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A Quiet Rant About Introversion and Shyness

None of us likes to be misunderstood.

This is a great time to be an introvert. Off the top of my head, I know of four books* published in the past year that extoll the many strengths of introverts, most notably, Susan Cain’s New York Times best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

As an introvert, I’m thrilled that the positive aspects of introversion are being discussed. This represents a much-needed shift in our culture.

But there is one aspect of the conversation that bugs me. It’s the frequent headlines such as, “Don’t Call Me Shy!” or, “Enough with This Introversion Equals Shyness Already!” With the vehemence that some introverts write about shyness, I can start to feel badly about myself.

You see, I’m an introvert, but I’m also shy, at least sometimes. In fact, I used to be painfully shy. Oh, and to top it off, I’m a highly sensitive person.

I know there are differences between shyness and introversion, but there are also places of overlap. I worry that we run the risk of alienating people who are both shy and introverted when we’re so focused on only the differences. I sometimes feel that shy people are labeled in a way that places them at the bottom of any social desirability hierarchy. What’s so wrong with being shy anyway?

In addition to feeling badly about myself for being shy, I’ve also felt guilty, because I am sometimes loose with my terminology. I’m not a researcher who has to define terms in a precise way, and I’ve wanted my writing to include as many people as possible.

In preparing to be interviewed recently, I went back to Carl Jung’s original writings. I wanted to see exactly how Jung described introversion. He wrote:

Introverts “have an inward flowing of personal energy…The introvert is usually happy alone, with a rich imagination, and prefers reflection to activity…the introverted attitude includes a tendency to be shy.”

When I first read this, I felt vindicated. Jung talks about introversion and shyness together. Even Susan Cain talks about shyness and introversion somewhat interchangeably in her book, and many examples she uses in her book are of shy people. In addition, if you look at a list of famous introverts, it’s the same list as famous shy people.

After consulting Jung’s original work, I decided to look up “shy” in the dictionary. There are many definitions and synonyms including “having or showing nervousness or timidity around other people…bashful, shamefaced.”

Ouch! Okay, I can see why some don’t want to be identified as shy. But I think we have to keep in mind that the negative bias against shy people is unique to Western culture. There are studies showing that in Asian cultures, children will often seek out shy children as the most desirable of friends. Shyness is seen more as “humility” and this is valued. Maybe if there were more acceptance of shyness as a normal variation in personality, there would not be such a need for some introverts to focus on how they are NOT shy.

I realize, though, no one wants to be misunderstood. Many introverts have worked hard to “overcome” shyness, and don’t want the label pinned on them anymore. I get it.

I think the major thing we all have in common is that our society has not valued people who are quiet, regardless of the reason for their quietness. Susan Cain writes, “the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.”

So, I’ll end my rant. In the future, I’ll try to be more precise in my terminology. And I’ll work at not being so sensitive to the headlines about introverts not being shy. But also, let’s not leave anyone out. This Quiet Revolution is too exciting—thank you Susan Cain! I think everyone, introverted and shy, should get to be a part of it.

Here are other good books on this topic: An Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World by Sophia Dembling, Insight: Reflections on the Gift of Being an Introvert by Beth Buelow, and Introvert Power by Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D.

Read a follow-up post I wrote about this topic here.

** My most popular piece on The Self-Compassion Project is 80+ Self-Care Ideas. Check it out!

Shyness is nice and
 shyness can stop you
from doing all the things in life
 you’d like to.

–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice.

photo credit: eleannab via Flickr Creative Commons

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