Do You Really Understand Shyness? Probably Not
If you Google “famous introverts,” you’ll get an interesting list of luminaries: Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Marissa Mayer, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffett, Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama.
“But wait,” you might say. “How can people like that be shy? Barack Obama? Are you kidding me?”
If that’s your response, you’ve made the common mistake of confusing introversion for shyness or shyness for introversion. They may be second cousins, but they’re not siblings and they’re certainly not twins.
No one knows that better than Dr. Lynne Henderson, founder and co-director of the Shyness Institute in California and a visiting scholar in psychology at Stanford University. She has directed the Shyness Clinic at Stanford for more than 30 years.
Dr. Henderson’s book is The Shyness Workbook: Take Control of Social Anxiety Using Your Compassionate Mind.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Is introversion a form (or symptom) of social anxiety, or is it different?
Lynne Henderson: It is different. An introvert likes his/her own company and is happy with a few good friends. Introversion doesn’t imply a concern about being evaluated negatively by others or necessarily blaming the self if it were to happen. Shyness and social anxiety involve a fear of negative evaluation by others that interferes with participation, and a tendency to blame the self if a social interaction doesn’t go as well as one hoped.
Duncan: What’s the difference between ordinary shyness and chronic and problematic shyness?
Henderson: Ordinary shyness is something we all experience. Only 2% of the population say they’ve never experienced shyness. It’s a blend of fear and interest and is adaptive in evolution.
Ordinary shyness is sometimes referred to as the “pause to check” syndrome. In contrast, problematic shyness is a fear of negative evaluation that’s strong enough that we avoid situations that would otherwise be pleasurable—such as meeting people, going to parties, or dating.
Problematic shyness also involves self-criticism and self-preoccupation in conversations that can lead to not drawing others out or looking for common interests that can be topics of conversation that lead to mutual sharing and enjoyment.
Duncan: Aren’t some people who regard themselves as “shy” really just especially careful about how they approach social situations? At what point does that behavior become a problem?
Henderson: Yes. People can be careful and polite, and still enjoy interacting with others. The behavior becomes a problem when people are not doing what they really want to do. They may not start a conversation with someone they’d like to get to know. They may not interact enough at work for people to see how they can, and do, contribute. They may not ask questions in classes. Shy men may not ask a woman for a date or notice that women are attracted to them. Shy women may not engage in conversation or let people know about their interests or accomplishments. They may avoid looking at a man who is looking at them with interest. Both can become lonely and isolated, and it becomes harder and harder to approach others and initiate conversations. They also tend not to share anything personal with others, which is the way we can become friends and more intimate with people.
Duncan: How does a tendency toward shyness affect a person’s ability to be productive and competitive in the workplace?
Henderson: If a person is afraid to speak up in meetings, colleagues may not know what he/she is contributing. If someone withdraws, others may not benefit from their learning and wisdom.
Often it’s in the diversity of opinions within a group where learning happens. If people are shy and are afraid of making a mistake or looking stupid, they lose opportunities to find out that all people make mistakes and look stupid sometimes and it isn’t a catastrophe. We can often learn a lot from our own mistakes and learn from others in the process.
Duncan: What kind of situations, thoughts, or experiences tend to “activate” a person’s shyness?
Henderson: Evaluative situations such as job interviews, giving talks, work meetings, dating, and meeting new people activate shyness. Negative automatic thoughts such as “I’ll look stupid” or “make a fool of myself” will also activate it, as will negative automatic thoughts about others, such as “they will be critical” of me and put me down”. Experiences of being excluded or openly criticized will generally elicit shyness in most people.
Duncan: You say that “self-kindness” can help people deal with their own shyness. How does that work?
Henderson: When we can motivate ourselves in a kind way, with encouragement, acceptance, and self-compassion, as well as emphasize our strengths, we are more motivated to meet people and participate.
If we are not completely happy with our own performance, self-kindness can also help us “stay in the game” and therefore help us learn by observing others and experimenting with new behaviors.
Duncan: How does a compassionate mindset help a person deal with shyness?
Henderson: When we can have compassion for our suffering and see it as part of common humanity it helps us see that we can do what we need and want to do while feeling shy. We can also realize that most people experience shyness from time to time. The view from the inside and from the outside is different.
There are also a limited number of negative automatic thoughts about ourselves that people around the world share. So, you learn that you’re not alone and realize that your conversation partner may also feel shy. Then you’re motivated to help that person feel comfortable and you become less self-preoccupied.
Duncan: What’s your advice to a shy person who’s uncomfortable speaking up at work, in meetings, and when in groups?
Henderson: Know that you can speak up while you are uncomfortable, and the discomfort will lessen over time. Maintain your positive expectations of yourself and trust that your participation is a mark of good citizenship, and you will continue to learn how you want to be.
You can also role-play in front of a mirror or with friends in advance. Practice situations at work that tend to elicit concern about negative evaluations, such as asking for a raise or giving and receiving feedback. You can practice public speaking with family or friends or join Toastmaster’s. You can also join a shyness group where you can role-play these situations.
Duncan: How can leaders help shy people leverage their strengths in the workplace?
Henderson: Leaders can help shy people by listening to them, acknowledging their strengths, and maintaining positive expectations for their performance. It is also important not to let them off the hook when they need to give talks or share their opinions in groups. You can help them to be able to express opinions that may be unpopular, but need to be said.
Duncan: What are shy leaders like?
Henderson: We did a research study of outstanding leaders who were known to be shy. We found that they were good listeners, led from behind, empowered their people, and over prepared for public speaking tasks. It actually became a bit of joke in talks at conferences when we shared this information and then said to the audiences, “Who would you rather work for—a dominant leader who wants the spotlight and is reluctant to share it or a shy leader who listens and promotes your visibility and strengths?
This column was first publish by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.
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