We are all shy. Or rather, we are all a combination of shyness and forwardness. We come from a long line of beings who thrived on two abilities: the ability to hold back, and the ability to make a move.
Where we are on that scale of being, is a matter of argument. It’s subtle. You will have contexts where you prefer to keep your own counsel; and contexts in which you prefer to extend your hand or your voice.
Sometimes you can be on your way to a meeting, wanting to hide; and then, a few minutes later, you are happy in the company of others, wondering what the fuss was all about.
WHEN YOU WERE LITTLE
Watching young children, we can see that there are definite differences between individuals. Some seem to find it so easy to reach out socially; some take a lot of time to feel comfortable in more ‘public’ situations.
In adulthood, we’re all expected to behave in some standard way, greeting others as though we’re happy to see them. The description ‘shy’ isn’t used so much. What used to be shyness, is redirected in certain ways. We all adapt our external characters in order to display what we think will be acceptable to others.
There are a few ways in which shyness might find alternative expression in adulthood.
Here are a few suggestions:
HERMIT SYNDROME – Someone who retires from the world a lot might be redefined, by themselves or others, as a misanthrope, someone who just doesn’t like people. While this isn’t strictly true, it is easier to explain this way.
TANTRUM SYNDROME – In a social context, the shy person gets to the point where everything is too much. If it is not possble to disappear for a while, then internal pressure can build up until it bursts. At such times, a tantrum will result, an external expression of the internal frustration caused by the unmet need for stillness.
SECRET SYNDROME – Since we often avoid describing adults as shy, we can revert to calling them ‘secretive’, saying that they ‘hold their cards close to their chest’. Such people make good carers, since they can hold others’ secrets; but this causes pressure, and the person can feel trapped inside themselves, unable to share.
OBSESSIVE SYNDROME – If social contexts are overwhelming, then a person can learn the relief an obsessive interest can bring. Obsession with one particular activity or theme can bring reassurance, as only one set of vocabulary is required, and there is always something to talk about on the chosen theme.
Since personal freedom is an essential part of personal growth, it’s worth looking at some ways in which the above personas can restrict us.
PROBLEMS ARISING FROM ADULT SHYNESS
This is not an exhaustive list, but covers examples of how we can end up becoming restricted.
THE HERMIT CYCLE – If you habitually keep yourself to yourself, others may interpret this as you not liking them. This interpretation causes them to keep away, resulting in more alone-ness, and more apparent hermit-ness. In this way, a lot of chronic loneliness is self-perpetuating.
THE TANTRUM CYCLE – If you try to live socially, but the pressure regularly builds up to intolerable levels, then you may have regular ‘moods’. This can push others away, as they will not want to expose themselves to your apparent rejection. In this way, the un-channeled need to be left alone can end up leading to being left alone too much. The family surrounding you will tread on eggshells, leading to the periodic loss of intimacy.
THE SECRET CYCLE – If you are a good secret-keeper, then you may become a funnel for others’ problems. This can become hugely isolating, as everyone is telling you their stuff, but you have no one to tell your stuff to.
THE OBSESSIVE CYCLE – If you become a ‘one-track’ person, only happy with your own habits and themes, then it can become increasingly hard to integrate yourself into social situations. If others are not talking about what you like to talk about, after all, what’s the point? This can lead to isolation.
My suggestion is that any attempts to reduce these issues should be incremental. In other words, it is better to make one small step, than to try a massive change and have it fail. Here are some suggested steps:
HAVE REGULAR EVENTS – Even if you like a lot of me-time, you may want easy ways of being with others periodically. Why not use your habit-loving nature to build in to your week some regular social time? You may be 80% hermit, 20% sociable. If so, maybe make some active choices about what your sociable time will be. You may even find yourself hosting a regular gathering at a time and a place that suits you. If that’s too much, then maybe find a regular weekly event that you like to attend.
ACCEPT AND PUBLICIZE YOUR NEED TO BE ALONE – Nothing creates more anxiety than an unaccepted need. Instead of having regular ‘I-want-to-be-alone’ tantrums, try doing it in two stages. First, accept your own felt need. (It is not, repeat not, illegal to want to retreat and take time to understand your world.) Secondly, communicate to others your felt need – before it turns into a tantrum. (Learn to say ‘I need me-time, and, though I love you dearly, I am taking it.’)
FIND TIME TO BE LISTENED TO – This can be therapy, time in the company of a listening friend, or even producing art which communicates what you feel. Much group therapy functions on the massive benefits of simply being heard for once. If your voice is drowned out, go somewhere where the rule is that you are heard, if only for a few minutes.
SOMETIMES, LEARN OTHERS’ INTERESTS – It can be strangely liberating to immerse yourself into someone else’s hobbies and interests. It can make you feel less stale and self-important.
Just for today, think of a way in which you can balance things. Maybe search online for a weekly social event you think you could manage. Maybe take the time to seek acceptance, from yourself mainly, of your great need for me-time to digest things. Perhaps find a safe place to be listened to without judgement. Perhaps join a friend in an activity which they like, but which you don’t know much about.
Whatever you choose, first accept your nature for what it is. Then find a small way to liberate yourself. There is nothing wrong with how you are. The art is to take what you are and help it flourish.
We are all a mixture of shyness and forwardness. It’s natural. In childhood, shyness is more accepted. In adulthood, social situations can force us into being considered hermit-like, moody, secretive or obsessive. Loneliness and the loss of intimacy are, in a sense, plagues of our age, born of the mishandling of shyness.
To liberate yourself, make sure your life has a good balance: a bit of regular social contact, but also as much me-time as you need; a bit of time being heard as you, but also some time engaging with others, and learning what interests them.
Above all, first and foremost, accept and love your own nature. Then become an artist, balancing your own life to help you grow.