Apart from our families and our health, friends are one of the main reasons why we experience happiness. But what if we are solitary, reclusive, or shy?
Two decades ago, the transition from primary school to high school brought me face to face with a special challenge: interaction with more than 25 new classmates, all gathered together in an enthusiastic group with different emotions and personalities. During primary school, I was surrounded by the children I had grown up with, who I knew and could call friends. In high school, things changed radically, putting me in a situation where I had to acknowledge my own shyness.
The changes I went through helped me understand that, as we mature, friendships no longer form naturally, like they do during childhood, when a simple toy or math homework is enough to bring two people together. But acknowledgment of the harsh reality of maturing also has a positive side: even if they require extra effort, friendships formed after childhood are complex and help us build long-lasting relationships that make us happy. At times, however, barriers occur between this ideal and reality that distances us from people. One of these barriers is shyness.
Introversion – sickness or flaw?
Shyness is a state of restlessness or fear one feels during social interaction, on account of low self-esteem and excessive preoccupation with the way other people see us when we relate to them. Unlike those who are able to befriend others easily, shy people experience socialising with strangers as extremely intense. This is accompanied by a large dose of uneasiness and, most of the time, by physical signs like blushing, abundant sweating, or the feeling of something in the pit of one’s stomach.
Shyness is not a problem in itself. Psychologist Bernardo Carducci, with over 35 years’ experience, says: “it’s not a negative personality trait. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a disease. It’s simply a description of the individual. How they respond, how they behave”.
Shyness and its sisters
Managing shyness is imperative for anyone wanting to improve their social life. The lack of control over one’s mental state when socialising generates disadvantages. It hinders communication and leads to people withdrawing to the “safe” ground of their interior lives. This is why it is sometimes easy to mistake shy people for introverts. Both categories manifest the tendency to avoid people. The difference occurs at the level of motivation: introverts reduce the contact with others because they do not feel the acute need to socialise (as extroverts do), while shy people withdraw from the action because they are convinced they will fail lamentably.
Although somewhat similar, shyness should not to be confused with social anxiety either. Anxiety is a chronic disorder derived from an intense fear of being judged, humiliated, or rejected by others. Besides avoiding people, those suffering from anxiety permanently avoid common activities like talking on the phone, shopping, or eating in public, requiring specialised help to overcome their phobia.
Between fearing people and needing them
Research has shown that shyness is an innate or acquired character trait that is found in people from all around the world, from Japan (57%) to Israel (31%), from the USA, to Canada, or Germany (40%).
Shyness does not indicate a desire to be separated from one’s fellow man, but a series of particular inclinations which make communication a challenge. When they do not rise to the level of their own expectations, shy people judge their social performances so harshly that they prefer to miss out on opportunities than to risk failure. The drama such people experience thus comes from self-sabotage, and those who find themselves in such a situation can confirm that fear of failure is what causes them to be lonely, and that it is not really distance that they yearn for.
Strength does not come from victories, but from battles
Regardless of the degree of shyness or the shape it takes, there is no particular threshold that, once crossed, guarantees “healing”, nor is there a miraculous antidote one can take in the morning, at noon and in the evening. There is, however, a continuous fight with one’s own social inhibition resulting at times in small, progressive victories, or in inevitable losses.
Among the aspects on which the insecure can focus in order to improve their active social life are:
Self-acceptance – Shyness can be regarded as a weakness, but can also be seen as an adjustable trait which can be either exacerbated or tempered through self-control. Those who make a deal with themselves, who are ready to abandon the shadows and approach people despite their constraints, defeat their fears faster than those who are shot down by negativity, guilt, and self-criticism. As the Bible suggests, acceptance and self-love are the first step in establishing good relationships with those around us (“Love your neighbour as yourself” – Matthew 22:39).
Giving up self-criticism – Perfectionism is a hard burden to carry, and shy people whose favourite activity is to analyse all the mistakes they’ve ever made know that all too well. In Ecclesiastes we read that “there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). In other words, to err is deeply human. Under these circumstances, why follow an intangible pursuit of excellence on our own when we can break free from the prison of deceptive standards? Let’s not forget that negative self-evaluation discourages change and future attempts at making friends.
Exercising social skills – In social situations, shy people prefer the empty corner of the room, which, although offering temporary safety, enlarges the emptiness that comes from an absence of human connection. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27) are words of encouragement we can access in any kind of setback, including in the midst of troubles related to extreme shyness. To overcome these fears, we must be courageous, faithful, and have a concrete plan for improving our social skills. We need an appropriate mindset, discussion topics at hand, and the willingness to accept unsatisfying results.
The power of listening – All eyes are on me! Everyone is listening to my words! This is what timid people believe will happen once they become the centre of attention. In reality, this catastrophic situation is illusory, because the external attention one gets falls within normal limits. Starting from the emotional charge such a perspective generates, an efficient trick to minimize stress is shifting one’s own attention from oneself to another person. When we focus on others, it’s easier to interact and discover how sweet words can be, as Scripture says in Proverbs 27:9.
Turning into good listeners who ask appropriate questions and honestly express interest makes us forget our shyness, stop thinking of ourselves as prey trapped in a lion’s den, and focus on the conversation we are having.
Cultivating positivity – Cultivating a positive mental state and exteriorising it means developing a joyful attitude. It is the best ‘business card’ we can present when entering a room or when making someone’s acquaintance. “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22)—even for shyness.
Often experienced as a thorn in the flesh preventing us from enjoying good friendships, shyness must be approached with patience, and its effects must be countered with constant interaction with those around us. The first and most important condition in this sense is vulnerability: understanding, practicing and endorsing it. Who is up for the challenge?
Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.