Shyness is a doorway to connection
Have you been told 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(link is external), 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(link is external)” 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 sometimes be an overlap, being shy doesn’t equate (link is external)with social anxiety. Shyness is a quality 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 at times; some of us are adept at covering it up with defenses. Perhaps the smooth-talking, charming storytellers at parties 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 scans for safety, we shy away from those who seem critical or judgmental. There may be an intelligence that informs such shyness — steering us clear of unsafe people and situations.
When someone offers a compliment or affection—or 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. Being gentle with our vulnerability, we might honor shyness as a doorway to a sweet moment of connection.
As expressed in my book, The Authentic Heart:(link is external)
“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 before giving them a chance. If we’ve had a steady diet of being shamed or rejected, we might see the world through the distorted lens of old hurts. We assume people are unsafe without checking them out.
At the first hint of being criticized, we might succumb to the knee-jerk reaction of diverting our eyes or shutting down. We might judge others as being unsafe before interacting with them.
A path forward might be to give people a chance. This would require that we stay present with our shyness without reacting automatically. Developing a stronger sense of self, we’re not as tweaked if we’re criticized or rejected. We recognize that it’s OK to be shy and sensitive; if others are harsh or shaming, this says more about them than us. Not allowing others to define us, we hold on to our self-worth and dignity. We protect ourselves not by meeting what comes our way with a more sturdy self.
Social anxiety might keep us clinging to the comfort of staying home, which keeps us painfully isolated. It’s a condition that might improve with psychotherapy. Shyness, on the other hand, is something we can honor about ourselves—and stroll into the world with self-respect and dignity. Honoring ourselves as we are, we’re not debilitated by shame or anxiety if we’re met with unkindness. Embracing our shyness as a sweet and tender part of ourselves, we can connect more easily with people who appreciate us.
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire(link is external): A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart(link is external) and Love & Betrayal(link is external). He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy. www.johnamodeo.com(link is external)