In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Should You Fall in Love With a Shy Person?

On the virtues of shyness and courage

"I'm too shy to express my sexual needs except over the phone to people I don't know." Garry Shandling

Shyness is typically characterized as involving a feeling of fear, while courage is typically characterized as involving the absence of fear. So can a shy person be courageous? Could one side benefit of falling in love with a shy person be that she is less likely to leave you, as it would be harder for her to strike up a relationship with a new person, given her shyness?

Courage

“Have courage and a little willingness to venture and be defeated.” Robert Frost

"Courage" has several dictionary definitions, such as: the ability to do something that you know is right or good, even though it is dangerous, frightening, or very difficult; the ability to be brave when you are in great pain; bold, unafraid to face tough challenges; a quality that enables you to face danger or pain without showing fear.

Courage is not an emotion but rather a behavioral attitude. Accordingly, the feeling component in courage is not always intense. Courage may be associated with fear, but is not the opposite of fear.

Courage is often identified with fearlessness, namely, the absence of fear. This is misleading as courage seems to be a way of facing fear and not as lack of fear. Aristotle characterizes a brave person as the one “who faces and who fears the right things with the right aim, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions.” It is not the absence of fear, but rather the presence of confidence under fearful circumstances, which is characteristic of the brave person. Indeed, people who have done courageous deeds describe their attitude while doing these deeds as that of confidence under fear.

In his book, Fear and courage, Stanley Rachman indicates that there are a small number of people who are relatively impervious to fear; in most circumstances typical of fear, they experience no fear; for example, they experience none of the usual physical accompaniments of fear, such as palpitations or sweating. These people may be fearless, but they are not courageous—they have no fear to cope with or overcome. The presence of a genuine effort to cope with or overcome fear is what distinguishes courage from fearlessness. People are not blamed for being afraid, but merely for a lack of genuine effort to cope with and overcome the fear; doing this often expresses courage and is highly praised. Rachman describes an interesting study in this regard investigated the attitudes of astronauts. The study suggests that although the astronauts experienced fear during training, by the time they had finished their training they were able to complete the space journey with minimal fear: they had undergone a transition from courage to fearlessness. Apparently, the astronauts felt convinced that their intensive training had prepared them to handle any emergency and hence could adopt the attitude of fearlessness. This indicates that fearlessness can be acquired: the successful practice of courageous behavior leads to a decrease in fear and finally to a state of fearlessness.

Courage is a virtue not because it abolishes all types of fear, but rather because it enables us to take the optimal action while being in danger and afraid. Fear has important functions; so our aim should not be to abolish fear but to reduce it to a reasonable degree which will not prevent us from behaving in an optimal manner.

Shyness

"Scientists have found the gene for shyness. They would have found it years ago, but it was hiding behind a couple of other genes."Jonathan Katz

Shyness has various meanings including the following: a feeling of fear of embarrassment; fear of the unknown or unfamiliar or fear of making decisions; easily frightened; disposed to avoid committing oneself to a person or thing.

Like courage, shyness is not an emotion. However, whereas courage is a more specific behavioral attitude, shyness is a more general long-term affective trait primarily related to anxiety about strangers.

In the same manner that courage is different from being fearless, shyness is different from being fearful. As fear is not necessarily absent in courage, fear is not necessarily present in shyness. Both are ways of facing fear. Whereas courage seems to face risky situations by confronting them, shyness deals with fear by avoiding it. Courage faces fear in a seemingly "right" manner, since it confronts the risk and tries to overcome it. Shyness faces the risk in a seemingly "wrong" manner, as it ignores and avoids the risk without reducing its negative impact. Both the courageous person and the shy person can have confidence in what they are doing (although more typically, it us courage that provides such self-assurance). What distinguishes courage and (at least some types of) shyness is the way each handles the risky situation, and what each identifies as a risky situation.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that confronting a risk, as the courageous person does, is always better than avoiding it, as the shy person does. There are many cases in which avoiding the risk is a wiser and safer manner of dealing with the risk. Futile confrontations that you are unlikely to win are not always the wisest choice. Sometimes one has to make the brave decision not to confront it (at least not immediately, in the given circumstances). In this sense, shy people can also make brave decisions.

Can a shy person be courageous and passionate?

“For a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.”

“Did you reform?”

“No, I’m not ashamed anymore.” Mae West

We have seen that courage and shyness are similar in certain aspects: both are not an emotion but a behavioral attitude. However, since shyness is a more built-in attitude with a more intense feeling component, it can be also described as an affective trait. Fear is present in both and they both constitute a manner, though a different one, of facing that fear. They differ in the sense that courage typically confronts the risky situation while shyness avoids it.

Although courage typically refers to a certain action that is taken in the face of an immediate risk, sometimes the risk is not immediate. Shy people are more likely to take courageous decisions that do not involve an immediate risk than those involving an immediate risk. In a similar manner, you can hardly be embarrassed about experiences that will occur in a few years' time. In this sense, embarrassment, which is often the behavioral expression of shyness, is of short duration. Since risky circumstances associated with shyness typically relate to minor social aspects, a temporal distance may reduce or even eliminate the weight of the perceived risk. Moreover, with time shy people may accommodate to the people they are shy of, whereupon their shyness will subside gradually. When there is no audience, or at least not a large one, present, shyness, embarrassment and shame are less likely to emerge.

Shyness is not the opposite of being passionate or wild; it just expresses a behavioral tendency toward avoiding the implementation of people's desires in certain circumstances. Those desires, however, can nevertheless be wild and passionate. Being passionate is often characterized as having or expressing strong emotions. There is no reason why a person who is shy should not have strong passionate emotions. These emotions can be expressed in circumstances to which the person has accommodated or those involving merely one person or even a small group of people. A shy person does not have to be shy in erotic circumstances, which are more personal than social.

The moral value of shyness and shame

"Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people."Andre Dubus III

In comparison to the specific nature of guilt and regret, shame is more wide-ranging. In shame, one thinks of oneself as a bad person, not simply as someone who did a bad thing. When shame is due to a certain action, this action is taken to be indisputable proof of one’s own character rather than as an isolated action that may be ascribed to negligence or weakness of will. Shyness is more limited in its scope to social circumstances, and unlike the emotion of shame, shyness is a behavioral attitude. However, the moral value of shyness stems from a similar origin: respecting one's norms.

Shame and shyness involve viewing one’s self in light of certain norms, especially those that are also adopted by others; they are mainly derived from an interest in how others regard us. More than other emotions, shame expresses our deepest values and commitments; freeing ourselves from shame implies unloading these values and commitments. Freedom, Kris Kristofferson reminds us, in the popular song "Me and Bobby McGee," is "having nothing left to lose". Shame is then a constitutive element in normative life.

Shyness is similar to shame in its moral value and impact, but since the norms it concerns are more limited in their scope, its moral value is more limited. However, it is highly likely that shy people will feel shame in the appropriate circumstances.

Shame is probably one of the most powerful emotions for moral behavior and is closely connected to self-esteem and self-respect. Its emergence indicates that we or others have violated some of our most profound values. When someone loses self-respect, and hence feels shame, this person becomes very dangerous. A sense of shame, and to a lesser extent shyness, prevents many people from behaving immorally and from losing their own self-respect. A morality that could prevent this would seek to educate people to realize their value as human beings and hence to enhance their self-respect; in this case, shame (and shyness) would be likely to emerge even when immoral (or socially unaccepted) deeds are merely contemplated.

The importance of shame and shyness in moral behavior indicates the double moral aspect of both: they indicate that we have violated a certain (profound in the case of shame, and less profound in the case of shyness) norm, and in this sense we are morally bad or have behaved inappropriately, but it also expresses the fact that we care about this norm and this caring is commendable from a moral point of view. Indeed, we often praise people who are ashamed or are shy.

Should you fall in love with a shy person?

"Never marry a Railroad man

He loves you every now and then

His heart is at his new train."Shocking Blue

Shocking Blue's popular song advises you to never marry a Railroad man who may easily be tempted to find another lover. Similarly, one might think it advisable to "Always marry a shy woman, she will love you and never leave you, as she is too shy to be with a new man." However, a shy person may have an initial fear of strangers and experience early difficulties in establishing new social contacts, but once this is done, the erotic aspect may emerge. In fact, because of their general shyness toward strangers and social situations, shy people might have a greater incentive to overcome their awkwardness in at least one realm in order to improve their self-image. The romantic realm may be a very good place for doing this, as its social activities are typically limited to one person who can quickly stop being a stranger.

Shyness might be an initial impediment in a relationship, both for the shy person and for her potential partner, but as shyness expresses valuable moral norms, a relationship with a shy person has every chance of being rich and satisfying.

 

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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