Monday, February 4, 2008

The pain of shyness and the mistakes shy people make

Photo by Sukanto Debnath (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men for You column which appeared in The Irish Times on Tuesday 29th January 2008:

I was much shyer when I was in my late teens than I am today and one of the great discoveries of my life was that other people didn’t know what I was going through. I found this out when a colleague casually remarked that I was “as cool as a cucumber.” In reality, I was experiencing agonies of shyness but the discovery that other people interpreted this as confidence helped me to take the risk of social involvement.

And shyness is, indeed, an agony when at its most intense. I suspect that the agony is greater for men than for women. This is because even in the 21st century it is the men who are expected to approach the women for dates and dances.

Indeed, you don’t have to be shy to have experienced the “will she, won’t she, will I make a fool of myself?” drama that can go on in the head of a man trying to pluck up the courage to ask a woman for a date.

If anything, the business of asking for a dance is worse – that walk across the floor can seem as long and as daunting as a journey to the Antarctic.

There are certain errors that shy people make and which worsen this wretched condition.

First, they assume that other people can see how shy they are. That is why it can be liberating to realise that this is not so, as I mentioned at the start of this article.

The second error is to assume that other people are thinking about you to the exclusion of almost anything else. A shy person will walk past a bus queue and assume that he or she is being scrutinised by everybody standing there. In reality, the others are almost certainly preoccupied with themselves and some of them wouldn’t notice if you stood on your head. Similarly, shy people at a party assume that everybody in the room is looking at them and judging them – a horrible feeling – when nothing of the sort is going on.

Shy people tend to compare themselves to the most outgoing person in the room. They could make life easier for themselves by aiming to be average – instead they curl up in a ball because they know they can’t measure up to the biggest party animal in the place.

This tendency to demand more of themselves than is reasonable is a major source of pain to shy people. Worse, they tend to assume that other people expect perfection from them when in fact other people, with the exception of a few bullies, are more tolerant and easy-going than the shy person can imagine.

Paradoxically, the shy person is the star in his or her own drama. That can be said of any of us but the shy person takes it to an extreme. To the shy person, nobody on the street, in the nightclub or at the party has eyes for anyone else. The shy person, therefore, imagines himself or herself to be under intense examination at all times.

This can begin to change if the shy person somehow manages to get involved with other people or allows other people to drag him or her along with them. Of course, it will still all be agony at first but gradually the shy person’s comfort zone will expand. Maybe the shy ones won’t ever be the life and soul of the party – though some people hide their shyness behind a fa├žade of confidence – but at least they can be at the party and can function socially with a few people at a time.

If you know somebody who is shy, there is no point in berating them for failing to fight this socially crippling illness. Such criticism will simply drive them further into isolation.

It is far better to involve them in things and to accept that they will be the quiet ones in the crowd. This will help them to begin to accept themselves and acceptance of how they are is perhaps the most important first step on the road out of isolation.

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