Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Overcome Shyness

Why the most effective solution to shyness isn't greater self-confidence

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When I was a teenager, I was afflicted with terrible shyness. Not in every context or with all people—mostly just with girls. Not unlike millions of other adolescent males, when in the presence of a girl I found attractive, I would become tongue tied, awkward, and lose all self-confidence.

As I grew older, this reaction gradually diminished, until (luckily) by the time I'd met my wife, it had largely vanished. I'd always explained this to myself as a simple function of maturation, but recently I realized that while growing older does indeed often result in increased self-confidence (we experience more, handle it, and realize we handled it), age wasn't, in fact, responsible at all.

We are, all of us, fundamentally social creatures, able to function optimally, research and experience prove, when engaged to some degree in a community. Our community may be small, but having one seems to be what matters. (All we need do is observe what happens to inmates in solitary confinement for any extended period of time to recognize just how detrimental social isolation is to human beings.)

And yet at some level, interacting with other people makes most, if not all of us uncomfortable. Even the most gregarious and self-confident people remain aware of and influenced by the opinions of others—and specifically the opinions others have about them. Even if we tell ourselves such opinions don't matter to us, if everyone in our community turned suddenly against us at once, even the most hardy of us would have a difficult time remaining unaffected.

When in the company of other people, our minds automatically construct a map of the minds that surround us. That is, we're constantly imagining and theorizing what other people are thinking—and making judgments about and having reactions to those imaginings. If we think someone in the room finds us attractive, we judge them to have good taste and feel a buzz of pleasure (or perhaps, if we suffer from low self-esteem, we judge them to have bad taste and feel an increased sense of self-disgust). If we think someone in the room finds us overdressed for the occasion, we'll feel embarrassed.

Shyness, in one sense then, represents a reluctance to engage with others for fear of being embarrassed. This explains why we can feel shy in one context and not another. In a room full of family members with whom we're intimately familiar, it's harder (though, we should note, not impossible) to feel shy, not because we know them but because they know us: they've already witnessed our typical behavior a hundred or a thousand times over, and we already know their reaction to it. So typically we're not afraid to display that behavior, to express our opinions and say the things we want to say, because the risk of embarrassment in such company is low.

In a room full of strangers, however, no such track record exists. How, we wonder, will we be received? We don't know. How willing are we to risk embarrassment? That's what determines how shy we feel.

I'd argue the fundamental cause of shyness, therefore, rests on where we place our attention. If it's on the reactions we might produce in others and how they might therefore view us, we risk over-analyzing every thought, word, and deed and may find ourselves, as the terminally shy often do, paralyzed by a painful self-awareness. If, on the other hand, we place our attention on everyone else, willfully ignoring our concerns about how they may react to us, we might find some room to breathe as ourselves.

How, then, can we shift our focus in this way when in some cases it seems veritably padlocked to our self-image? Though not by any conscious design, I found my attention gradually being pulled away from myself and toward others as I developed not only a genuine interest in other people (the more interested in a subject we become the more our sense of self seems to vanish), but a genuine interest in their concerns. In other words, the more compassion I found myself feeling for other people, the less I become concerned about how they saw me—not because I no longer cared how they saw me, but rather because I was paying less attention to it. It's actually quite hard, I discovered, when facing even an entire room of strangers about whom you actually feel concerned or even interested, to simultaneously feel concerned about what they think about you.

Compassion, then, may represent the ultimate cure for shyness. It may seem odd to imagine upon entering a room full of strangers whom we not only don't know but have no reason to guess are even suffering, that they're in need not only of compassion in general but of ours specifically (being, as we are, a stranger to them). But to this I'd respond: who isn't struggling with something? It may not be an enormous or cataclysmic something, but everyone hides, to some degree, a secret inner life in which they struggle on a daily basis (as I wrote about in a previous post, Your Neighbor Is An Alcoholic).

But you don't need to know what everyone struggles with to come at them assuming they need your compassion. If compassion—the caring about another's happiness as if it were your own—becomes the predominant emotion you feel in approaching strangers (or, at the very least, interest in them does), I'd like to suggest shyness will become for you a thing of the past, or at least far less of a problem in the future. The trick to treating shyness, in other words, isn't in developing greater self-confidence. It's in developing a greater love for your fellow human beings.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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