A post by a fellow PT blogger has given me a lot to think about. Dr. Barbara Markway takes some umbrage at my (and others') insistence that introverts are not shy. She thinks the difference is splitting hairs and besides, she wonders, what’s so bad about being shy? After all, she point out, in some cultures, shyness is a virtue.
I’ve given this second point a lot of thought, trying to suss out my own bias. Am I an anti-shy person? Am I casting aspersions? Is this bigotry?
After considerable thought, here is what I have concluded: I have nothing against shy people. I certainly don’t dislike them or consider them lesser humans. Shyness can be charming. I think of shy people as being like Disney woodland creatures. They bring out gentleness in others (well, except for the boor who killed Bambi’s mom) and you have to approach them with care.
I’m not offended when people equate introversion and shyness and don’t use “shy” as a slur of any kind. But, as Dr. Markway points out, nobody likes being misunderstood and to call me shy when I’m a not-shy introvert is to misunderstand me.
As I’ve written in the past, the difference between introversion and shyness is that one is motivation and the other is fear. Introverts are not terribly motivated to engage in social interactions while shy people are fearful of them. I would much rather be introverted than shy. I have nothing against shy people—why would I?—but I don’t view this fear as any more helpful than my fears of heights and daddy longlegs. And shyness is fear that can be an obstacle in life.
We (including Dr. Markway) talk about people being “painfully shy.” To my mind, anything painful is to be avoided if at all possible. And if shyness interferes with one’s ability to connect with people, or self-promote as necessary, or speak up for oneself, then it’s a liability, isn’t it?
People often tell me, “I used to be introverted but I got over it.” I usually let that blow past, but for the record: I don’t believe it. Introversion appears to be hard-wired into us, and besides, there is no reason to get over it. Introversion isn't a problem once you learn not to fight it but to work with it. But what people can and often do overcome, with time or concerted effort, is shyness.
Of course, if you’re the kind of shy person who can nut up and do what needs to be done when necessary then shyness is no liability at all--just as I manage to get up on ladders when absolutely necessary, however wobbly-kneed it makes me. (Fortunately, I have never found it necessary to push past my horror of daddy longlegs, so I just keep my distance. Yes, I know they’re harmless. But they give me the hoobie-goobies.)
But if shyness keeps you cowering in a corner, or causes you to miss opportunities, or isolates you out of fear, then it is a problem.
I apologize to any shy people I may have offended with my emphasis on the difference between introversion and shyness. I promise that I have nothing at all against you. But shyness, charming as it may be, just doesn’t strike me as helpful.
OK--so maybe there are benefits to shyness I don’t understand. I'd love to know about them. Tell me. My mind is wide open, I promise.
You can read more about introversion vs shyness in my book The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. It's available for Kindle, Nook, and in the tried-and-true dead tree format.