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In Praise of Shyness

A Personal Perspective: Discovering the boldness to be shy.

Key points

  • We are taught to overcome shyness, but maybe we should embrace it.
  • The pressure not to be shy can result in inauthenticity.
  • Shyness arises from a place of reverence before the unfamiliar.

I was shy girl. A tall shy girl. And I will tell you, no shy girl wants to be tall. I was 5''7 in fourth grade. My growing beanstalk legs, my uncannily stretching scarecrow arms, my ballooning head and swelling hands all horrified me. This was more than an unwelcome growth spirt. This, I felt, was a betrayal of my essence.

“Let Gigi Deluca sprout up to the clouds, or Joanna Foster,” I thought. Gigi Deluca and Joanna Foster were classmates of mine with big personalities. Gigi Deluca’s fourth grade wardrobe contained colors so bright they were practically off the spectrum of visible light. Joanna Foster marched into school every day singing the Ghostbuster theme song with her name substituted for “Ghostbusters.” “Who ya gonna call? Jo Foster!”

Gigi and Joanna were meant to be tall girls. This relentlessly elongating body of mine was a body for those girls, not for me! I didn’t want to be the center of attention, I didn’t want to be able to be seen from all points in the cafeteria, I didn’t want to possess the ability to lift my classmates and toss them about like a handful of Doritos.

I say I was a shy girl, but I think I’m not actually using the word shy in its purest sense, or at least in terms of what I think of as “shy.” I’m going to posit that I didn’t feel “shy” actually. But rather, I felt insecure, intimidated, and out of place.

Shyness Is a Form of Respect Before the Unknown

To me, shyness is a precious thing. It is the feeling of reverence around something or someone you don’t fully understand, the sort of reverence which hushes you, makes you stumble and falter, titter, blush and giggle. Shyness does not enter with a banner, a coat of arms. It feels no need to advertise or promote or impress, to jockey for status or angle for position. Shyness knows you’re an apprentice to something new and unfamiliar, not an expert on something old and established.

I think of shyness as feeling your way into something. Like easing a foot into the sea. A swamp. Or soggy shoe. Wiggling your toes. Sensing your way forward and down and in. Warily, knowing there may be jellyfish, water bugs, or the gooey squishiness of a spongy sole. But also possibly a crystal coolness, a soft mossy bottom, or a slither of silverfish around your ankles. Hopefully not from the shoe.

We’ve heard fortune favors the bold and I believe it. But it doesn’t favor the blindly bold. Boldness is the fruit of shyness, confidence earned and grounded. Not bluffed.

I don’t find shyness given the respect in media and my social circle in the way I would decree it to be if I were queen of the world. On the news, virtually all invitations to discourse are responded to with debate. In popular culture the word “shyness” is coupled with the word “overcoming” or “conquering” or “coping with.” And I still find myself, pushing after all of these years, to not be the dreaded… wallflower. The tall ungainly wallflower that sticks out when her sole wish is to fit in. Still, I steel myself as I walk into social situations ready to don my well-cultivated disguise and hope to God people don’t spot the shy girl lurking beneath.

I was at an enrichment workshop recently and during the lunch break I was thrilled to see there was a table with no one sitting at it. “That’s for me,” I thought as I sat down only to see a group of seven people walking toward my sanctuary. “Ugh, here we go. Mask up. Time to be sociable.” My instinct was to turn to the group, now moving inexorably toward me, with a big fake grin smacked on my face and bark out to the encroachers, “Hey guys, welcome to Table twenty-three. Table twenty-three is clearly the best table, am I right?”

Lame, but that’s what I felt compelled to say. And after that I would normally feel the need to ask everyone where they were from and then listen to their answers with a degree of attentive enthusiasm generally reserved for hearing that one’s best friend is about to have a baby. Why? Certainly not out of genuine interest. I didn’t want to know what town these strangers were from or discuss my most likely tenuous relationship to that town. I wanted to sit there quietly eating and contemplating the lasagna before me. And just listening until I had something I wanted to say.

There Is Freedom in Having the Boldness to Be Shy

Then I had a thought. What if I did just that? Beyond the common niceties, what if I didn’t say anything until I actually wanted to say something. Without being rude, but at the same time not trying to pass myself off as the outgoing fun-loving self-appointed hostess of table twenty-three.

And so I did. I greeted the seven with a pleasant smile but said nothing. I made no jokes, asked no questions, facilitated no conversation. I simply sat there and listened as everyone discussed who was from what town and what everyone else’s experience with said town was. I didn’t say anything until asked where I hailed from at which point I simply replied, “Los Angeles.” Full stop. And then I continued eating my lasagna and pondering why I never purchase ricotta cheese given that I always enjoy it so much and that it is readily available at all local supermarkets.

I didn’t say another word, probably fifteen minutes, until the conversation turned to good-hearted making fun of the speaker’s vanity. And then I was in: “Oh my God, he keeps that one lock of hair overgrown so he can flip it and drive all the ladies crazy,” I said imitating what I felt to be his self-consciously appealing move. “Flip. Flip.”

I said nothing else for the remainder of the meal.

What a relief! What freedom! Such an unburdening! Letting go of the fear of being the dreaded “shy.” My silence felt bold. Radical. As bold as wearing electric blue or neon orange to fourth grade or singing out my own name as I sashayed into school.

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