy. Ever.

    Lesley – Hope your brain snapped back after all that stretching. I like a lot of alone time, too. And, just for you I’ll see what I can do about the lampshade thing at the next party. And then I’ll blog about it.

  16. hmmm, i wouldn’t say i’m shy. but, when i have to go to a function where i don’t know anyone, i find it exhausting because i feel like i usually have initiate conversations and carry them – i think this is why i dread going places where i don’t know anyone. i missed out on a great opportunity because of this – i was invited to a Tragically Hip concert with a pre- and after-party, I declined because I didn’t know anyone adn just felt too tired to make the effort. Turns out the after-party was WITH the Hip, that would have been fun.
    I love the fact that I can send back meals, insist on attention from retail staff, ask directions etc. etc without thinking twice – i realize this is quite difficult for some people and that would be hard.

  17. My house? I think we should have it somewhere with chairs. Shy people are much more comfortable when they’re sitting down.

  18. UP’s first comment could have been mine. I’m just shy enough to let her say it for me, but not too shy to let you know I’m letting her say it for me. See, I’m working on speaking for myself.

  19. I’m like you XUP: Definitely not shy, but also not a super extroverted person, so it’s not something I can relate to either. and the number 50% seems a bit high to me. Maybe accurate for a certain level of inhibition, but I doubt for the level where it’s excruciating and stops you from talking to others, etc…

  20. Violetsky – I see. I think.

    Noha — 50% lay claim to some shyness. Looking at the comments here, you and me are the only ones who say they’re not shy at all, while UL is only shy around hot babes.